A biographical film or biopic is described as a movie that while being based on a real-life person depicts his or her life incidents in a dramatized manner through reenactment. Historical films, according to Stubbs (2014), are not simply “being in the past” rather they exhibit significant variance in iconography, narrative style, plot, setting and types of characters. For this reason, Rosenstone (1988) called it both “exhilarating and disturbing” at the same time for academic historians to become involved in the world of biographical motion pictures. While the power of visual media is undoubtedly profound, the history which appears on the big screen can never fully satisfy historians as compared to filmgoers no matter how deeply filmmakers are committed to recording the historical past faithfully.
Students and general public are more likely access and acquire historical information from movies. Many teachers have now started engaging their students in critical historical events by showing relevant historical films. This approach has been found to have shortcomings as there is a need to develop critical media literacy among people so that they can understand the multiple interpretations of historical facts, framing and narratives within biographical films (Stoddard & Marcus, 2010). Films are hardly a “thoughtful medium” for teaching history as, according to Stoddard (2010), there is a lack of critical analysis of biographical films which is why they cannot be accepted as educational media for studying controversial issues or historical facts. However, they are an inexpensive yet powerful medium to engage people in discussions about history which allow portrayal of multiculturalism, behaviorism and leadership (English & Steffy, 1997).
Victoria & Abdul
Victoria & Abdul (2017) is based on a book written by Shrabani Basu which goes by the same name. Both the book and film tell us how Abdul Karim, a 24-year-old Indian Muslim servant who earlier served as a clerk at Agra Central Jail, developed an intense relationship with Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom which helped him become a powerful figure in queen’s court where he would teach her Urdu and advise her on Indian affairs (Bevan et al., 2017). Basu (2011) had conducted interviews with decedents and used journals, diaries, historical documents housed in the Royal Archives during the investigative process to write the “true story of the queen’s closest confidant”.
The biographical film is based on a well-researched book, but it admits in the opening sequence that it is “based on true events… mostly”. This line suggests that although real historical events are being presented but there are likely to be divergences, considering the fact that historical movies made in Hollywood take the liberty of artistic license (Walker, 2018).
One of India’s oldest newspapers, The Hindu, reviewed Victoria & Abdul and called it “more political than human” which feeds off colonial fantasies. Rosario (2017, October 13) wrote that the movie is used to glorify Queen Victoria as a wise ruler and absolve her of any racial discrimination while its story reflects on Britain’s post-colonial guilt. It has been argued in the movie review that the filmmakers have used the little evidence to back and portray a political episode by using clichés and stereotypes of the Orient to deviate from the historical facts.
Similarly, Naahar (2017, October 20) contested that Victoria & Abdul is a historically distorted view of British Raj as it ignored the horrors of British colonialism. Naahar blamed the director and filmmakers of trying to normalize the evil as beneath the charming true story of an unlikely friendship between the Queen and her Indian servant, a flawed concept that one race is better than the other is being preached and the oppression in India by the British forces have been overshadowed.
These critics are of the view that the filmmakers have not discouraged the British colonization of India in the movie. Although the central idea of the movie resolves around the friendship between a master and her slave, there is no condemnation of slavery itself. The director and writers have used humor, romance and exotic depiction of the Orient; however, the real message of the movie should’ve been the blatant acknowledgement of the multiple years of oppression, poverty, murder and famine in the present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, according to Rosario and Naahar.
War drama film Darkest Hour (2017) portrays the story of Winston Churchill who became Britain’s prime minister in May 1940 during the early days of World War II. Mathews (2018) wrote that the film did not represent a true picture of the historical events as the role of Churchill is portrayed as a patriotic hero who advocates for war while rejecting a possible peace agreement with German dictator Adolf Hitler.
The narrative of Britain’s survival, which is shown in the movie as Churchill’s reason to retaliate and initiate in World War II, is contested by many researchers. Churchill acted as a catalyst in the war and inspired the United States to engage in the foreign policy of expansionism and imperialism. Churchill’s nationalist and imperial biases along with his connections to the British establishment allowed him to become a popular leader in not only Britain but also America (Lukacs, 2002).
Shashi Tharoor, an Indian historian and politician, has long remained vocal of the depiction of British imperial rule in history. While reviewing Darkest Hour, Tharoor (2018, March 10) argued that the movie comprises historical inaccuracies as Churchill’s term as prime minister was whitewashed on the big screen and unlike Stalin, Hitler and other cruel wartime leaders, the British politician is not remembered as one of 20th century’s “mass murderers” in the West because Churchill himself believed that history will be kind to him.
Corner (2018), while referring to movies in the biopic category on historical events, asserted that filmmakers often pay less attention to the accuracy of the historical setting in a bid to show the subject’s personal story. Corner gave the examples of Darkest Hour and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk to make a point that critical reviews often blame filmmakers of taking