SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 11 JUNE, 2018
3 Films on 3 PMs: Megalomania, Critique or Deification
BJP MP plays Narendra Modi in forthcoming bio-pic
Indian filmmakers generally tend to shy away from making biographical films on national leaders because (i) these films have little or no commercial viability, (ii) it is difficult to find financiers and producers to take on a biographical project, (iii) filmmakers in India are not historically inclined, and (iv) filmmakers fear politically-related and censor-related problems because interpretation of politically renowned figures often raise political controversy from the family of the person, from political parties for and against the person, or just for raising controversy.
Within this ambience, it comes as a surprise when one hears and reads about fictional documentaries or documented fiction being made on political leaders. So, our knowledge base is now being enriched with bio-fiction or fictional biographies being made on three of the most controversial prime ministers of India – Indira Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi.
National Award-winning actress Vidya Balan has recently acquired the rights for noted journalist Sagarika Ghose’s Indira - India's Most Powerful Prime Minister. But whether it will be a full-fledged feature film ‘inspired’ by the life of Indira Gandhi or a fictionalised celluloid ‘adaptation’ of her life or a web series is not decided yet. “I have always wanted to play Indira Gandhi,” she added, thrilled that she would be playing one of the most challenging roles of her career. The title, the casting and everything else are still on the anvil though Ghose has already signed on the dotted line as the author of the original story.
The Accidental Prime Minister – The Makng and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh,(2014) a book on former prime minister Manmohan Singh authored by policy analyst Sanjaya Baru is being made into a feature film with Anupam Kher playing the lead role of Singh. Baru was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s media advisor from May 2004 to August 2008.
It turned out to be a controversial book and Singh did not like the way Baru had violated the professional privacy of his responsible post and written things which, according to the PM, The PMO released a statement on the day the book was launched dismissing the veracity of the memoir. Baru had alleged that Singh had lesser control of his cabinet than the Party President Sonia Gandhi to whom Singh was completely “subservient.” Baru recalls Singh telling him once, “There cannot be two centres of power. That creates confusion. I have to accept that the party president is the centre of power. The government in answerable to the party.”
Versatile actor Paresh Rawal, BJP MP himself, noted for his controversial comments within politics and his outstanding performances on screen, recently confirmed that he would be portraying PM Narendra Modi in a biopic on the PM. Rawal had given a convincing performance as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Ketan Mehta’s Sardar (1994), juxtaposed against his role of a real-life transgender in Mahesh Bhatt’s Tamanna (1997) or his award-worthy role of the acidic black-humour-mouthing lawyer in Abbas-Mustan’s Aitraaz (2004) and a hundred similar performances across his career. Rawal, it is reported, is also producing the bio-pic.
In a press meet at London, he said, “It will be very challenging. You have to go beyond that (mimicry). If I have to mimic Modi ji, then there are many people (who can do that). There’s no mimicry here that’s why it is difficult. Right now, I am meeting him, seeing him but then there is a preparation which happens when you detach yourself. You can’t prepare by just seeing”
But no one is talking about these films, about the detailed casting and so on. The only news we have heard is that the shooting for The Accidental Prime Minister has begun in London. The questions that arise in the case of fictional biographies of high ranking political leaders are many.
One, how authentic are these to the real lives of these leaders?
Two, are they showcases of sycophancy disguised as ‘entertainment, information and education’?
Three, in the case of films on Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, for political propaganda to sort of ‘rescue’ the respective party they belonged to from the mess they were sinking into?
Four, do they intend to rake up controversies while the films are in the making to ensure that the initial box office draw will suffice to cover costs and some more?
And Five, is it aimed at the building up of a personality cult prior to the forthcoming general elections next year?
This should really be interesting because Anupam Kher’s political affiliation lies with BJP, the ruling party at the centre so, ideolologically, there is an in-built conflict between his personal loyalty to the BJP and his professional loyalty to the film in which he portrays a former PM of the current opposition, the Congress!
“The opportunity of portraying a contemporary personality like Dr Manmohan Singh in The Accidental Prime Minister is an immense challenge for me as an actor. He is part of a 24/7 media era where world knows his persona minutely. I have been internalizing this character for the past few months. I look forward to translating that effort into cinematic reality.”
The two films based on the two books on Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh should not pose much problems except for the Party questioning or critiquing some of the content in these films as both books have been forthright in describing some “allegedly” questionable issues and facts around their lives. Because both the books do harp at times on controversial issues and cannot be termed “political propaganda’ by any stretch of imagination though there is tendency to soften the sharpness that sometimes smacks of sycophancy in Ghose’s account.
However, one needs to be reminded that a book and a film made on the book are two very different things because the two authors – of the book and of the film, have their personal takes, perspectives and readings into what is given in the book. All one can do is wait and watch.
In an interview to an online ezine (July 6, 2017), Ghose said, “I was commissioned to write the book by Juggernaut Publishers for her centenary year to re-tell the Indira story for a new audience and also to remind those who have forgotten her, about Indira’s life and times! This is also a good time to recall the Indira years–she stamped out democratic freedoms for 21 months and was India’s first “supremo” politician, someone who totally dominated government and her party. So there are parallels with today’s times! She was India’s first “High Command” leader, the first ‘bahubali”, who played politics with utter ruthlessness and stamped out her rivals both within and outside her party”.
Will Vidya Balan, who won the National Award for her portrayal of Silk Smitha, the sex siren of the South in The Dirty Picture, be able to bring out the contrasting and very dynamic character of Indira Gandhi?
The problem will lie squarely with the yet untitled Narendra Modi film. It is on the current Prime Minister with the character being portrayed by Paresh Rawal, an active BJP MP who is also a very famous film personality with a huge fan-following of his own.
The question the other two films will not raise this film most certainly will. Rawal has himself gone on record to state that he will be portraying the PM, one wonders whether the film is a diabolically clever way of building up a personality cult prior to the forthcoming general elections in 2019. Why then, did a news item in DNA report state that Akshay Kumar had emerged clear winner over actors like Paresh Rawal, Anupam Kher and Victor Banerjee, because of his widespread appeal. (June 21, 2017, India Today).
Not many of us are aware that a film fictionalised on the life of Narendra Modi was already released on December 29, 2017. Named Modi Kaka Ka Gaon, and directed by Tushar Amrish Goel, this film focusses on how Prime Minister Nagendra (Vikas Mahante) gets elected and starts cleaning up the system and how, under his governance, not a single bad thing has affected India.
As a sub plot, we see an honest collector Sarvagya (Chandramani) arrive in Rampur and take charge of affairs. His main nemesis is the local politician Pappu Bihari (Phool Jha) who usurps villager’s land and wants Sarvagya to work with him. In a forthright and somewhat tongue-in-cheek review of the film, Reza Noorani (TOI, December 31, 2017) sums it up beautifully by stating: “A film made with a good intent to support someone or show them in a good light can end up affecting that very person, adversely. 'Modi Kaka Ka Gaon' is a perfect example of such a situation.” The critic adds that PM Modi’s look-alike Vikas Mahante only looks like him and that seems to be his primary job because acting is non-existent.
7 Race Course Road – From Tea Seller to Prime Minister was an episodic serial telecast on YouTube and produced by the Anand Bazar Patrika Group. Who do you think anchored it? None other than our maverick best-selling author Chetan Bhagat.
The series is a perfect example of how the digitalized world and the world of YouTube has become a potent machinery of propaganda of every imaginable quality. There is nothing but showering of unabashed praise for Modi while narrating the story of his life and his rise from an ordinary tea seller to the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. This machinery was not in motion during the tenure of Indira Gandhi while Manmohan Singh was clearly controlled by the Party that backed him to the PM’s post. Now that this new media revolution is at our disposal, before we get down to quartering the media team behind the PM, this may be the main plank for every political leader from now on.
Bio-fiction has created a definite genre in Indian cinema and not all of them are aimed at the deification of the personalities they depict such as the films on people whose life stories are shadowed by their questionable lives. This began way back with Yash Chopra’s Deewar (1975), fictionalised account of the life of Haji Mastaan, an Indian gangster, smuggler, films financer and real estate businessman.
He is said to be the first ever celebrity gangster of Bombay. Deewar became a cult film and for Bollywood, it became a bench mark for sure success of films based on the lives of people in crime through Bandit Queen, Dirty Picture and Daddy based on the life of Arun Gawli, king of his mafia gang in Mumbai who then turned politician, not to forget Haseena based on the life of Haseena Parkar, sister of Dawood Ibrahim, portrayed by Shraddha Kapoor who is said to have worked very hard to bring alive the harsh, sharp and fiercely aggressive persona of Haseena on screen.
Films on political leaders have almost always led to controversies. One example is Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) which generated a lot of heat around the depiction of Gandhi in the film. It is sad that the National Film Development Corporation of India chose a complete foreigner, Sir Richard Attenborough, to make Gandhi (1982), a magnum opus on Mahatma Gandhi.
Was it lack of foresight on the part of NFDC? Or was it a deliberate design to keep away from Indian filmmakers? Is it not one of the ironies of cinema history to ask a British filmmaker, a citizen of the country that held us under its colonial oppression for 200 years, to make a full-length feature film on the Father of the Nation? Was it fair to the Indian film industry to have British-Indian actor Ben Kingsley play Gandhi? That he did more than justice to the character is beside the point. How could NFDC allow this?
Interestingly, other than the popularization of Mahatma Gandhi through a fictitious resurrection in the form of a ghost in Lage Raho Munnabhai, or, as a metaphorical cause for mental imbalance such as in Jahnu Barua’s Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara, or, by trying to explore his relationship with his eldest son Harilal Gandhi in Gandhi, My Father, feature films on national leaders and historical heroes have not been too many.
For a feature film that claims to be based on the life of a national leader, living or dead, it is possible that (fictionalised) story may not precisely coincide with the recorded biography of the subject the film is being made on but is also about how the filmmaker perceives the subject, Indira Gandhi, Manmohan Singh or Narendra Modi. It also depends on how the filmmaker desires his/her audience to see the subject.
This gap between historical truth and personal perception and interpretation of the filmmaker about this truth is easily understood if one considers different narrations of history by different scholars, each one giving an account of a national figure that is different from the others.
The validity of the subject of the celluloid discourse (cinema) and the authenticity of the film need not necessarily spring from actuality but rather, from the essence of the filmmaker’s memories, desires and dreams about the subject he is making the film on.