The case of Salman Khan's absence from 'Sarbjit': How biopics 'enhance' their real life inspirations
The recent news of actor Salman Khan’s efforts to free Sarabjit Singh (an Indian national tried and sentenced to death by Pakistan for his alleged role in a series of bomb blasts in Lahore and Faisalabad in 1990), being left out from an upcoming film once again highlights how tricky the biopic genre can be.
While in most cases, biopics tend to distort truth in order to heighten the heroism of protagonists, in the case of Sarbjit (2016), a film that centers on the efforts and struggles of Sarabjit’s sister, Dalbir Kaur, to free her brother, the decision to airbrush Salman Khan might have to do with the real history that the star shared with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (who plays Dalbir on screen).
Dalbir Kaur and Sarabjit’s daughter had met Khan on the sets of Dabangg 2 and keeping in mind the enormous fan base he enjoyed in Pakistan, requested him to help intensify the efforts to free Sarabjit. The actor responded by tweeting and launching an online signature campaign to free the falsely accused Indian. However, the fact that both Khan and Rai-Bachchan aren’t on talking terms might have prompted the makers of the film to omit this chapter.
Although the reason for Salman’s absence from the narrative is purely speculative, the film’s spokesperson articulated that it wasn’t possible to show every incident in the course of Dalbir Kaur’s 23-year struggle. But isn’t it ironic that a film about a woman’s fight to free her innocent brother sentenced to death chooses to exclude the very incident that tried giving the ultimate fillip to the efforts?
While in the case of Sarabjit it seems that the off-screen past of two actors is responsible for airbrushing a part of history, biopics, more often than not, end up falling short due to creative calls no matter what the intention. Popular cinema tries to change heroes into superheroes and such liberty in the name of creative license comes at the cost of the truth.
In the recent past two successful Hindi biopics, Airlift (2016) and Neerja (2016), struck a chord with the viewers and while they both were largely praised for being authentic enough their authenticity was still questioned. Airlift chronicled the unsung heroes behind the evacuation of more than one lakh Indians stranded in Kuwait following Saddam Hussain’s 1990 invasion that led to the first Gulf War and while the narrative of the film follows the heroics of a certain Ranjit Katyal (Akshay Kumar), a businessman who becomes an unofficial leader of the Indian community, the truth is that the character doesn’t exist. Katyal is an amalgamation of two gentlemen — Sunny Mathews and Harbhajan Vedi — who rose to the occasion and didn’t leave any stone unturned to safely bring back almost 1,70,000 people in over 488 flights across 59 days. In order to heighten the drama, and perhaps even to capitalise on Akshay Kumar’s box-office pull, a hybrid character was formed but wouldn’t the presence of two real life characters have added yet another layer to the narrative?
Following the release of Neerja, that celebrates the bravery of flight attendant Neerja Bhanot, her former college Nupur Abrol publicly claimed that the film had unfairly propagated a version of reality to such an extent that even Bhanot’s soul would cringe at the “undeserved adulation". For this writer, the fact that Bhanot was the one who took the bullet to save innocent lives on board the hijacked Pam-Am 73 and was awarded the Ashok Chakra, India’s most prestigious gallantry award for bravery during peace-time, ought to be enough to settle any argument.
Distortion of facts is a common tool employed by biopics to convey the tale with more poignancy and an example of this can be seen in most war biopics. Take JP Dutta’s Border (1997), where real life heroes who survived the epic Battle of Longewala, on which the film was based, were bumped off in the screenplay simply to amplify the heroics. Or even David Lean’s classic The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) where writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson remodeled the entire character of Col Nicholson (Alec Guinness) with a slight nimbleness of fingers. One of the most celebrated war films ever, The Bridge on the River Kwai has been called an insult to the memory of Lt Col Philip Toosey on whom Guinness’ character was based by experts because it showed him trying to please the Japanese to spare his men by building a bridge whereas in reality Toosey was not as obsessed with the bridge as he was in keeping his men alive.
In fact, selective focus and subsequent interpretation end up making great cinema greater and exceptional characters extraordinary but this transformation claims reality as collateral. The recent Cold War spy thriller Bridge of Spies gets much of its gravitas from Tom Hanks’ everyman insurance lawyer, James Donovan, assigned by the US government to facilitate the exchange of an US Air Force pilot for a Russian spy in Berlin. But what the film doesn’t mention is that Donovan’s past included a stint in Naval intelligence during WW II as well as being a counsel to America's wartime spy service. Seen in that light, Donovan suddenly doesn’t seem convincing as the canny insurance lawyer who is hesitant to take up the job.
The trouble with biopics isn’t the so-called cinematic liberty. The manic need to enhance the narrative by looking for elements within real characters for a compelling tale is now almost like a pre-requisite and even the audience doesn’t bother beyond a point if done right. The trouble begins when filmmakers cherry-pick things to focus on. This minuscule shift in what and how to look at events transforms history. In Titanic (1997) James Cameron showed the first officer William Murdoch as an unstable evil man, who kills two people and also takes a bribe from a rich passenger (Billy Zane) in exchange for a spot on a lifeboat but in reality, he was a hero who went down with the ship after helping hundreds of passengers on the ill-fated ocean liner.
Similarly, Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) went beyond the realm of believability and practically pronounced an innocent man, David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), guilty of conspiring to assassinate the US President solely because he happened to be connected with Lee Harvey Oswald and along with a bunch of people was pissed off at the way President Kennedy handled the Communist uprising in Cuba and, therefore, plotted the assassination.
Omung Kumar's Sarbjit might not reshape history or reconstruct certain verities to an extent that it might not be recognisable but does bring to light the irony of the whole exercise. How else could you describe the situation — the filmmaker being drawn to the subject due to the sentimentality attached to it and then decking it with up with imagined scenarios and situations to do justice to the emotional quotient of the material and yet choosing to do away with a real sequence that ideally, any writer would have traded their right arm to come up with to increase the drama?
It’s not like one can undermine the impact of soft powers like cinema and stars such as Salman — especially in the light of his own previous film Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) that inspired the real-life return of Geeta, the deaf and mute Indian woman who had strayed across the border into Pakistan 12 years back.
Gautam Chintamani is the author of the best-selling Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (HarperCollins, 2014). He tweets @GChintamani