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The making and breaking of political biopics

While local movies of this genre have generally received a lukewarm response, an industry expert says this need not be the case.

Azzman Abdul Jamal
2 minute read

An industry player says the influence and popularity of leaders or politicians is no guarantee of a biopic box office success, ahead of a film based on the political career of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim expected to hit the silver screen in May. 

Script writer Al Jafree Md Yusop said movies that follow the lives of politicians usually receive a lukewarm response in Malaysia due to the failure of producers to present realistic characters as well as underdeveloped storylines. 

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, he said an example of this would be the absence of a dark side in a main character, resulting in the individual being portrayed as a supernatural being. 

Jafree, whose work includes the script for "Paloh" (2003) and "Dukun" (2018), said this would indirectly kill off any element of drama and reduce the appeal of the film. 

"We always depict these leaders as extraordinary, straying from the reality of human beings with flaws," he said. 

"So they become like angels – everything they do is correct." 

"Anwar: The Untold Story" follows the political career of Anwar, from his entry to Umno in 1982 until his sacking in 1998. 

The trailer of the film, starring Farid Kamil, has already been released on social media. 

Other similarly themed movies that came before were, however, seen as box office failures. 

"Tanda Putera", for example, directed by Shuhaimi Baba and released in 2013, cost an estimated RM4.8 million. It tanked at cinemas despite being based on the lives of Malaysia's second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein and his deputy, Ismail Abdul Rahman.

In 2018, "Rise: Ini Kalilah" – a movie based on Pakatan Harapan's victory at the 14th general election – received a similarly lukewarm response and was panned by a number of film critics. 

Jafree however disagreed with the notion that political films are inherently lacking in appeal. 

He gave the example of "Lincoln", a Steven Spielberg movie based on the life of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of America. 

He said the film had succeeded in portraying Lincoln as an ordinary human being who struggled with personal issues such as depression and family problems, and who sometimes doubted even his own political mission. 

"It proved that Lincoln was no different from any other person, and this is what forged a connection between the audience and the character," he said. 

"I think that is the main problem in our narrative. We aren't brave enough to show an individual's dark side, whether he was a hero or not. 

"When we tell a story, we need this in order to add on to the element of drama." 

In terms of the upcoming Anwar film, Jafree said its success would not depend on political influence alone but also on word of mouth from early viewers. 

"The more people say that it is a good film, the more people will go to watch," he said. 

"Otherwise, reception will be unenthusiastic. This is a normal reaction and one that can be seen in other movies as well."