Does Kangana have to look like J.J. to portray J.J.?

The poster for a new biographical feature about former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa is out, featuring Kangana Ranaut:

At first glance, it’s not evident that the woman in the picture is Ranaut, nor even Jayalalithaa, but in an uncanny valley in between both of them. Ranaut seems to be in some kind of fattening make-up[1] and her robes, a strange combination of sari and hospital gown, are worn inelegantly at best. But instead of asking if the film’s production team could have done a better job, it’s curious if these add-ons were necessary at all. I didn’t need the poster – and won’t need the film by extension – to tell me that that isn’t Jayalalithaa in the flesh, but the imperfection also prevents the suspension of my disbelief.

[1] If Ranaut wore neither a fat-suit nor other prosthetics or make-up to look fatter and instead gained weight, the question – why? – doesn’t change or go away. I’m sure creating and installing prosthetics and/or make-up on Monica Geller in Friends also took a lot of work, dedication and patience but it doesn’t make the show’s portrayal of fatness any less problematic.

Why do the actors portraying famous figures in biographical pictures have to look like those figures as well?

Ranaut in this regard is only the latest in a long line of actors. Famous and recent examples from Tamil cinema include Sathyaraj in and as Periyar (2007), Richard Madhuram in and as Kamaraj (2004) and Sayaji Shinde in and as Bharathi (2000). There are numerous examples from other film circuits as well, most recently Vivek Oberoi in and as PM Narendra Modi (2019) and Daniel Day-Lewis in and as Lincoln (2012). John Hurt’s The Elephant Man (1980) is perhaps the greatest example of all. However, Ranaut’s cosmetic affectation as Jayalalithaa has been imperfectly executed, which only asks whether it should have been done in the first place.

What obviously matters is whether the film’s audience can recognise who the character on-screen is. So then what has to be recreated to achieve this effect? Vito Corleone impersonators do the voice – as do people imitating Suruli Rajan or Nicholas Cage. Subramania Bharati’s turban and Periyar’s beard are both iconic. In Tamil Nadu at least, sporting such a turban or beard could invite comments on similarities between the wearer and these historic figures. The shortest route to recreational success is to pick one standout feature and replicate it.

Some of these attempts have looked ridiculous, of course, and represent not an attention to detail so much as an inability to discard the unimportant. Oberoi as PM Modi, and Anupam Kher as Manmohan Singh and Suzanne Bernert as Sonia Gandhi in The Accidental Prime Minister (2019), come swiftly to mind, together with Ashton Kutcher wearing a turtleneck sweater and, for some reason, walking on his toes around the Apple campus in Jobs (2013). The worst has to be Steve Carrell’s inexplicable nose[2] in his depiction of John Du Pont in Foxcatcher (2014). As Aisha Harris wrote in Slate:

If the person the actor is portraying had a distinctive look or physical attribute that is essential to their story, then it’s time to call in the prosthetics team. But if their looks have no bearing on the plot or on the movie’s themes, then don’t give them a second thought.

[2] Although Ocean’s Thirteen was released seven years earlier, Linus Caldwell’s defence of his prosthetic nose only brings Carrell’s Du Pont to mind when I watch it these days.

The actor’s and producers’ sense of fulfilment at having recreated a whole character in another person shouldn’t matter – but it has come to matter increasingly so with the advent of advanced cosmetic technologies. As a result, actors may also be compelled to participate in the shape-shifting exercise and hope to achieve an ostensibly complete transformation, sometimes (with The Accidental Prime Minister tripping over itself to offer examples) banking on appearances over acting itself. Their excuse might be that audiences are also anxious[3] to have famous people brought to life, to be able to scale walls of privacy and seclusion using the camera – i.e. the voyeurism that justifies the production and viewing of biopics.

[3] That the outer man is a picture of the inner, and the face an expression and revelation of the whole character, is a presumption likely enough in itself, and therefore a safe one to go on; borne out as it is by the fact that people are always anxious to see anyone who has made himself famous. – Arthur Schopenhauer

However, it’s not clear to me if this requires an actor to recreate the physical appearance of their chosen character to the point of completely eliding their own form, and whether such elision is worth celebrating for its technical rigour alone. The latter at least must fall on the wrong side of the line between the emergent complexity of acting and the subset, and more trivial, craft of imitation.[4] For example, it might be worth paying attention, when Thalaivi finally hits theatres in mid-2020, to how the film addresses Jayalalithaa’s fatness.

[4] A friend in college decided to sing AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’ for his band’s performance at an event. After two days of near-continuous practice, he could recreate neither Brian Johnson’s freakishly high-pitched rendition nor the singer’s distinct Tyneside accent, and gave up and switched to ‘Paint It Black’ by Inkubus Sukkubus.

As Your Fat Friend elucidated in this essay, actors donning fat-suits has the effect of showing “a fat person’s pitiable and limited life”, realises “a mocking, cruel kind of comic relief”, “[chips] away at our collective ability to see fat people as fully human”, fuels “narratives [that] subtly assert that thin people know as much as (or more than) fat people do about what it’s like to be fat” and helps “thin people feel good about being thin” at the cost of accusing “fat people who stay fat” of “simply shirking their responsibility to create a body that would earn them respect”.

This is all what Thalaivi stands at risk of doing – and given Tamil cinema’s sensibilities on this issue as constructed in hundreds of films over the years, I don’t have my hopes up. At the same time, the fatness in question belonged to J. Jayalalithaa, a towering personality in the history of Tamil and Indian politics whose persona long ago transcended her physical appearance. Jayalalithaa was also a benevolent dictator of sorts, concentrated power within the party and closely controlled media narratives by restricting access to journalists. So if Thalaivi had the AIADMK’s favour in its production, it isn’t likely to be anything but laudatory, which in turn could leave the fatness unaddressed if only in an effort to be nice (instead of smart).

Finally, the question still stands: Why did Ranaut appear fatter in the first place? Couldn’t she have essayed Jayalalithaa as a thin person (which could be a more appropriate course of action if the film is going to sidestep Jayalalithaa’s use of steroids or the details of her poor health), or did the makers feel doing so would more evidently indicate their discomfort with the subject, or – most likely – they wanted to make as few changes as possible while transplanting a real story to the silver screen?

I wait with somewhat bated breath for June 2020, as well as for the two other productions revolving around Jayalalithaa’s life currently in the works: The Iron Lady starring Nithya Menen and Queen starring Ramya Krishnan.