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  • BiopicsThe Year in India
  • Pramod K. Nayar (bio)

The biographical movie has seen a resurgence in India in recent years. Biopics have revolved around sports stars such as the athlete Milkha Singh in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), cricketers M. S. Dhoni in M. S. Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016), Mohammad Azharuddin in Azhar (2016), and Sachin Tendulkar in Sachin: A Billion Dreams (2016). Films have also been built around other real-life people whose actions in extraordinary, often inimical and daunting conditions become the subject of the biopic: Neerja Bhanot, the flight attendant who died in the 1986 Pan Am hijacking, is portrayed in Neerja (2016); Manjhi, a man who, over twenty-two years, carved a route through a hillock armed with just a hammer and a chisel, is portrayed in Manjhi: The Mountain Man (2015); and Charles Shobraj, the conman and killer, is portrayed in Main Aur Charles (2015).

The nation figures prominently in the biopics, especially the ones around sporting stars. The family is an equally important theme. They propose, implicitly, a cultural citizenship founded on aspirational models and attitudes. They also embody a complicated, layered aesthetic that conjoins artifice and artifact.

the notable subject

Admittedly, the hagiographic biopic bestows a certain immortality upon the "character" of the story. In addition, this immortality is also bestowed through the concentrated attention audiences bring to bear upon the figure. Murray Pomerance writes, [End Page 604]

We participate to some degree in the experiences and events by virtue of which some other person has apparently become notable. We explore the notability that lingers in the story as a kind of shadow trace that follows the subject. The biopic subject is at once notable in objective terms, having become what he is; and notable dramaturgically, since the adoration of crowds is an ostensible component of the subject's story as recounted on the screen.


The notability of the subject is the effect of a dual discourse in the biopic. First, the sporting biopics, appropriating the public discourse around figures like Tendulkar, highlight their grandest achievements, which are presented as being nearly miraculous. "Sachin's magic" was a commonly heard comment in connection with his batting, and Dhoni's great powers in finishing off a match to India's advantage was also often deemed miraculous in public discourse. When India won despite all odds, mainly due to Tendulkar's batting, it was described as a "miracle." Second, the biopic shows us what exactly—action, behavior, achievement—has made the subject notable: Manjhi toiling away with the entire village laughing at him, or Tendulkar practicing in the rain on a squelching wicket.1 The biopic moves from the miraculous and the magical to the marvelous, where the former is associated with the domain of the supernatural and the divine, and the latter with human wonders. If the first discourse renders the stars supernatural beings (Tendulkar) or eccentrics (Manjhi), the second casts them as mortals endowed with extraordinarily amplified but decidedly human virtues: grit, determination, ambition. The biopic's rhetoric works at the level of both process and product, oscillating between the two, so that the magic of a Tendulkar or a Manjhi is explained as the product of a strenuous but very human process. Further, in this shift from the miraculous to the marvelous, the biopic offers up an aspirational model for the rest of the nation, and reframes the marvelous as a success story that could serve as such a model.

national identity

"Life picturing" has been seen as driven by the generic plot of "national identity" (Epstein 8). This is decidedly true in the case of India's sports biopics in which the lives of its sporting heroes—Tendulkar, Dhoni, Azhar—are very clearly cast as national lives, their work (and play) as embodying the nation's interests. The biopics focus on the affect generated when the cricketer on screen scores or is out: the nation mourns or celebrates accordingly. A Billion Dreams in the Tendulkar biopic's title is precisely that: he embodies the dreams of the entire Indian population of one billion. The biopic constructs the sporting figure as a key "national symbolic" (Berlant 155) around whom a...


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pp. 604-610
Launched on MUSE
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