MUMBAI: Bollywood, that perpetual dream peddler, is waking up to the allure of real-life stories. An Indian villager stuck in a Pakistani jail, a brave flight attendant, India’s cricket team captain, a wrestler who pushed his daughters to greatness – expect to watch films like these in theatres this year.
The first is Raja Krishna Menon’s “Airlift,” which opened in cinemas on Friday. It chronicles the airlifting of 170,000 Indians from Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1990. It was the largest human evacuation in history.
A profusion of viewing options in recent years, from satellite and cable TV to online options has enhanced the taste of the Indian palate. Whereas movie fans at one time were limited in what they could easily see, they now can watch a variety of films and genres from India and abroad. Bollywood producers have responded accordingly.
“There is so much good material all around. It makes sense to tap that,” said Vikram Malhotra, whose Abundantia Entertainment co-produced “Airlift”. “When Raja came to me with his script, I knew immediately that this was a film that had to be made.”
In 2016, Bollywood will release biopics of cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni, former captain Mohammad Azharuddin, and wrestler Mahavir Phogat who coached his daughters to wrestling glory. Aamir Khan plays Phogat in “Dangal“, which is slated for a Christmas release.
Bollywood wasn’t always enamoured with real life. Its heroes were all-conquering, leading ladies dancing in chiffon saris in sub-zero temperatures, and 45-year-old actors playing college students.
But much has changed over the past few years, especially after the success of films such as “The Dirty Picture” — based on the life of a soft-porn actress — and “No One Killed Jessica“, about the Jessica Lal murder case.
“A ‘Mangal Pandey‘ (biopic on the soldier who started a mutiny against British rule) didn’t work ten years ago. But a ‘Dangal’ will. It was the same Aamir Khan, but the audiences have changed,” trade analyst Vajir Singh said.
“A lot of young stars also want to do films that give them creative satisfaction. So a Varun Dhawan will do a ‘Badlapur‘, but also a ‘Dilwale‘. That has meant that studios are also open to greenlighting such films,” Singh said.
Another reason for the glut of real-life stories could be that Bollywood is running out of ideas. The last two years have seen big-ticket movies flounder at the box office despite sticking to the action, romance and comedy formula that has long been a staple for Hindi movies whereas films like “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag” and “Mary Kom” have worked.
Ad director Ram Madhvani makes his Bollywood debut in February with “Neerja“, the true story of a 22-year-old flight attendant who died saving passengers during the 1983 hijacking of a Pan Am aircraft. Director Omung Kumar will direct former Miss World Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in his May release “Sarabjit“, the story of an Indian man who was accused of being a spy by Pakistan and died in prison there in 2013.
Sushant Singh Rajput plays India’s one-day cricket captain Dhoni in a biopic directed by Neeraj Pandey. Emraan Hashmi plays former cricket captain Azharuddin in Anthony D’Souza’s “Azhar“. Both films will open in cinemas in the second half of 2016.
“There is something about real-life stories that is challenging, but is also immensely satisfying,” said Rajkumar Hirani, one of India’s most successful film-makers.
Hirani’s next project is a movie about actor Sanjay Dutt, whose five-year prison term for firearms offences ends in 2016.
“I have been wanting to make this film for a while, but it takes a lot of preparation and work,” said Hirani. “We hope to go on the floors (by the) middle of this year.”
Bollywood tends to take cinematic liberties even with films inspired by real-life events. Hirani said it doesn’t matter as long as the film doesn’t veer too far away from its subject.
Film-makers can rarely resist the temptation to insert a song-and-dance sequence in films. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra‘s biopic of athlete Milkha Singh showed him dancing on a beach in Australia, while Omung Kumar‘s retelling of boxer Mary Kom‘s life added events that didn’t happen.
“We don’t want to compromise on authenticity, of course,” said Malhotra, co-producer of “Airlift”. “But a little cinematic liberty in the interest of cinema is par for the course.”