Has any genre been as cursed by its own success as the biopic? The very first feature-length film, Charles Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, falls into the category, as do agreed-upon high culture classics like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible series. In recent years, directors as different as Tim Burton, Mike Leigh, Dee Rees and Terrence Davies have used the genre to pay heartfelt tribute to artists they identify deeply with. And yet, every time one comes out, it’s hard not to look at the A-lister’s face on the poster and think, “Somebody wants an Oscar”.
In response to this skepticism, directors have played around with the biopic form, either by focusing strictly on one story from its subject’s life (for example, Lincoln), experimenting with structure (Love & Mercy) or including elements of outright fantasy (Miles Ahead). It’s to the latter camp that Jinnah, released on dual-format by Eureka Masters of Cinema, belongs. It begins with its central character, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, being led into a gently whimsical afterlife where his life is assessed by an angel, played by the legendary Indian actor-producer-director Shasi Kapoor.
It is very clearly patterned on It’s a Wonderful Life, which is if nothing else an original point of departure for a historical biopic. Director, producer and co-writer Jamil Dehlavi obviously can’t replicate the central magic effect of Capra’s film – the revelation that Jimmy Stewart’s hapless everyman is in fact hugely important – because we know from the start that Muhammad Ali Jinnah is a crucially important figure in global politics. A bigger concern is that Jinnah’s ability to walk through his own life robs the drama of conflict. At certain points, the young Jinnah finds himself in a crisis which is resolved by his elder self turning up with some good advice. The difficulty of the real-life situation is therefore neutralised. No need for any tough decisions or lessons to be learned, just wait for your elder self to turn up with the answers, like the biopic equivalent of Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek Into Darkness.
Why did Dehlavi and his co-writer Akbar S. Ahmed choose this structure? Probably because the young Jinnah is played (rather well) by the none-too-famous Richard Lintern, whereas the elder Jinnah is played by Sir Christopher Lee. Maximising the screen time of your star name is always tempting, even though Lee’s casting caused considerable controversy in Pakistan. Not, as you might think, because of Lee’s ethnicity, but because of his career-long association with horror movies. The controversy over Jinnah being played by “Dracula” died away once the film was released, and Lee always cited the role as his personal favourite.
It’s true that Lee’s presence does a lot to smooth over the jumps in Dehlavi and Ahmed’s time-hopping, episodic script. (There’s a good supporting role, too, for the ever-underrated Indira Varma) If you can look past his race he is a dead ringer for the elder Jinnah, and there’s a real charge in watching him mercilessly lambast the Islamist radicals who felt his rule was dangerously close to secularism. The film does hew close to hagiography, and there is a weight of online commentary itemising the facts about Jinnah’s life excluded from the narrative. For this reviewer, that’s an inevitable pitfall of cramming a whole life into just short of two hours. I don’t expect Joe Wright’s forthcoming Churchill biopic will spend much time on his disastrous mismanagement of the Gallipoli campaign in World War I, and I’m not losing sleep over that either.
Obviously part of the continuing debate over the film is fuelled by the severe tensions between Pakistan and India, which flared up into an actual military confrontation in September this year. In this environment, it’s easy to understand why Jinnah shies away from anything too controversial, but it’s a shame nonetheless. Best to appreciate it as an earnest plea for peace and independence, one which even takes the time to understand Jinnah’s great rival Mahatma Gandhi, lensed in nostalgic sepia tones by Nicholas Knowland.