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On Stage

By Anil Dharker

16th October 2018

If you are a famous person – and many of you who read this column are really well-known – would you like a film done on your life? That`s not an offer, just a question! It`s prompted by something that troubled me while I watched, transfixed, Netflix`s brilliant series The Crown.

Stephen Daldry, who won the Golden Globe recently for directing the series, will speak at NCPA during this year`s Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai LitFest (November 15 to 18). His talk will cover directing – and directing most successfully – for three mediums: cinema, television and theatre, but what I am dying to ask him is this: How did the British Royal family react to the series? After all, it`s about them, and in some detail!

Making a biopic is a tricky business. You don`t want to do a hagiography, a PR whitewash job. Apart from being dishonest, it will be pretty boring to watch for the audience. There are exceptions to this general rule, of course. A prime example is Richard Attenborough`s Gandhi. If you want to be hypercritical, you could ask why did the film avoid any reference to the Mahatma`s dietary fads, his ill-treatment of his family and his curious ideas about sex? (How would the # MeToo movement have dealt with him?!) Attenborough`s answer to this criticism would probably be that Gandhi`s work in leading the freedom movement and his ideas of ahimsa and Satyagraha are far more important. Gandhi, the film, didn`t try to be a psychological study of the man, but a retelling of a major historical event. The same can be said about Steven Spielberg`s Lincoln.

One of the greatest biopics of all time is surely Amadeus, Milos Foreman`s brilliant film about Mozart. Peter Shaffer`s play, which won multiple awards, and which he himself adapted for the screen, tells the story through the eyes and voice of Antonio Sallieri, a contemporary musician. In the play/film, Sallieri is shown as a court musician of competence who comes across this young man who is foul-mouthed, crude and bumptious, yet produces the most divine music most effortlessly. Sallieri rails against God: ‘Why do you speak through an undeserving Mozart and not through deserving me?’

Those of you who have seen Amadues will remember how this one-sided rivalry is at the heart of the film. Many contemporary accounts, however, assert that such a rivalry never existed. But it gave the film its centre and its edge. It also gave Sallieri the immortality he wanted, but knew he wouldn`t get. Of course, it`s another matter that he may not have wanted to be remembered in this particular manner!

Can you take the same kind of liberties with living people? Some say yes because a living person can deal with calumny through the law courts; on the other hand, dead men aren`t bothered about what`s said about them. The Crown deals with living people – mainly the life of Queen Elizabeth II from the 1940s onwards. It`s one of the most lavishly mounted (it cost 100 million pounds!) TV serials ever, and in every aspect it`s as good a series as you would hope to see. But did Philip and Elizabeth really talk to each other like that? Did their marriage nearly break up at one point? How does the writer know the gist of the conversations between Monarch and Prime Minister, and the manner these meetings were conducted? These, as far as I know, are not recorded, so the writer works on conjecture. As, need one add, he does for every intimate detail in the series. The overall historical and political context may be correct, but the personal bits are all imagined. Is that fair? On the other hand, it`s quite possible that the Windsors sat around their TV sets, vastly amused and quite tickled while their imagined lives played in front of them.

Perhaps I am imagining an ethical dilemma where none exists. After all, biographies and biopics are an important part of literature, cinema and entertainment. Without Netflix`s Wild Wild Country how would we have known about Rajneesh`s days in Oregon and the larger-than-life character of Ma Anand Sheela? Without The Imitation Game how would the world have seen the desperation that led Alan Turing to invent the computer in World War II? Or about the events that shaped the legend of Lawrence of Arabia?

Another ethical dilemma, possibly again of my own making, is of sequel writing. These are sequels to famous books written by others after the original writers are dead. There are quite a number of sequels to Jane Austen`s Pride and Prejudice and four (one authorised by Margaret Mitchell`s estate) of Gone With the Wind. There are sequels to The Godfather (The Godfather Returns), Daphne du Maurier`s classic Rebecca and Emily Bronte`s Wuthering Heights. Sebastian Faulks, the celebrated writer of historical novels who is also coming to the NCPA for the Mumbai LitFest, has written a sequel to James Bond and also to P G Wodehouse. These aren`t actually sequels because they don`t carry forward one of the original author`s works, but entirely new novels written in the style of the original.

It must be fun, and a challenge, to a writer to take on the persona of a departed author. If the effort succeeds, we have a dead writer kept alive. If it doesn`t, no one points a gun to your head if you dump the book.