My Yahoo! Movies column, first published here.
As Milkha Singh promises to scorch the track and celluloid this week, he comes in a long line of Bollywood films inspired by real life characters. Very few films name their inspiration to avoid the obvious problems of lawsuits and outrages for cinema liberties taken but you have to be Rip Van Winkle not to recognize them!
The other Singh – Bhagat – is easily the most inspiring freedom fighter of the country. Shammi Kapoor (Shaheed Bhagat Singh), Manoj Kumar (Shaheed), Ajay Devgn (The Legend of Bhagat Singh), Bobby Deol (23rd March 1931: Shaheed) and Siddharth (Rang De Basanti) have portrayed him – including two films in quick succession in 2002.
BONUS HERO: Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh’s close ally and confidant, has been played by two of India’s biggest stars – Aamir Khan (in Rang De Basanti) and Sunny Deol (in 23rd March 1931: Shaheed).
Milkha sprints in right after another film on an athlete, lesser known in real life – Paan Singh Tomar. Irrfan was the armyman turned steeplechaser turned bandit, who was seen as something of a symbol of whatever is wrong with Indian society. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s masterpiece traced Tomar’s life from his salad days in the Army to his tragic end as a wanted bandit. But he didn’t see himself as a bandit but as a rebel. “Beehaad mein baghi hote hain. Dacait milte hain Parliament mein.” Can’t argue with that!
Heroes aren’t the only ones to inspire Bollywood. Villains are also very charismatic icons.
India’s most wanted man – Dawood Ibrahim – is undoubtedly the most ‘inspiring’ villain around as several films have characters either based on him or playing him. Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday had him orchestrating the Mumbai blasts of 1993 from Pakistan. In a few days, a gang of RAW agents will be going to arrest him in D-Day, where Rishi Kapoor will be playing him.
And of course, Ram Gopal Verma has immortalized him with Company where Ajay Devgn played a character loosely based on him as did Randeep Hooda in D.
Dawood’s predecessor in Bombay’s underworld was Haji Mastan Mirza – a very charismatic character, who epitomized the honourable Don mould before the underworld became all murky.
His life was the basis of what is widely called the ‘perfect screenplay’ – Deewaar. Amitabh Bachchan’s smouldering intensity lent unprecedented glamour to the character though both the subject and the writers refused to accept any links.
Ajay Devgan played him in Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai and in an interesting scene, Kangana Ranaut’s character wondered if a film should be made on his life and an intense actor called Amit should play him.
BONUS GOONS: Maya Dolas and Manya Surve were two small time goons in Mumbai underworld till Viveik Oberoi and John Abraham played them and got shot at Lokhandwala and Wadala respectively.
Not only gangsters, cops also spawn movies.
Rakesh Maria – the investigating officer of the Mumbai blasts – was played by Kay Kay Menon in Black Friday but easily the most popular cop on-screen is ‘encounter specialist’ Daya Nayak. The most famous film on the ‘encounter’ phenomenon is Ab Tak Chhappan (which was produced by Ram Gopal Verma). Subsequently, RGV directed Department (widely debated if it was his worst film) in which Sanjay Dutt’s character was said to be based on Daya Nayak.
Several not-so-well-know movies happened but after he was investigated on corruption charges and for underworld links, the movies seem to have dried up.
When a young Delhi girl called Jessica was shot at a happening party by a youngster from a political family, she made headlines. And eventually, a film.
A headline from The Times Of India became the title of the movie – No One Killed Jessica – and the crusade for her justice was led by her sister Sabrina (played by Vidya Balan) and a feisty journalist (played by Rani Mukherji). It was widely discussed that the journalist was based on NDTV’s Barkha Dutt but was never officially confirmed though the news channel in the film was NDTV.
Guru was the story of an ambitious Gujarati boy who went abroad in search of fortune, didn’t find it there and came back to create it here.
Dhirubhai Ambani was Independent India’s greatest businessman and Mani Ratnam paid a superb tribute to his exciting life, glamourising some elements and changing a few. Abhishek Bachchan put on tons of weight to play the self-made tycoon, who went from being a polyester trader to a multi-billionaire who single-handedly created the ‘equity cult’ in the 1980s.
As his nemesis, we had Mithun Chakraborty playing a character based on Ramnath Goenka – the idealistic newspaper owner who took on the tycoon for his not-so-kosher business deals.
Probably the most debated ‘inspiration’ is also the biggest.
In Gulzar’s Aandhi, Suchitra Sen played a politician who gave up on her married life to pursue her father’s political ambitions. As she aged into having a white streak in her hair, the country went into a tizzy about the movie being based on Indira Gandhi’s life. The film was banned during the Emergency (AFTER it had run for twenty-two weeks). The producers went blue in the face explaining it all to be a coincidence though logic is never called upon in these situations.
BREAKING NEWS: In the forthcoming Satyagraha, Amitabh Bachchan is playing a character based on Gandhian anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare. Water cannons, hunger strikes, Gandhi topis are being called into action as citizens of India take on the political class. And hopefully win. (We are also waiting to see if Ajay Devgn is playing Arvind Kejriwal in the film.)