Rangoon, Raees, Coffee With D: Why films deny their real inspiration closer they get to release
Films that are pitched as ‘based on’ or ‘inspired by’ real life individuals or incidents often end up catching the audiences’ fancy more than the regular fare. While the tag of authenticity, irrespective of the degree of inspiration, acquires unparalleled publicity, the association with reality also attaches a certain kind of respectability. But the closer any such film (be it a big-ticket film such as Raees or a comparatively smaller production such as Coffee with D, two recent films also believed to have been inspired by real life characters and incidents) gets to its release, the filmmakers behind them do an about-turn and deny any association with the supposed real people. Keeping up with this practice Vishal Bhardwaj’s recently released Rangoon has also now denied any connection between its lead character Miss Julia played by Kangana Ranaut and the actress Mary Ann Evans, who was popularly known as Fearless Nadia.
During the course of its making, Rangoon was being fervently discussed as a story where many things — right from the Ranaut character to the times depicted — were heavily inspired by the life of Fearless Nadia. The fact that Ranaut played an actress called ‘Jaanzaaz’ Miss Julia, who not only does her own stunts but is close to Parsi gentleman called Rustom “Rusi” Billimoria (Saif Ali Khan), which appears to be too close for coincidence with Jamshed Boman Homi Wadia, the co-founder of Wadia Movietone, the film company that transformed Mary into Fearless Nadia only furthered the case. Besides the setting even Miss Julia’s persona, her costumes or even the signature ‘Bloody Hell’ phrase is said to have inspired by Fearless Nadia herself. Moreover, the inspired casting of Kangana Ranaut, an star who conspicuously has not worked with almost every single contemporary A-list male star, in the role of a woman who became what very few leading ladies of her time managed — the hero — also saw Rangoon’s ‘based on real life character’ pitch garner credence. But with the cloud of legal suit for copyright infringement looming (it has since been filed by the heirs of Wadia Movietone), the entire Rangoon team has now been denying any connection with Nadia.
In Bollywood, the journey from ‘inspired by real events’ to 'not inspired by any person living or dead' is a short one. At the time Rahul Dholakia’s Raaes was announced it, too, was said to have been partially inspired by the events surrounding the life of Abdul Latif, a bootlegger turned gangster turned terrorist from Gujarat. Latif was an associate of Dawood Ibrahim and his gang had 243 cases against them including over 60 murders and about 14 kidnappings but his greatest infamy lay in being the one who facilitated the supply of RDX that was used in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts. In the film, the character was called ‘Raees’ and while any direct connection to the real Abdul Latif was circumvented, Latif’s son, however, was not convinced. The filmmakers repeatedly ensured everyone that Raees was a work of fiction but one of Latif’s sons filed a defamation suit against the makers of the film for misinterpreting his father; he claimed that his father had 97 cases against him ranging from bootlegging to Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) or TADA but he never used women for delivery in his bootlegging operations as Raees depicted.
One of the reasons why people whose lives or those of the ones close to them are depicted in Hindi films cry foul is the lack of clarity when it comes to Bollywood picking up a story to tell. Although legally speaking there is enough to make the entire exercise clean and above board but filmmakers often do not either pay enough or remain somewhat unclear about the extent of the inspiration. Had Rangoon been a true biopic Wadia Movietone’s permission would have been sought but did Vishal really base Julia on Nadia? If so, considering that there were enough statements to suggest this, did he not seek clearance from the Wadias — for why else would there have been such a ramification? Take the instance of one of Vishal Bhardwaj’s previous films, Kaminey, whose original story was developed by a certain Cajetan Boy, a Kenyan writer. Vishal had met Boy during a scriptwriting workshop held by Mira Nair in 2005 and after a few years and some drafts that went back and forth between Bhardwaj and Boy, the filmmaker bought the story for $ 4000 US. He collaborated with some other writers and completely overhauled the story of twin brothers in a slum in Nairobi and what happens to them in the course of a single day into Kaminey. But when it comes to something like an Abdul Latif or a Fearless Nadia, there is a kind of an ambiguity about the ownership. These are social or cultural manifestations and perhaps by virtue then become a part of the general public’s collective consciousness, which is probably considered as free as the air one breathes to adapt?
A few weeks ago actor Sunil Grover, who portrayed the lead role in Coffee With D where a journalist Arnab Ghosh (Grover) interviews a Dawood Ibrahim esque character called D (Zakir Hussain), reportedly got threatening calls from the gangster’s aides. The filmmakers were told to change a few things about the portrayal of ‘D’. Understandably enough, the people behind this fantasy-laden film denied any real-life inspiration. The upcoming film, Haseena: The Queen of Mumbai has been openly pitched as a biographical account of Haseena Parkar, the sister of Dawood Ibrahim. There was news of Haseena’s three children landing up unannounced on the sets to meet Shraddha Kapoor, the actor playing their mother. Even though it was reported that the kids were ‘happy’ with what they saw, Shraddha, it was said, panicked and hid in her make-up van. Ankur Bhatia who portrays the role of Haseena’s husband found the visit illuminating and got some tips that would be really useful to infuse more authenticity into the proceedings but knowing how Bollywood functions in such instances, it is anybody’s guess how soon (it'll be) before Haseena is officially attributed a screenwriter’s very fertile imagination. For close to a decade now, producers in Mumbai refuse to even indulge in small talk with a writer if the idea or the script being pitched is not registered with any writer’s association lest someone later suggest plagiarism. Similarly, they ought to get their act right when it comes to telling the viewer that something is based on reality and then creatively backtracking.