Rami Malek's portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody is far more truthful than the world it inhabits

Rami Malek's portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody is far more truthful than the world it inhabits

"Rami Malek would be the first person to win both a Golden Globe and a Razzie for the same performance," Comments like these started populating Twitter as soon as Malek won the Best Actor award at Golden Globes 2019 for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in the musician's biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which incidentally also won the Best Film.

Criticism towards Bohemian Rhapsody winning the top honour is valid, since it was widely accepted to be a historically inaccurate depiction of the singer's life, most crucially the journey of the band Queen. Timelines were twisted and characters were contorted so that the graph of Mercury could be moulded into a conventional biopic format. But Queen, as the band claimed, catered to the back-benchers, to the last row, to the outcasts, who feel they have a life of their own, not in tune with the conventional path.

The only touch of maverick in the film that made its way past all the old hats was the central performance by Malek. He brought truth to his deeply immersive performance, and to a film that only skimmed the surface of an extraordinary life. He dove deep into Mercury, never once letting Malek get the better of the iconic man he inhabited. From the gait to the speech to the quirky mannerisms, Malek read Mercury beyond what the script was capable of.  He did "more for Freddie than the talented Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon-fame), who wrote the film."

A Bollywood parallel would be Ranbir Kapoor as Sanjay Dutt in Rajkumar Hirani's Sanju from last year. While like Malek, Kapoor's performance was lauded unanimously, the film was accused of being manipulative and selective in chronicling Dutt's controversial life. Kapoor maintained that his research transcended the script and was independent of Hirani's vision. He spent days with Dutt and studied his old videos to get a hang of the body language and the psyche of the star. Surely, he must have been well-versed with Dutt's tumultuous life when he depicted the crests and troughs in the latter's biopic. But to be able to maneuver his way through all the contentious plot points of the film is a sign of his conviction. He was the whole of Dutt while Sanju was not even half of Dutt's life.

Hirani admitted that he created additional scenes to evoke empathy for Dutt's character as otherwise he was coming across as a despicable man. In retrospect, he could have done without the manipulation as Kapoor's felt portrayal of the troubled star was real enough to make the audience feel empathetic towards him, organically so. Kapoor managed to distance himself from the directorial voice and lent his performance a whole lot of veracity.

Kapoor relied only on the truth of his performance, which was reflected in every element of his personality, from the droopy eyes to the boyish vulnerability. That vulnerability never came across as planted since it originated from an honest place (one assumes), unlike Hirani's forced victimisation of Dutt's character.

In terms of glorification of its protagonist, a film that could eclipse Sanju would be Abhijit Panse's political drama Thackeray. Co-produced by Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut, the Bal Thackeray biopic is anything but a scathing critique of his ill deeds. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, however, slips into Thackeray's Kolahpuri chappals with consummate ease. He, like Kapoor, is immune to the intentions of the makers, and is aware and gifted enough to depict Bal Thackeray with in his self-consuming arrogance, while not shying away from celebrating his unparalleled mass appeal.

Barely months after playing a politically polar opposite character in Nandita Das' Manto, Siddiqui manages to be Thackeray without subscribing to the propaganda of the film. Some may argue that he is a force in pushing Shiv Sena's agenda, but nobody can deny the truth.

Even when a biopic intends to inverse the glorification and condemn its subject, a detached yet effective central performance ensures that the protagonist is not shown in just one light. Christian Bale won the Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy at Golden Globes 2019 for his portrayal of former US Vice-President Dick Cheney in Adam McKay's Vice, based on Cheney's controversial reign in the White House. Bale went on to thank Satan for helping him channel Cheney in the film, suggesting that he had to demonise himself to a certain extent to be able to play the character. McKay was criticised for the lens through which he looked at Cheney's tenure, as the intention of the biopic came across as only to attack the former vice-president and not humanise him at any cost. Bale, however, did manage to rise above the film and portray Cheney sensitively, though with all the Satanic qualities intact. It must have been a tightrope walk but Bale pulled through by employing Cheney's signature "merciless humour" and an "eerie, documentary-like authenticity". While the film tries too hard to paint Cheney in Satanic colours, Bale relies on an ounce of truth to do so effortlessly.

Closer home, when the trailer of Vijay Ratnakar Gutte's political drama The Accidental Prime Minister was unveiled, Congress objected to the depiction of its leader, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a bad light. The trailer of the film, based on a book of the same name written by Singh's former media advisor Sanjaya Baru, hinted that Singh was a victim of Congress politics, particularly that of the Gandhi family, during his tenure from 2004 to 2008. As Bhartiya Janata Party promoted the trailer on its official Twitter handle, Congress accused the film of being a propaganda ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Again, the prism through which Singh's life, or an important phase of his life, is depicted may be debatable. But a confident Anupam Kher, who plays Singh in the biopic, claimed that the narrative should rather revolve around the efforts he has invested in bringing Singh to life. He called it his best performance till date and even argued that it qualifies for an Oscar nod. He admitted that his opinion on Singh's incompetence as a prime minister changed over the course of living the part. "There is a lot of love in my performance. It's not love for Manmohan Singh, but in the way I've played him," he said.

Whether Kher's performance is as truthful as he claims to be will be judged only once the film releases, his craft as an actor should not be confused with his decision to be associated with an allegedly misleading film. A few months ago, Malek was charged with the same crime. However, a Golden Globe award is testament to the truth within him, that allowed him to 'break free' of a film that dared far too less.