Based On A True Story But…

Let me begin with an anecdote. I was reading my script pages. In a scene, the husband gets a call from his girlfriend in the middle of the night and he leaves to attend to her. Next morning, the wife leaves for work and the couple exchange no conversation. The teacher stops me and points out that I had missed an opportunity to ‘dramatize’. I wondered, what? He remarks, “Never leave an opportunity to put the protagonist in trouble. Even though the husband and wife are not amicable, she could have asked the husband where did he go at night. Dramatize!” he emphasized.

This takes me back to the fall of 2010 when my screenwriting course at the New York Film Academy (NYFA) began in New York city. As the faculty addressed us, they all had one thing in common to say, “Do not ever tell us this is how it happened or happens in reality. We are not in the real world; we are in the world of drama and the world of drama has its own rules.” This was a given we had to adhere to. Hollywood and NYFA both bow down to Aristotle’s Poetics, his seminal work on drama. Writing a script is a call to adventure and this new world has its own rules. Hollywood has traditionally shown astute control over the art of narrative cinema and the three act structure. Snobbery of alternate forms of narration apart, film lovers and makers the world over have little choice but to grant this to American cinema and its screenwriters. No one does it better than them.

However, screen writing is not really the strength of Indian cinema. And this is a very sad statement to make for the largest film producing country in the world. With the exception of writer duo Salim-Javed and more recently Juhi Chaturvedi, it is difficult to think of writers who have made a mark for themselves. While film writers raise their voice against the step-motherly treatment meted out to them, I wonder how often do they actually confer to discuss the crisis of writing in our cinema. We typically have here a psyche of underdevelopment. A person good with language often fancies himself as a film writer. Those initiated to literature think they have an inherent talent for writing a film. Neither is correct.

A producer’s preference for the star over the writer and the star’s choice of the banner over the script only ensures that our films, more often than not, are poorly written. Pick up a film review and you will find the reviewers making the same points film after film to no avail. The worst is when a film is a hit. A bad film is then celebrated at private award jamborees and no attention is paid even remotely to put in an effort to write a good film. A senior executive of a studio once shamelessly told me, “Get me a star and I won’t even look at your script. It doesn’t matter.” For me, this one statement defined film writing in India.

I sometimes wonder what Indian cinema would have done if there was no Hollywood. Most of our films are rip offs. Makers and writers carry DVDs of American films to pitch projects. We copy Hollywood shamelessly to the extent that popular hindi cinema has not managed to create it’s own idiom. In America, it is believed that they have run out of stories. This explains the chase for franchises of comic books, obsession with 3D, and a much abused tagline, ‘based on a true story’. So if the Americans are doing it, can Indians be far behind? But the one thing we need to realize is that the ‘real’ needs to be ‘dramatized’. The postulates of Mr Aristotle and its interpretation by Joseph Campbell in his major work, Hero With a Thousand Faces, are sacrosanct so far.

As mentioned before, “this is how it happened in real life” does not make for cinema. Its dramatic adaptation is a foregone conclusion for the film to have any cinematic merit. And it is the lack of this drama and the inability of the filmmaker and the writer to transcend from reality to drama that ails our films ‘based on true stories’. Mind you, drama is not a bad word, it is an artistic necessity.

In order to illustrate the argument, I will mention two recent brave and commendable efforts, Neerja and Aligarh. This is purely an academic discussion and in no way undermines the two films and their makers. Also, there are several other films in the distant past which suffer the same malaise as these two.


Neerja, is advertising filmmaker Ram Madhvani’s second film, based on the true story of flight attendant Neerja Bhanot, who died saving lives of the passengers of a Pan Am flight in 1986. It is an inspiring tale to tell. And Ram does a fairly competent job. The recreation of the aircraft is superb and so is the atmosphere of the 1980s, when most of us were growing up. Casting is first rate and the performances competent. So what is it that stops the film in delivering that knock-out blow? Apart from the weak performance of the lead actor Sonam Kapoor, what ails the film is the lack of dramatization. The inciting incident and the big event are inherent in the story and while the film correctly follows the three act structure, it fails to dramatize certain key sequences. To begin with, the protagonist, Neerja Bhanot endlessly waits for things to happen.

Let me explain what I means by this. Since the film is a hijack drama, the protagonist’s call to adventure is a reluctant one. But once she makes the choice of answering the call, her dramatic journey cannot seem reluctant. The protagonist has to take action, for a character exists in relation to his or her action. He cannot be limited to reaction as is the case in the film. For example, when Neerja is caught after she chooses to alert the pilots and they escape, ideally, almost all action thereafter should have been the effect of that and so on and so forth. This explains the criticism for Sonam’s performance that she seemed clueless. As a character, her agenda of saving the passengers is not put forth in active action. We get no insight into her thinking process. Or what defines her as a brave person who could remain sane in the face of fatal adversary.

The sequences, which happen on their own and are governed by the antagonist, are also not adequately dramatized. The passport collection scene, for instance. Neerja has a plan to throw away all American passports and it is a long sequence. But basic drama of being caught in the act or being saved in the nick of time – as they destroy American passports – is not attempted, thus making it a flat sequence with no thrill at all. The most insipid is the death scene of Neerja. The scene required a dramatic larger than life killing as for once the real life character is larger than life. Then why make it banal? ‘The slice of life’ approach is not a quality that dramatic storytelling can afford to have as it depends on empathy and it is drama that gets empathy. Look out for deep empathy in real life stories of Hollywood like Dallas Buyers’ Club, Capote, Theory of Everything, Ray, The Beautiful Mind et all.


Coming to Aligarh, it is a case of lost opportunity. A story of a gay Marathi professor in a predominantly Muslim town of North India makes the subject a multi-layered text with unlimited possibilities of exploration. But the film ends up being one long wait for the professor to commit suicide. Almost nothing is tackled keeping in mind its dramatic possibility and the film becomes mundane after the initial 20 minutes.

Aligarh has all the elements but sadly doesn’t use them or doesn’t use them well enough. An important character of a journalist, Deepu Sebastian, played by Rajkummar Rao sets out to meet the protagonist, Professor Siras (Manoj Bajpayee). What transpires thereafter are a few meetings between the two with different hues of the same emotion. Neither are the meetings dramatized to reveal a new aspect of what Professor Siras is going through (we only get to know what Professor Siras tells the journalist) nor does the character of  Sebastian serve any adequate dramatic purpose in the narrative. Both become agony aunts for each other and nothing more. And that, I am afraid, is not good enough for a linear dramatic structure of telling a story.

Similarly, Professor Siras is not explored sufficiently as a character. We neither get to know him well enough beyond what already is there in public domain nor does he have a graph. He remains at the same point at the end of the film where he was when the film begins. Are we trying to say that a scandal as big as this – which led to his suicide – had no impact on him beyond his existential crisis surfacing? What was the journey like between the horrific episode – the cause and its ultimate effect, the suicide – besides meeting Deepu Sebastian a few times and going for the court hearings? Shouldn’t the makers have chartered a path of cause and effect, which altogether would have built up to the end, his suicide. On the contrary, we keep waiting for things to happen and not much happens till the end. An okay route to follow only if the structural and aesthetic paradigm of the film belonged to an open ended, non-narrative, contemplative approach.

The reason for such a placid trajectory is the refusal to dramatize events simply because the film is based on a true story. And this singularly has hurt many such films. If the events of real life are not dramatic enough, they need to be dramatized if we decide to make a linear narrative film. And even if they are dramatic, they need to be re-dramatized to be eligible in the world of drama. The writing of the film betrays a lack of exploration. For instance, the gay partner of Professor Siras, a rickshaw puller, is a Muslim. There is a class difference between him and his lover, the professor, and he is gay as well. This is a mine full of information that the film gives us but never explores. How rich the film could have been with a sub-track of the rickshaw puller! Imagine two victims of homophobia from completely different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds and a journalist, trying to get them justice? However, we get no insight into the liaisons of Professor Siras beyond the reconstruction of events. Therefore the empathy he gets in the first few minutes dies a slow death. By the time he commits suicide, we are ambivalent towards him.

Such issues with writing films on true stories are prevalent to some extent or the other in all ‘true story’ films and biopics. I wonder why the filmmakers choose an easy way out and string together a series of scenes with no dramatic pay-off instead of laboring hard to get a superbly crafted dramatic narrative. ‘DRAMATIZE ‘, is the key word and its about time we start to implement it, rather than try and pass off an all too casual approach to filmmaking just because the narrative is ‘based on a true story’.

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1 Comment

  1. Very good article. Coming to performance, I always felt that Vidya balan though being older would have done much better job. Infact, she resambles with neerja more than anybody.

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