A Grey Matter – Why are intelligent Indians not celebrated in our movies?

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Photo by Kushagra Kevat on Unsplash

There’s a forward all of us has received at some point of time. It talks about the percentages of Indian doctors in the US, Indian CEOs in Fortune 500 companies, Indian scientists in NASA and so on. The legitimacy of the forward is disputed but it has shown that we love celebrating the ones who give us international recognition. From Sabeer Bhatia to Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella, the success stories of these Indians fill us with pride even though much of their growth and recognition happened abroad. Closer to home, ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission ‘Mangalyaan’ — the only time a nation succeeded in an undertaking of this scale on the very first attempt — also gave us Indians much to cheer about.

Bollywood piggybacked on the fervour of Mangalyaan with Mission Mangal (2019) which wasn’t much of a realistic portrayal of the hardworking and dedicated team of scientists that was crucial for the mission’s success. Parmanu (2018) starring John Abraham is another movie that sidelined the achievement of India’s nuclear scientists in favour of a military narrative. Of course, these are commercial movies that play to the gallery. However, the truth is, the kind of Indians who would become one of these scientists or the successful CEOs with their intelligence and hard work are often under-represented or worse, misrepresented in our movies.

Does Chatur Deserve Better?

Chatur, the comic antagonist of the 2009 blockbuster 3 Idiots stole our hearts with his accented Hindi, his chooran-aided studying, and of course his infamous ‘balatkaar’ speech. No matter how much we have laughed at his antics, he is the cover image of a whole swarm of ‘geeks’ being stereotyped in Indian cinema. They are antisocial or socially awkward, almost always wear glasses, have side-parted hair, strange habits, and are constantly the butt of all jokes. God forbid, if it is a geeky woman, because then it’s time for the hero to remove her soda bottle glasses so she can revel in her true beauty and experience the real world.

Speaking of heroes, let’s look at Rancho – the hero of 3 Idiots. Aamir Khan’s character is blessed with razor-sharp observational skills and near super-human analytical acumen. He can solve complex problems and uncover opportunities for innovation with a naughty smile and wink. In case, his in-born genius wasn’t enough of a draw, he is also cute, funny, gets the girl, and has multiple patents to his name.

Of course, 3 Idiots is a fun movie, but if we take the story of Sonam Wangchuk, the supposed inspiration behind Aamir Khan’s character, we see a conflict. Mr Wangchuk has done some inspirational work that we rarely talk about. Meanwhile, the successful CEOs that we take pride in routinely, is more in the framework of Chatur than Rancho. Clearly, we celebrate a type of hero in our movies and a different one in real life.

Patent Kings v/s Jugaad Rajas

Hollywood often finds inspiration from the stories of enterprising Americans who brave the odds to create something successful. Their culture has over many years celebrated enterprise and innovation, and rewarded hard work. With a treasure trove of stories to choose – ranging from musicians to mathematicians to entrepreneurs and artists; Hollywood makes quite a few movies where a ‘Chatur’ is the protagonist.

Movies like A Beautiful Mind, The Theory of Everything, Imitation Game, etc. showcase the lives of awkward geniuses. There are moments of otherworldly inspiration, but it is interspersed with very real sequences of struggling with day-to-day life while doggedly pursuing their goals. These are not exactly mainstream movies but they are well-made ones which are celebrated, win awards, and in fact, rake in decent bucks at the box-office. When a similar premise is explored in Bollywood though, it almost always seems like box office poison.

In 2014, Ramanujan, a Tamil movie directed by National Award-winning Director Gnana Rajasekaran released to mixed reviews. It predated The Man Who Knew Infinity by a couple of years. While most of us are familiar with the Dev Patel starrer, very few of us have even heard of the Tamil movie. Bharathan Effect (2007, Malayalam) is about a psychologically distraught genius who makes an aircraft that can fly without fuel. A good premise that was shoddily executed, the film is famous mostly for its unintentionally hilarious climax. Can we blame our filmmakers for not bankrolling more of these?

In our resource-constrained society, jugaad rules the roost as it is difficult for the average Indian to find the wherewithal for innovation, invention, and enterprise. If one were to think that this socio-economic difference between us and the west is the reason why we don’t have movies about intelligent Indians, it is an argument that doesn’t hold in other genres.

Why Ramanujan when we can Raman Raghav

Serial killers are another staple of the American entertainment industry. In countless movies and TV series, these criminals are celebrated as highly intellectual, thorough, dedicated folks who carry out near-perfect crimes. It is a bountiful genre. Even though India doesn’t have a history of such ‘intelligent’ killers (most use brute force; Jolly Thomas being an exception), we seem to have a steady stream of serial killer movies.

The truth is, it is simply easier to make a successful murder mystery than to make a biopic about a mathematician or a physicist. The latter requires a lot of research from the writers and nuance from the filmmakers to pull it off. And it will still, very likely, bomb.

With the recently released Shakuntala Devi biopic with Vidya Balan playing the celebrated math genius, we have another rare entry in this unforgiving genre. As Bollywood continues to grapple with the task of making an entertaining biopic about a celebrated genius, can’t we at least do away with their misrepresentation in mainstream movies? An APJ Abdul Kalam, Vikram Sarabhai, Homi J Bhabha, or Tessy Thomas wouldn’t be the best company for a Friday night bender. However, by representing their ilk accurately we can inspire a new generation of intelligent Indians whose endeavours will only give our young, ambitious nation even more stories to celebrate.


Gopi Krishnan started his career as a Software Engineer with Accenture and moved to advertising. He has worked with JWT, Happy, and Lowe Lintas and has produced work for brands like Nike, Levi’s, Britannia, Fastrack, etc. In the 9th year of his advertising career, he became a Creative Director at Lowe Lintas, Bangalore. He then quit agency life to pursue screenplay writing. He has spent three years absorbed in learning and writing screenplays. He has written a commissioned script for Director Jai Pandit (Aham Productions) along with two original screenplays.

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