After Bhagat Singh, Bose, B.R. Ambedkar, and Gandhi, now the iconic couple — Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule — join the biopics hall of fame in Bollywood. It took a century for the Hindi film industry to shed its anxiety around the Phule reformer couple. Director Ananth Narayan Mahadevan says they somehow ruffle too many feathers.
Relegated to the margins of early history textbooks, it was only after the advent of new-age Digital Dalits and discourse around Dalit politics in the last decade, that the name and contribution of Savitribai and Jyotirao Phule, reached millions. And yet, they have been missing from the landscape of the Hindi film industry.
Following in the footsteps of the Marathi film industry, Bollywood is now waking up to embrace the social reformist couple from Maharashtra. The Hindi feature film titled Phule, starring Pratik Gandhi and Patralekha in the lead roles, will go on floors in April this year and could also see a release by the end of 2023. The film’s poster was released last week.
But why has it taken so long?
“A lot of historians who have studied Phule say their work has deliberately been brushed under the carpet because it was so revolutionary. They fought against the caste and gender discrimination which, ironically and unfortunately, exists even today,” Ananth Narayan Mahadevan, the writer-director of Phule, told ThePrint. “One of the reasons why no one wanted or even came close to making a film on the first revolutionary couple, who created social revolution without bloodshed, is because it ruffled a few feathers, and it continues to do so even today.”
However, making a biopic comes with its own set of challenges. Characters are often shaped as per the needs and demands of a mainstream film, resulting in a formula of success that — like most trends in Bollywood — is misused, overused, and abused.
“A lot of biopics in India have been made under the guise of biopic but all that you see are popular liberties being taken,” says Mahadevan.
Mahadevan, who has previously made biopics on Gour Hari Das and Doctor Rakhmabai, provides literature and material to actors regardless of whether the subject matter is in the script or not. It is crucial for the actors to know where, how and why certain characters behave the way they do, he says.
Phule — through the lens of cinema
The Phule couple spearheaded a path-breaking social revolution toward female education and eliminating caste and gender-based discrimination. In a trying period of British imperialism, the two social reformists founded India’s first girls’ school in Pune in 1848.
Over 100 years since their demise, several filmmakers — predominantly in the Marathi film industry — have brought the iconic revolutionaries alive on the screen, be it films, plays, books, or television shows. Even during the research period of nearly 18 months for Phule, Mahadevan and his team heavily relied on the material they unearthed in Marathi literature for lack of Hindi and English publications.
A first for Bollywood—Phule
Among the feature films made on social reformists, Acharya P.K. Atre’s Mahatma Phooley (1945) makes for a significant historic relic. Despite deteriorating health, Dr. Ambedkar had made it to the inaugural ceremony of the film, which went on to win the first President’s silver medal for ‘Best Feature Film’ in Marathi at the second National Film Awards in 1955.
Besides filling the void in the Hindi film industry, Mahadevan’s Phule is also aimed to make people realise that the social revolution that began in the 1860s is still relevant.
“Strangely enough, it is all over the world in different forms like how Blacks are being discriminated against in the US or South Africa, with the Taliban saying women cannot be educated or with the hijab controversy in Iran. One of the reasons people do not touch this subject [Phule] is it could rub a few people the wrong way” says Mahadevan.
When the cast and crew are determined to create an ambitious project such as this, the caste representation draws pertinent attention. But Mahadevan considers the criticism a “creation of social media” and “parochial” in nature.
“I have never gotten into who my cast or crew members are. The only thing matters is if they fit the character or if they are efficient enough to churn out a film like Phule,” says Mahadevan, who identifies as a Brahmin but advocates analysing and critiquing oneself regardless of which social strata one belongs to.
That is also one of his ambitions for the film. “We want India with all its diversity — ethnicity, caste, religion — and prove to the world that we are able to do so much better with all our complexities while they aren’t able to handle one Black uprising,” he says.
The feature film will focus on the “main era of action” of the husband-wife i.e. from the 1840s to the early 20th century.
Tricky template of biopics
Making biopics is a tricky business. It can often transpire into a formulaic template to churn out box-office hits. The ready-made subject material can easily be conjugated in the name of creative freedom.
Body language, dialect, language, and costumes are some of the other elemental yet significant features, which aid a biopic to hit the mark. In Phule’s case, since there are no photographs available of the couple and the pivotal characters (India’s first Muslim woman teacher Fatima Sheikh, Saguna Bai, Vasudeo Birje, the editor of Deenbandhu newspaper) of that period, the poster was a virtual reproduction of their sketches.
Sticking to authenticity becomes all the more important while dealing with real-life iconic stalwarts. “Their lives and stories are already known to the world. I cannot explore the character beyond a certain limit. I don’t look like them nor are the physical features similar. And, that’s the tricky challenge. To convince the audience to look beyond this and connect,” says Pratik Gandhi, who after Phule, will also be portraying Mahatma Gandhi on screen.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)