Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Tara: The Journey of Love and Passion both released last Friday. One did extremely well, winning critical accolades and filling theatre seats. The other was besieged by terrible reviews, empty halls and controversies, and disappeared without a trace. But both Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Tara were ‘tributes’. One to both a sportsperson and to the Indian army, and the other to ‘Nirbhaya’ – the Delhi gang rape victim.
While Milkha Singh is said to be pleased with his portrayal, as well as the movie as a whole, Tara is already mired in a controversy. The movie was initially supported by Awnindra Pratap Pandey, the rape victim’s friend who was with her on that December night. But according to a report in today's Mumbai Mirror, Pandey has disassociated himself from the movie, saying that the movie makers have exploited the case, and that the movie doesn’t carry the message of women’s empowerment that the makers had claimed that it did.
Movies such as Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Paan Singh Tomar, and even movies about criminality and violence such as Gangs of Wasseypur and Once Upon A Time In Mumbai, are able to peg themselves to real life events without facing any backlash. But it is a little different in the case of movies such as Tara.
The movie is about a village woman who fights impossible odds for her survival. But it’s a ‘tribute’ to Nirbhaya, an urban woman who was gang raped in Delhi. It’s the latest attempt by a filmmaker to find an advertising opportunity by pegging a movie to a tragic incident which is still fresh in the public’s memory.
Real life is stranger than fiction, they say, and in Bollywood, it can also be more profitable. ‘Based on true events’ is a term that can exponentially increase the viewer’s interest in a movie. It doesn’t require the filmmaker to be particularly skilled in the art of storytelling and narrative construction since the tale has already been told. It’s a tried and tested formula. But it can and does backfire.
One reason for failure: it’s too soon. Case in point, Ram Gopal Verma’s attempts to make a movie based on the 26/11 terror attacks. Verma visited the Taj merely days after the attacks, unleashing a fury of protests and outrage. After promising to not make the movie in the face of protests and political pressure, Verma was back in the news last November when he reportedly resumed shooting and faced new protests from the Samajwadi Youth Party.
As the success of No One Killed Jessica revealed, good things come to those who wait. Jessica’s murder in 1999 had no less of an impact on society than the December gang rape. The public reaction to the acquittal of the accused practically set the template for the gang rape protests – a large turnout of the urban middle class, rallies and marches, as well as SMS and email campaigns. However, the movie itself was made more than a decade later. Justice had been served, and the viewers could watch the film with a clear conscience.
A second reason for failure is cinematic quality. A good movie will be accepted as a tribute, but a tacky, low budget production is likely to be accused of exploitation. Tara has been universally panned a terrible movie, redeemed only by the lead actress’s skills which have received praise. Poor quality is taken as evidence of bad faith on part of filmmakers who were banking on sensationalism to overcome deficits in filmmaking.
News headlines will always tempt some Bollywood filmmakers to take the easy way out and cash in on public interest. As most recently with Jiah Khan, whose life will soon become cinematic fodder (an announcement was made within weeks of her death). “It’s a tribute to those aspiring actresses who have gone through the same agony,” said filmmaker Rikshhit Matta last month. The failure of Tara offers a cautionary lesson for celluloid ambulance chasers, but no one in Bollywood seems interested in learning it.