Is ‘based on a true story’ the new success formula for Bollywood hitmakers?

Is ‘based on a true story’ the new success formula for Bollywood hitmakers?

Shivangi Jalan

It has been less than a quarter into2018 and we have seen the release of a number of Bollywood films that have been successful at making a mark at the box office. While the month of January (and even the following ones) was owned by Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus Padmaavat, February was all about Akshay Kumar’s PadMan. March’s big release came with Ajay Devgn’s Raid.
While on the surface, these films are a stark departure from each other, Padmaavat being a period war film, PadMan a social drama and Raid a crime thriller, one thing that connects the three, apart from their stupendous box office success, is their claim to be rooted in reality. While it is a known fact that PadMan is based on the story of the social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham, the first slide of Ajay Devgn’s Raid reads ‘Based on true stories.’ Padmaavat, however, is a different story altogether. It may be based on a fictional poem but it will still remain a piece of ‘historical’ fiction.
Let us first look at Bollywood’s latest offering Raid which narrates the story of a newly appointed IT Commissioner Amay Patnaik (Ajay Devgn) as he conducts the country’s biggest raid on one of the city’s most wealthy and well-connected politicians-cum-businessman MLA Rameshwar Singh (Saurabh Shukla). An interesting premise at hand, right? But writer Ritesh Shah (who has films like Pink, D-day, and Citylights to his credit) does a disappointing job at bringing the story out on screen.
After watching the film’s trailer, you not only expect Raid to be a terse exploration of the ingenious strategies and planning that goes into conducting a high-profile raid like this but also a story which is believable and intriguing at the same time. But throughout the film’s 130 minutes, what we see is Ajay Devgn tapping different corners of Singh’s mansion resulting in showers of wads of cash and stocks of precious jewellery. There was just so much more that director Raj Kumar Gupta could have explored with Raid: the pre-liberalised India of the 80s, the relationship between the affluent families and corrupt tax officers, the struggles of a sincere officer like Patnaik in convincing his seniors to approve the raid but instead all we get is a predictable stand-off between the goody-two-shoes hero and the abysmal baddie, repeated to the point that it stops making any kind of sense.
If the makers would have taken to themselves to thoroughly research the lives of previous IT officers (instead of spending so much time and effort on the look Ileana is sporting), the film would have come out a lot differently. While the power-packed dialogues were definitely a highlight of the trailer, in the film, it is just taken too over the top. Viewers never witness Tauji or Patnaik engage in any kind of genuine conversation, be it with their family or to each other, it is almost like they are their sassy best at all times.
Which brings me to my next observation that films like Raid are almost always packaged as ‘woke’ cinema with the actors repeatedly stating in their promotional interviews how their film doesn’t stick to conventional stereotypes. And when under that impression audiences flock to the theatres, all they get is the same-old Bollywood masala movie.
Similar is the case with R Balki’s PadMan. While PadMan is based on the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the man who started a revolution by creating a low-cost sanitary pad-making machine, Balki is never able to effectively convey the seriousness of Muruganantham’s struggle to the viewers. It is almost like all his problems are solved miraculously and not out of his own caliber. And as a result, the essence of Muruganantham’s story is lost somewhere in the film. A major point of contention with the kind of “cinematic liberties” that R Balki chooses to take in PadMan is Sonam Kapoor’s character Rhea, who is completely a figment of Balki’s imagination. Yes, Rhea does become a source of great strength for Lakshmikant in the latter part of his journey but there isn’t a logical explanation as to why Balki felt the need to introduce a romantic angle between her and Akshay’s character.
However, in comparison, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat has definitely had the most interesting relationship with its claims to reality. With the violent Karni Sena protests, the makers did acknowledge that the film is based on the epic poem ‘Padmavat’ by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi which is a revered work of fiction but that doesn’t mean that the film will not be classified as a work of historical fiction. While Rani Padmavati’s (Deepika Padukone) existence has been questioned by renowned historians over the years, there is no doubting the fact that Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) and Maharaja Rawal Singh (Shahid Kapoor) were real historical people. And so is Khalji’s attack on Chittor.
Moreover, the folklore around Rani Padmini and her beauty is an important part of the cultural memory of the Rajput community. In that sense, the historical authenticity of Jayasi’s poem and in turn, Padmaavat has become a highly debatable topic. But it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Padmaavat’s whole debacle with history (and Karni Sena) has been one of the most important selling factors for the film. The movie does end with a slate that reads “Padmavati ka jauhar, Khilji ki sabse badi haar aur Rajputo ki sabse badi jeet thi.”