BY Dr. Piyush Roy
Dr. Piyush Roy is a National Award-winning film critic. Other awards include the Sir William Darling Memorial Prize by the University of Edinburgh, the Sue Grant Service Award, UK, and the Silver Award at the Shine! British Council International Student Awards, UK. He’s a former editor of Stardust; advisor of the Global University Students Film Festival, Hong Kong; and festival director of the Edinburgh Festival of Indian Films & Docs.
The fairly rancor-free censorship and the predominantly protests-free reception of The Accidental Prime Minister in January of 2019 marks a game-changer moment in the history of the Indian political film. Critical media reviews of the film may have implied it to be a project of debatable merit, but an arguably non-contestable consensus is the fact that it marks that rare moment in post-independence Indian cinema, when a film made about alive and active political eminences is not a genuflecting tribute to their every legacy and is able to attempt a perspective that isn’t necessarily congratulatory to its real-life political inspirations. But what is more important is the accommodating reaction to the film by its subjects. Barring a few fringe workers and election ticket seeking hopefuls trying to showcase their loyalty, any discussion on the film has squarely and fairly been rejected by the Indian NationalCongress party top brass and the film’s focus characters like ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ex-Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, MP Ahmed Patel and incumbent president Rahul Gandhi.
Like progressive leaders in a maturing democracy, they have allowed a point-of-view howsoever inimical to persist and fight for its legitimacy in the viewers’ theatre, instead of attempting to stifle political criticism on celluloid by trying to ban or censor the film. In that the Congress Party, and its president Rahul Gandhi, have come a long way from the Kissa Kursee Ka (1975) episode during the years of the Indian Emergency (25 June 1975 to 21 March 1977). Kissa Kursee Ka, produced and directed by MP, Amrit Nahata, was a political satire on Indira Gandhi’s ‘maximum leadership’ model of governance and ‘Garibi Hatao’ policy-sloganeering in the early 1970s. Depicting an arbitrarily functioning head-of-state, lording over a genuflecting legislature populated with spineless politicians, the film had spoofed her son and then Sanjay Gandhi’s auto-manufacturing plans (later established as Maruti Udyog in 1981), along with Congress supporters like Swami Dhirendra Brahmachari, R.K. Dhawan, the private secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and Rukhsana Sultana. Sultana, an Indian socialite was one of Sanjay Gandhi’sclose associates, who gained notoriety during the Emergency years for spearheading his sterilisation campaign in Muslim areas of old Delhi. The film was submitted to the CBFC for certification in April.
- 1975. It was next sent to a seven-member revising committee, which subsequently sent it to the Union government Subsequently, a show-cause notice raising 51 objections were sent to the producer by the Information and Broadcasting ministry. In his reply, Nahata had argued that the characters were imaginary and do not refer to any political party or persons’. By then Emergency had been declared (25 June 1975), and all the prints and the master-print of the film were picked up from the Censor Board office and burnt in the Maruti factory in Gurgaon. Sanjay Gandhi and the-then I&B Minister V. C. Shukla were eventually found guilty of burning the negative and sentenced to jail under the Janata Party government, which came to power in the 1977 Indian general elections conducted post-Emergency.
Aandhi (1975), directed by Gulzar, another film banned during the Emergency for its lead character’s (alluded) similarity in styling to Indira Gandhi, however, survived for its subtle and sensitive take on the personal hazards of a political career. The film had run for nearly 20 weeks at the box-office before the Emergency proclamation and its subsequent ban. It was critically acclaimed with seven nominations and two wins – Best Actor and Best Film (Critics) – at the 23rd Filmfare Awards held in 1976. Incidentally, the film’s television premiere on the state-run channel was one of the first major acts of the ruling Janata Party that succeeded Indira Gandhi post the 1977 general elections.
Kissa Kursee Ka re-made and released in 1978, and Aandhi, together brought the limited genre of political films in Indian cinema an establishing recall as a category of reckon. They also infused nuance into the uni-dimensional ‘saintly’ reviewing of the political leadership in early post-independence on-screen references, with more human characterisations. The saintly association wasn’t unnatural given the ‘Mahatma’ or ‘Great Soul’ adage ascribed to the ‘father of the Indian nation’ – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Indian cinema had to wait for nearly five decades to his passing, to have the protagonist in Jabbar Patel’s Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000), review his legacy as that of a ‘master politician’ too. Most films featuring any reference to India’s leadership in its early independence years like Jagriti (1956) or Upkar (1967) refused to look at the leaders of the independence movement beyond a larger-than-life halo of sacrifice and inspiration. The personal of the politician remained firmly outside of the celluloid’s exploration. It was left to the Left to occasionally critique the failure of policies or promise most eloquently voiced in the Left-leaning poet laureate of the ‘Golden Age of Hindi cinema’, Sahir Ludhianvi, in songs like Kahaan hain… Jinhe naaz hai Hind par (Pyaasa, 1957), as evident in the following excerpts from its lyrics.
ज़रा मल्क के रहबर क बलाओ
ये कच, ये गललया, ये मजर लिखाओ
लजन्ह नाज़ है लहन्द पर उनक लाओ
लजन्ह नाज़ है लहन्द पर व कहा हैं…
Ram Mukherjee’s Leader (1964) was one of the first films in the 1960s to explore the democratic political process, and the politician’s susceptibility to the machinations of the funder, in this case, industry and the entrenched vestiges of receding royalty. Motilal plays a much-loved, moralistic guide- guru cum leader, called Acharya, modeled on Gandhi, who is assassinated by self-serving forces. It is left to the film’s patriotic, investigative journalist played by Dilip Kumar to expose the murderer and make an elaborate pre-climax public critique on the banes of the building politician-industrialist nexus in a nascent democracy. Motilal’s Acharya character, however, remained a recurring Gandhian anchor reference redeeming audience faith in the democratic system at the top, with only the smaller fry being corrupt. The villain in such narratives featuring the politician character, normally was the industrialist/businessman or ambitious members of retired royalty trying to retain influence through spineless local politicians. The political class still dressed in khadi with Gandhi and the Gandhi cap looming large in the mise–en–scène of on-screen political spaces.
Aandhi in the 1970s arguably was the first Indian film to bring the politician into the center of the narrative as a protagonist, from being a peripheral character exerting fluctuating influence. Digressing briefly to the personal story of its charismatic leader Aarti Devi, (admirably played by Bengali actress Suchitra Sen in her last cinematic outing), amidst an election campaign, the film doesn’t doubt the commitment of its protagonist, who though critiqued for her policies, remains a leader taller than an‘opportunistic’ opposition, whom she defeats, despite their below-the-belt defamation campaign. While the political bottom line is hinted at being compromising or corrupt, the top order continues to remain morally strong and blemish-free.
As the frustrations of the working-class hero tipped over through the pre-and-post Emergency years of the mid-1970s, the turn of the decade saw films linking the corruption trail right to the top. Kissa Kursee Ka minces no words or associations in showing the head of its state as a self-serving demagogue who eliminates dissent sans compunction, including one grave provocation, literally with his bare hands. Jabbar Patel’s Marathi film Sinhasan (1979), acclaimed as one of Indian cinema’s first finely researched, realistic political dramas on the back-room machinations and turf battles within competing for power centers in a political party shows its Chief Minister protagonist as a master player in a relentless game of political maneuvers.
Come 1980s, any semblance to sainthood in political life was bid adieu or retired to ‘marg darshak’ roles like A.K. Hangal’s Gandhian politician in Aaj Ka M.L.A. Ram Avtar (1984), who’s neither listened to nor followed by his party. This is the decade when the businessman/smuggler of the previous decades, finally gave way to the politician as the new on-screen villain, who graduated from being merely financially corruptible in the past, to occasionally even having the blood of his detractors on his hands. Ram Avtar, as the Chief Minister leads corruption from the top, directly demanding his cut in every official transaction, and appoints all his supporting MLAs as Deputy Chief Ministers to contain the‘Aya Ram Gaya Ram’ culture of MLA trafficking that had been destabilising many a state government off-screen. Justifying an idea of extraordinary correction for extreme times, while the climax of Aaj Ka M.L.A. Ram Avtar has the citizens beating and driving out its entire legislature; Amitabh Bachchan’s policeman turned Chief Minister character, Amar Nath in Inquilaab (1984) guns down his entire cabinet behind locked doors as the only way to clean the system. Similarly, another police officer character, played by Rekha in Phool Bane Angaarey (1991) and a lecturer turned revolutionary essayed by Sujata Mehta in Pratighaat (Hindi, 1987, 2001, remade from Pratighatana/Telegu, 1985) kill the film’s politician villain in a grandiose revenge spectacle played outside of the courts, in the presence of their oppressed electorate. All these films were box-office hits irrespective of their unconstitutional remedies as film after film the political class hit the nadir of on-screen reputation, to emerge Indian cinema’s favorite villain character in the 1980s. But in both the above cases the Chief Minister characters let the law prevail eventually – Amar Nath by surrendering to the police, and Ram Avtar by quitting politics.
The beginning of the 21st century, however, has seen an infusion of hope in the abilities of the new age political leader, essayed by a host of leading young actors opting to play political protagonists of substance. They also are not shy to display and explore the grey in their character sans apology. Starting as well-meaning ‘manipulators-with-a-conscience’ in politically-themed, early millennium films like Nayak (2001, remade from Mudhalvan/Tamil, 1999), Satta (2003), and Raajneeti (2010), who beat the system by learning to better play its games; in the post-2010 decade, they have graduated to noble-minded, daredevil Samaritans in Leader (2010), Youngistaan (2014), Kaala (2018), Bharat Ane Nenu (2018), and Sarkar (2018). Spearheading a series of surgical strike like actions aimed at socio-political reform led by a team of honest bureaucrats, in a super CMO (Chief Minister’s Office) or PMO (Prime Minister’s Office in the case of Youngistaan) kind of set-up, the actioning of their good intentions is increasingly getting justified through any means, including physical violence against the opponent.
These films have gone beyond the ‘white and black’ on-screen depictions of politicians to explore greyer character shades especially in films like Nayak and Satta, with the well-meaning protagonist in Satta learning and accepting early in her political career that for every right act of commission she has to accommodate few wrong acts of omission. Yet, while this reformist political protagonist in Leader and Youngistaan, happened to be vulnerable, and hence more human; by 2018, he had metamorphosed into a superhuman Samaritan in films like Kaala, Sarkar and Bharat Ane Nenu. With a bravado celebrating national discourse led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, dramatically espoused in his famous ‘56-inch sized chest’ thumping allegory, no wonder the new millennium celluloid Chief Ministers have started fighting their opposition, physically, often leading the action from the front in films like Sarkar and Bharat Ane Nenu. In the latter blockbuster, Mahesh Babu playing Chief Minister Bharat Ram, even asks his Special Protection Group security entourage to stand back and watch him make mince-meat of a gallery of gundas in classic gladiatorial style, the logic being – ‘If I cannot protect myself, then how can I protect my country!’
Naturally, sobriety, restrain and dignity in the men at the top as the 2019 film, The Accidental Prime Minister, implies, has come to be considered as a weakness in the maximum leader. However, it’s too early to call it a trend to stay, as in Sarkar, the winning catalyst, an NRI businessman and the film’s‘superman’ game-changer, Sundar Ramaswamy, played by Tamil Superstar Vijay, post his new party’s win, nominates one of his supporters, an honest collector, as his party’s chief minister, thus completing that triad of administrative influence in India as Sanjay Baru writes in The Accidental Prime Minister, “In India’s power structure only three institutions matter – the PM, the CM, and the DM”.
To conclude, if one looks at the politician as a protagonist character in Indian cinema, clearly, he has moved from an absolute saint and sinner avatar to a relatively more nuanced, normal and human persona. On-screen politics is no longer gender patronising with good and bad apples seen in equal proportion across genders from Leader, Aandhi and Raajneeti to Hu Tu Tu, Satta or Sarkar. Male or female, the politician protagonist continues to be a ‘maximum leader’, feeding and perpetuating the Indian sub-continents continuing idolatry fascination with any form of leadership. Also, such a leader continues to be handed over the leadership on a platter. He/she is always the outsider scion of a suddenly deceased popular leader, either the Chief Minister or the Prime Minister, who beats the system after few initial acclimatisation hiccups, by establishing a direct hotline of conversation and communication with the junta, who seem to be making a gradual progress from being the passively following voiceless masses of yore to slightly more aware and responsible, demanding citizens. The rest of the political class, (beyond the game-changing protagonist leader), however still continues to be depicted as an opportunistic or spineless herd that can be easily swayed, ordered or blackmailed to submission by the ‘maximum leader’.
On the personal front, for the leader character as protagonist, be it MLA Aarti Devi, Chief MinisterBharat Ram or Prime Minister Abhimanyu Kaul, that mandatory personal side-story around love, even if legitimate has to remain discrete and/or follow a predictable narrative of first opposition and then support to their public career choice from their private male or female spouse/ partner counterparts.
What has changed, is that positive aggression has given way to subtle nudging, towards the creation of an attitude that equates softness with vulnerability. Consensus seeking pragmatic progress is considered weak; benevolent dictatorship driving instant reforms and changes is in. The leader not only leads from the front but also has started fighting from the front. Maturity has given way to ideas and energy. The PM character in Youngistaan is surprisingly young, at 28 only. Late 20s and early 30s are an acceptable age for the new leader – CM or PM. Consequently, while the personal love story, involving the romance between an estranged wife and husband was a grudging side-story portrayed in the private of forlorn ruins, away from public gaze in Aandhi’s poignant ode to lost love, Tere bina zindagi se koi shikwa; the present leader doesn’t shy from playing along his romantic side, singing
Suno–na–sangemarmar around a moonlit Taj Mahal with his live-in girlfriend in Youngistaan.
The new-age political protagonist is always pitched as an agency for radical ideas of change and reform, who is restless about its implementation. He/she no longer cribs about the faults in the system. A well-meaning leader, like former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who lamented his inability to contain institutional corruption is gone. The wish list has changed from what should be done, to what is doable. The ‘how’ of it is no longer that important – noble ends have come to justify any means. Hopelessness is out; the political leader today is an agency of hope, and the films always end with their India shining a little brighter than it did when they entered its political theatre at the beginning of a narrative. Gandhi topis and khadis – the signature uniform like dressing of the Indian politician may have given way to smarter, casual dressing, but the Mahatma’s idea of ‘being the change you want to see’ is being realised through action taking precedence over rhetoric, as the on-screen politician tries to be a leader finally… Perhaps?
The writer is a critic, curator, author, filmmaker and associate professor in Liberal Studies at Jain University, Bengaluru
Jagriti (Hindi, 1956). Director: Satyen Bose Pyaasa (Urdu, 1957). Director: Guru Dutt Leader (Hindi, 1964). Director: Ram Mukherjee Upkar (Hindi, 1967). Director: Manoj Kumar Aandhi (Hindi, 1975). Director: Gulzar
Kissa Kursee Ka (Hindi, 1978). Director: Amrit Nahata
Singhasan (Marathi, 1979). Director: Jabbar Patel
Aaj Ka MLA Ram Avtar (Hindi, 1984). Director: Dasari Narayana Rao
Inquilaab (Hindi, 1984). Director: T. Rama Rao Pratighatana (Telegu, 1985). Director: T. Krishna Pratighaat (Hindi, 1987). Director: N. Chandra
Phool Bane Angaarey (Hindi, 1991). Director: K.C. Bokadia
Mudhalvan (Tamil, 1999). Director: S. Shankar
Hu Tu Tu (Hindi, 1999). Director: Gulzar
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (English, 2000). Director: Jabbar Patel Nayak: The Real Hero (Hindi, 2001). Director: S. Shankar Satta (Hindi, 2003). Director: Madhur Bhandarkar
Raajneeti (Hindi, 2010). Director: Prakash Jha
Leader (Telegu, 2010). Director: Sekhar Kammula Youngistaan (Hindi, 2014). Director: Syed Ahmad Afzal Kaala (Tamil, 2018). Director: Pa. Ranjith
Sarkar (Tamil, 2018). Director: A.R. Murugadoss
Bharat Ane Nenu (Telegu, 2018). Director: Koratala Siva
The Accidental Prime Minister (Hindi, 2019). Director: Vijay Ratnakar Gut