Morgan Freeman, who had played the role of former South African president Nelson Mandela in the 2009 film ‘Invictus’, is perhaps one actor who has been unwittingly at the receiving end of the largest number of gaffes around the character he played in the movie. Since the leader’s death in 2013, several people have been routinely paying tributes to Freeman’s picture thinking that he is Mandela!
As I watched Aravind Swamy’s makeover as MGR in the teaser of Thalaivi and the pictures of Ranvir Singh as Kapil Dev in the forthcoming film 1983, Morgan Freeman’s face flashed in my mind. Does the makeover of the lead actor decide the success of a biopic? Whether it is Mark Zuckerberg’s look in The Social Network, Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in Jobs, or Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, the actors indeed were lookalikes of the real-life characters they enacted on screen. On the other hand, we have seen many films that had the perfect cast in terms of looks but failed to make the mark.
The two most stunning makeovers in a biopic of yesteryear Indian stars are perhaps Mohanlal’s unmatchable performance as MGR (Anandan) in Iruvar and Keerthi Suresh’s act as Savitri, in the Tamil-Telugu film Mahanati. In these two films, the supporting cast too bore a slight resemblance to their originals in looks and mannerisms and delivered real game-changing performance. In Iruvar, Prakash Raj gave a breakout performance as Karunanidhi and in Mahanati, Dulquer Salman brought the real-life Gemini Ganesan back to the screen.
Similar to the host of Bhagat Singh biopics of 2002 that starred Ajay Devgan, Bobby Deol, and Sonu Sood, Jayalalithaa and MGR seem to be the current favorites. Gautam Vaudev Menon released the first season of his web series Queen based on Jayalalithaa’s life story on MX Player recently. This series, made in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, and Bengali, has Ramya Krishnan, Anikha Surendran, and Anjana Jayaprakash portraying three phases Jayalalithaa’s life. Ramya the steely-resolve politician, and the other two as a bright student and as a heroine. Apparently, the makers did not want to depend on a single actress lift the entire life story of the character on her shoulders. Though Gautam Menon had claimed that Queen is a work of fiction and we do not see any physical resemblance in these actresses to Jayalalithaa, watching just the first few minutes of the first season would tell you that it is unmistakably the life story of the two former chief ministers--Jayalalithaa and MGR. Indrajit Sukumaran as MGR is a refreshing take on the character. Indrajit has played it effortlessly, without trying to mimic MGR in great detail.
Coming back to Thalaivi, the first look posters and stills of Kangana Ranaut as Jayalalithaa did not invoke as much enthusiasm in the audience as Aravind Swamy’s MGR look did. High energy and histrionics aside, Kangana’s ability to pull off a role of substance in a nuanced way is yet to be tested. While we discuss the actress in Thalaivi, nobody seemed to have complaints about the Jayalalithaa character in Iruvar, thanks to the overbearing stature of the lead duo. The male egos of the friends-turned-foes duo of Tamil cinema and politics overshadowed everything else in the plot.
After PM Narendra Modi, Thackeray, and The Accidental Prime Minister made their way into the political discourse during the last election season, more politicians’ biographies are being turned into scripts, no matter how many of these hold the potential to hold the audience. In Yaathra and NTR: Kathanayakudu, Mammootty and Balakrishna essayed the roles of the other two notable politicians of South India, Y S Rajsekhar Reddy and NT Rama Rao, respectively. Both failed to connect to the fans of these legends in terms of look and content. The result: mixed reviews and limited box office success. Malayalam director Kamal made the Madhavikutty/Kamala Das/Kamala Surayya biopic Aami with Manju Warrier in the lead. If audiences slammed the film for its bad makeup and costumes even before it was released, critics shot it down for its flawed writing and execution, and it flopped at the box office. The names of superstars are now being heard in connection with the biographies of former Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, Telengana chief minister KCR, and Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. To his credit, Mammootty had given us a true-to-life portrayal of the father of the Indian constitution Dr. Ambedkar in Jabbar Patel’s Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar way back in 1999, which he is unlikely to better with any new film. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s makeover as Sadat Hasan Manto in Nandita Das’s film Manto (2018) too is remarkable though we do not have much references that show the man in action.
Close on the heels of Invictus, in which Morgan Freeman played Mandela, some of the notable biographies of former presidents in which the actors resemble their real-life originals were Frost/Nixon (2008) in which Anthony Hopkins played Richard Nixon, The Kennedys (2011) in which Greg Kinnear played John F Kennedy, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) in which Daniel Day-Lewis played Abraham Lincoln. Hollywood had splendidly blended technology and the features of actors to create some incredible reincarnations on screen. Two 2012 films had the master director Alfred Hitchcock as their lead character. In The Girl, Toby Jones played the young Hitchcock and in Hitchcock, Anthony Hopkins delivered a nuanced performance as the maverick during the time his classic Psycho was in the making. The portrayal by Hopkins was more gratifying with the looks and mannerisms of the legend vividly reflecting in it. Another actor like Hopkins who had excelled in multiple biopics with her looks and method acting is Cate Blanchett. In a gender-bending performance that received a thumbs up from critics across the board, Blanchett pulled off the rather difficult Bob Dylan in the film I’m Not There (2007). Blanchett also played Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth the same year. In Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator (2004), which was a biography of the aviation pioneer and film producer-director Howard Hughes, she had played the role of the Hollywood star Catherine Hepburn who was the love interest of Hughes played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Watching Ben Kingsley as Gandhi or Will Smith as the boxing legend Mohammad Ali on big screen is perhaps the closest physical encounter that you can have with the legends. In all these films, I am sure it was the first look that connected the audience to the character and drew them to the film. However, the content made them love these films for a lifetime. Ranvir Singh’s Kapil Dev look has got the first step right. Thalaivi too has managed to get that appeal now with Aravind Swamy’s MGR look hitting the Internet. Everything else depends on how good the content is and how the story unfolds on screen.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and a film enthusiast. Read his previous works here)