True stories make for the biggest “box office hits “in Indian cinema, second only to those based on Intellectual Property.

Let’s dig deeper into the finer aspects of both the genres, understand how one approaches the story telling in order to adapt it to screen and how to go about choosing the best format that matches in seamlessly with the story that needs telling. We will also look at how much  one can move away from the original in the name of creative liberties within the broad outlines of the story.

What makes an audience fall in love with a true story?

True stories spell-bind the viewer and for most of us, we connect when we can see ourselves in the story. We get an opportunity to imagine ourselves in another’s shoes, applauding the success , feeling the pain of the losses while pushing and willing the protagonist to reach the final realization of their dreams, goals and ambitions. We also really connect with the fact that if this is a true story of a person who lived through the same circumstances and conditions as us but through a rare blend of chance, determination, connections, opportunities, grit, integrity and so much more, has been able to touch a height we all desire to reach, maybe we also can. Perhaps the curiosity to crack the code of what is the perfect mix for success is a quest that is deeply embedded in each of us at a very basic level of our need to strive and survive.

What brings  in big numbers in terms of viewership across multiple platforms is what rings up the magic numbers at the box office, hence movie makers across the board recognize the potential a True Story holds. What rakes in the money for the cash register in terms of profitability then becomes the motive for making such movies.

Both films and TV series “based” or “inspired” by true incidents always bring in a heightened level of interest and curiosity to find out more details and incidents that pushed the person to the level of greatness while having the makings of an ordinary being like all of us.

What really captures one’s interest is to know the following :

Focal points

  • Did these series of incidents actually happen like one may have heard or read about?
  • Did someone actually achieve or perform that?
  • What were the real details, time-lines and related events that lead to the outcome?

What draws the largest audience is what makes for a successful film. The whole purpose of producing a film is  to show-case and cater to the viewer. Hence, True stories make it very high up on the bestseller’s list.

For stories that are based on Intellectual Property, as the original story is known, the fan base already exists, one always wants to see different interpretations of the classic.

Let’s look more closely into the four different ways a true story can be adapted for screenplay.

The Four ways to Adapt a True Story for Screenplay

While the basic core of the story remains the same, there are four methodologies that can be employed while researching, developing and writing a screen-play. Each come with a different combination of liberties, constraints and limitations. In Part I we will explore the first two.

  1. “Based on” a True Story

When a film is “based on” a true story, one must have the central characters, plot and actual scenes as a part of the sequence of events that unfold. While there are some liberties taken in the telling, by and large the story needs to stick to real facts and events.

Films like Dangal (2016), Talwar released as Guilty internationally (2015) and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) are some recent, classic examples of movies that achieved the closest depiction of the true series of events that transpired. While a great effort was taken to preserve the original story, some creative liberties were taken.


  • Dialogues.
  • Combining one or more real people into a singular character to deliver a greater impact.
  • Mixing up the timeline of the occurrences of certain events.
  • Leaving out some event s and people who were a part of the original story.

As the film maker has to deliver the whole story within the fixed time from 2 to about 2 and a half hours, one has to pick and choose the ones with greatest impact. From a larger perspective  the story line is as closely possible to the actual story , yet helping the filmmaker tell a compelling tale . Some element of dramatization will be thrown in for the purpose of heightening the experience of the viewer. This element helps set a movie apart from a documentary which is far stricter telling of all the facts, events, timelines and characters in exactly the order and manner they unfolded.

In the case of Dangal, the most nail biting portion is when Mahavir Singh is intentionally locked up in a room on instruction from the wrestling coach. As a result he is not able to watch or direct his daughter’s effort at the crucial final match. In reality, he was very much in the stands , watching every move and finally her win. This creative liberty by the filmmaker added the element of anxiety , fear and frustration for the audience while really willing Geeta Phogat to fight all odds and trust her father’s training to propel her to the win.

To compare more instances from the film, look at the link given below :

2.‘Inspired by” a True Story

This approach is far more flexible in the way the story is put together. It allows for the alteration of facts, thereby what is the final product is in accordance to what elements the viewer might really enjoy in a dramatized fashion. While the story draws inspiration from the life of a real person or a particular kind of person, the actual story would contain events moulded in such a manner as to make those particular characteristics stand out. When the makers of the movie are focused on specific elements of the narrative, these become the guidelines that dictate how the character would behave or say and hence drive the story towards that direction.

Focal Points

  • The humour and light-heartedness behind the true story.
  • The intense emotions and drama of the real events.
  • Specific deeds and actions carried out by the character being portrayed.
  • Horrific occurrences or a tragedy that actually unfolded.

From whichever angle one examines the production, the “Inspired by” tag gives the film maker a lot of freedom. Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010) / Soorarai Pottru (2020), Special 26 (2013), Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) are some of the Indian movies to cite as examples.


  • The characters themselves can be completely fictional and yet represent permutations and combinations of people inside the story actually did or said.
  • Some facts could be high-lighted with greater detail and emphasis to help make the story ring believable and flow to the end point with greater conviction.
  • Have a central theme or idea and then build the story around it by choosing what goes with the theme and discard the others hence slowly draw the audience deeper into the tale.

When the actual events of Uri are compared to what actually transpired, The character played by Paresh Rawal masterminds the surgical strike in POK, however it was the Army chief, General Dalbir Singh Suhag who had come up with it based on a prior experience of a similar situation in Myanmar.

This change made by the filmmaker added to the element of having to make plans on the go to the minutest details while being in a highly dangerous and sensitive territory where a small mis-step could mean a brutal end for the protagonists  as well as an opportunity to nab a highly wanted criminal completely lost. Hence accentuating the sense of danger and rivets the audience’s attention to a moment by moment unfolding of the encounter.

To look at more instances from the film, do look at the link below :

Do read Part II to explore the next two categories


Sab John Edathattil with Sneha Kuryan Reddy.