Soorarai Pottru, The Motorcycle Diaries, and a response to the truth-versus-fiction issue in biopics
All that matters in a biopic is whether the spirit of the subject is captured. That’s what you should base your evaluations on: basically, not the story you know but the story the film chooses to tell.
Soorarai Pottru — the “loosely-inspired-by” biopic of Air Deccan founder Captain GR Gopinath — is the season’s hottest, most talked-about film, so let’s talk about a biopic about another socialist hero from another part of the world. (For those who haven’t seen Sudha Kongara’s movie, one of its key changes is the transformation of a capitalist entrepreneur into a socialist do-gooder.)
Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries opens with a sort-of disclaimer: “This isn’t a tale of heroic feats. It’s about two lives running parallel for a while, with common aspirations and similar dreams.” The note is signed: “Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, 1952.” You may know the man as Che.
But first, let’s discuss the inherent problem with biopics. Half that word (“bio”) suggests something “biographical”, i.e., “true to life”. That’s a very heavy burden to place on a movie, where dramatic beats are infinitely more important than “truth”. I would rather have a fictionalised film that works than a “true” film that doesn’t. If you want the “truth” about Gopinath or Guevara, go read books about them, or go watch documentaries. No film, even one that calls itself a “bio”pic, is going to give you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.
So how to address the “dissonance” factor that comes into play when we watch a biopic about someone we know, someone whose story we have followed? Again, that is our burden, not the filmmakers’. A filmmaker’s only obligation is to make a good movie, not a “true” movie.
I say this to everyone who’s had problems with Soorarai Pottru because Gopinath didn’t do this, or he was born in that milieu, or whatever. All that matters is whether the spirit of the man is captured, and that’s what you should base your evaluations on: basically, not the story you know but the story the film chooses to tell.
The Motorcycle Diaries is very clear, right up front, about what it chooses to tell: the journey on the titular vehicle that shaped Guevara during a very specific time. We get the scope of the story very early. (“The plan: 8,000 kilometers in four months. The method: improvisation. The goal: to explore a continent we had only known in books.”) And we get a few “biograph”-ical details, like the fact that Guevara was a medical student specialising in leprosy, and was only one semester away from becoming a doctor. And that he suffered from asthma. And that he came from a loving family.
The other details arise during the journey, like the fact that the man had a way with words. When Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal) sets off on his trip, with his friend, a biochemist named Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna), it’s all girls and “cute” hijinks for a while. But at one stop, he meets a man who says someone needs medical attention. It turns out to be an old woman. Guevara examines her, gives her a bottle of pills. But his real diagnosis is in the letter he writes back home, to his mother. “I knew I was powerless to help her, Mom — this poor old woman who only a month ago waited tables, wheezing like I do, trying to live with dignity. In her dying eyes, there was a plea for forgiveness and for solace, now vanished, just as her body will soon be lost in the great mystery that surrounds us.”
Salles has said he was very open to improvisation, and the very nature of “improvisation” is to veer away from what’s scripted, and therefore, capture something that “the real-life Che” might not have experienced. My favourite anecdote about The Motorcycle Diaries comes from an assistant director, who woke up one morning to find the location covered in snow. She thought they’d have the day off, because there’s no mention of snow in the diaries Guevara wrote. But Salles wanted to use this unexpected gift from nature. He wanted to “improvise”.
And we get the scene where Guevara and Granado bike through a road lined on either side with trees that are weighed down by icy branches. And that means that this entire exchange that follows isn’t “true”: “Is that snow piling up?” “Nah, that's just a little frost, man.” These “lies”, these “fictions” intended to dramatise the narrative, don’t matter, because they serve the basic story: Guevara goes a long trip and has a variety of experiences and ends up transformed. The snow, therefore, becomes a visual metaphor for this variety, because when he left home, it was warm and the frames were filled with sunlight.
For all you know, the migrant couple that Guevara and Granado meet on the way could be fictional, too. They’re obviously poor. They say they had some dry land that belonged to the man’s grandfather, and then a land speculator forced them off. “So we had to leave our son with family and hit the road, looking for work, trying to escape from the police who wanted to toss us in jail.” Why? Because they are communists. Now, they’re headed to a mine, where they’ve heard work is available.
And that’s the point where this scene, real or fiction or “improvised” or whatever, just kills me. The couple assume that these two young men (Guevara is just shy of 24) are like them, wandering around looking for something to do in order to make some money. The woman asks if Guevara and Granado are looking for work, too. Guevara says they aren’t. She asks why they are on the road, then. Guevara says, “We travel just to travel.” And it hits Guevara, as it hits us, that “travelling just to travel” is such a privilege when there are people who go from place to place just so they can survive.
True or not, this moment tells us something has changed inside Guevara. We see it on his face. And without this moment, the big climax would not ring true. That occurs when Guevara and Granado reach a leper’s colony, which is separated by a river from the doctors and nuns that tend to the lepers. Guevara celebrates his birthday on this bank, with the doctors and nuns, his kind/class of people. But soon, he makes a choice. He jumps into the water and swims across to the people who really need him. He wants to be with them. This act of — swimming this “travel”, finally — is not “travel just to travel”. A man has finally found his purpose. And that’s the only “truth” that matters.
Soorarai Pottru is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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