Does a Churchill biopic mean anything to Indians?

Anthony McCarten, writer of The Darkest Hour, on why the film addresses lack of leadership.
Last Updated 10 March 2019, 12:56 IST

For an Indian, a Winston Churchill biopic is not something to be particularly excited about. He is perhaps best known in India as the guy who called Mahatma Gandhi a “half-naked fakir”, which unfortunately is better known than a lot of nicer things people have said about Mohandas.

Besides, given our enduring obsession with World War II, Churchill’s is not a face we needed to be reminded of with a biopic.

Yet, revisiting this cliche seemed necessary after the British referendum in June 2016, when it was decided that Brexit will, in fact, take place.

With The Darkest Hour, the biopic in question, set to have a TV premiere on Sony Pix, its screenwriter Anthony McCarten spoke to Metrolife about what the film may mean to an Indian audience.

“Churchill’s record on India is not the highest point of his career. He had a blind spot when it came to India. I think it came from his father being a Victorian. He had an obsessive desire to retain the British empire, India being the jewel in the crown. And when it came to giving independence to India, he was unforgivably stubborn. He mismanaged it, he ended up breaking with his party over it and spent four years in the political wilderness. He paid a price for it,” he said.

When the film came out, Western media had its own bone to pick with the film, with A O Scott of the New York Times slamming it for its “great man fetish”.

McCarten said he wouldn’t revisit a figure from history unless he stumbles upon a detail that makes him look at that person in a new way. And the “revisiting” is something the writer has

Anthony McCarten
Anthony McCarten

made a livelihood out of. Starting in 2014, he has brought out three biopics in four years, the other two being The Theory of Everything (2014) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018).

But the list doesn’t end here: 2019 will see The Pope, a biopic of Benedict XVI, and an unnamed biopic of John Lennon and Yoko Ono is in development, making McCarten one of the most prolific writers of biopics Hollywood has had.

“The whole perception is that Churchill is a man who never doubted himself. But there is evidence in the bunkers and the war rooms that he very much was doubtful. I didn’t show that as a negative, because I think all great leadership should be capable of doubt. And then be able to move past that and make a decision,” he said.

He said writing dialogues for Churchill was slightly intimidating, as the man is known for his virtuosity with words, which earned him a Nobel prize in Literature in 1953. “I don’t pretend to be the writer that Churchill is. But for one of the speeches in the movie, there’s only half a record for, so I wrote half a Churchill speech,” he says laughing, adding that many people now quoting Churchill are in fact quoting him.

Reading this against the socio-political climate of Britain today, which suffers from incompetent incumbents, may hold the key to why dramas focusing on this period have become relevant now. “May 1940 was a time when great speeches changed the world. We are looking at great leaders from the past to find what qualities must be there are our leaders today,” McCarten said.

But that still doesn’t explain why Indians would watch a movie glorifying a defender of its oppression. “The point was to show the virtue of self-doubt in a leader. I think that forms the real definition of a true leader. That is of relevance to India today as it is to any other country,” he said.

What’s next?

McCarten’s next film The Pope delves into the mystery of why “the most conservative pope in modern history would do the most unconservative thing anyone has done in the last 600 years - resign. It is a part of the job description of a pope die as the pope.”

(Published 10 March 2019, 12:32 IST)

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