The Elevating Effect of Real Life Drama: Dr. S Raghunath

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Dr.S.Raghunath Dean (Admin) and Professor of Corporate Strategy and Policy at IIM Bangalore

The growing number of digitally connected Indians is increasingly lavishing attention
on films that tell real-life stories of role models who have triumphed against all odds, says
Dr. S Raghunath

The current trend of using a universal language to communicate with a large number of diverse people around the world – both known and unknown to us – is unprecedented in the history of India.

India reportedly has 270 million monthly active Facebook users and 200 million monthly active users of WhatsApp.

For the digitally connected Indians, the avenues of  entertainment are many. But for a Facebook connected, WhatsApp savvy audience, visual narratives that are quick and sharp hold attention. Therefore, these days the task of attracting and retaining prolonged attention of the audience in a full length feature movie is a daunting task for the makers, to say the least.

Among the recent Bollywood blockbusters are an array of biopics, sports films and epic-based spectacles like Dangal, Sachin, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag,Mary Kom, Paan Singh Tomar, Neerja, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Hindi Medium, PK, Secret Superstar, Padmaavat, Bajirao Mastani and Bahubali. These movies are about heroes and heroines, some based on mythology and history, while others inspired from ordinary Indians with extraordinary feats.

In these movies, the protagonist prevails in extreme circumstances. They dramatize
a sense of morality, courage and purpose. Though the main characters have flaws, they often sacrifice themselves to show human potential in adversity. Biopics have become a dynamic genre in India.

These movies have become more appealing to producers and distributors as the stories are easily available, the main characters are well-known and the movie, when completed, has a potentially large audience who anyway have been following the accomplishments of the subject of the biopic.

However, we know that the talent required for storytelling has to be better for biopics than for movies with totally fictitious characters as protagonists. The handicap for storytelling arises from the simple fact that real life does not come in the traditional three-act structure and the real people involved can complain about discrepancies between the actual events and those depicted in the movie.

Here is an important twist in the nature and depth of talent in the writer, the actor and the director for recreating critical scenes frame by frame from the biopic subject’s life that would eventually make or mar the narrative in the movie. In the context of sports, sports such a cricket, wrestling or athletics take centre stage. The actor who has accepted
the role usually has to transform himself/herself physically for the role and this process of paying attention to their new physique with the built-in tension of the outcome of the each match or race creates a series of interesting story questions that highlight the emotional elements of the lives.

While it is generally accepted that there can nothing be more boring on the screen than being accurate and undramatic, directors of biopics find it challenging to exaggerate the good or the not so good aspects of the character’s life or twisting the events to make their films more appealing.

Therefore, the main questions that need to be answered relates to what to include or exclude and how to create drama out of the given circumstances. To accomplish this tall order, a lot of research is necessary before the script and the screenplay of biopics is written. Writers need to have a clear understanding of the nature of the characters and the events they want to portray.

The Indian talent in screen writing has been unleashed due to the general orientation
to support storylines that are rooted in facts but grow and spread in imagination in terms of achievement of the main character.

The ever-growing range of talented screenwriters such as Vishal Bhardwaj, Juhi Chaturvedi, Himanshu Sharma among others have created exceptional screenplays to keep the audience interested, not allowing them to be alienated, bored or confused.

Indian movies, which were traditionally musicals with romantic and family
drama-based plot lines, have come a long way. Today, the emphasis has moved from mechanically executed plots to a story waiting to be uniquely narrated. Plot, as we understand it, has always been about what happens, about mechanics, while story is about subtext – meaning and emotion. As is widely accepted, the basic movie plots are few but it is the screenplay that turns them into unique stories.

One of the reasons why sports-based movies and biopics are making waves in India is because they are a rich mode of telling original stories. Bollywood movies these days are coming up with narratives and characters that are very positive in terms of depicting an important widely accepted thinking that “a winner never quits”. The more successful biopics/sports stories are based on the premise that “the underdog can succeed over formidable odds”.

In the fast-paced life of digitally connected Indians fed on a daily diet of occurrences of inappropriate human behaviour in contextually relevant social settings, the hunger for learning through observation and through modelling behaviour by watching those who have excelled in such situations is a widely felt need.

A plausible explanation is that from observing others in adverse conditions the human mind forms an idea of how new behaviour and response in similar occasions or circumstances depicted in such movies serve as a guide for action.

These genres of movies that have turned into blockbusters offer an opportunity of empathy with comparable others, allowing the audience to feel passionate and act in worthwhile ways as depicted by the main character in these movies.

Among these blockbusters, the most appreciated are those that have long-lasting effect and involve emotional experiences while watching the movie as well as during reflection and recollection of the movie. Therefore, the audience empathises with the protagonist in the movie and uses the movie-watching experience as an opportunity to learn and consider whether the observation sparks something inside them.

It appears that Bollywood movies that facilitate emotional resonance with the main character have a large-scale positive response. The ability to create such evocative content, structure, and overall narrative in a movie is rewarding as the audience in India has the ability to pay for the large screen movie experience in theatres.

The Indian audience is instinctively looking for healthy character-strength expressions. The mental and emotional state of the audience reaches a certain elevation when they observe an act of moral goodness or courage. Therefore, Indian moviemakers are beginning to deliver primarily observational and visual impact and intense emotion or “elevation” when the audience observes portrayal of goodness in extreme adverse conditions, or a strong character in action.

Future Bollywood blockbusters, too, are likely to continue delivering cinematic elevation in a number of ways that the audience could easily observe and emotionally connect with.

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