If politics is primarily a game of perception, films about politicians are the necessary optics.
By the time you read this, The Accidental Prime Minister, in which Anupam Kher plays former prime minister Manmohan Singh, will be out in theatres. In politics, as in everything else, timing is everything: the release of the film, based on Singh’s media adviser Sanjaya Baru’s book of the same name, kick-starts this crucial election year, and is a clear strategy to deepen and strengthen those perceptions.
Here’s a quick q-and-a. Is it a mere coincidence that a bunch of films centre-staging the strengths of the ruling party and deriding the opposition, will roll out in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls? Of course not. Does the establishment, reaching out to sympathetic producers and actors, encourage these projects, with invisible nods and nudges? Of course. Is Bollywood bending lower than ever before, to please the powers-that-be.
It’s not as if Hindi cinema has traditionally been a brave tilting-against-windmills kind of creature. The fear of displeasing the ruling dispensation is the operating principle of most censorship (not certification, which is the mandate of the government-appointed CBFC) exercises; offending portions or entire films being dubbed as “harmful to the unity and integrity of the nation” or showing a particular person or community or religion in Bad Light.
Filmmakers have learnt that capitulation is the better part of valour, whether it is agreeing to the ridiculousness of not naming names (Shoojit Sircar’s 2013-film Madras Café features the assassination of an Indian PM by a female suicide bomber, and, of course, it isn’t Rajiv Gandhi), or dropping Pakistani heartthrobs from their movies for fear of being dubbed “anti-national”.
Whether it is the UPA or the BJP, or any other party, on one thing there is unanimity: no politician may be held up to close examination, forget about active ridicule. The original reels of Amrit Nahata’s Kissaa Kursi Ka (1978) were destroyed by a pliant Congress minister under Sanjay Gandhi’s orders: a second version was made only with the active support of the rival Janata government. Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975), toplining a powerful female politician with a troubled marriage and a distinctive white streak in her hair (no, she wasn’t based on Indira Gandhi, but on Tarkeshwari Sinha) ran into trouble, expectedly. There’s nothing controversial about the film, except for a certain similarity in demeanour between the beauteous Suchitra Sen and the elegant iron-fist-in-velvet-glove Mrs G: it was more a “relationship” film, and the redemptive factor was a woman who went back to her man, ambition having led her astray.
In today’s heavily polarised times, where you are either with the ruling majority or a traitor, even those films which skirt or touch lightly upon political issues, are liable to run into opposition. The days where such politically aware filmmakers as Saeed Mirza, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Ketan Mehta, could function within a certain margin of funding and security, are long gone. This I can lay a bet on: the astringent calling-to-account of official corruption and apathy that filmmakers like Mirza managed in the ’70s and ’80s (Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho!, Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai and the still-as-powerful Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro) would never happen today. His last film Naseem (1995), based on that fateful day when “ek dhakka aur” felled a “dhancha” in Ayodhya, was a requiem for an India that used to be. Similarly, Benegal would find it almost impossible to release trenchant class-and-caste conscious movies like Ankur (1974) and Nishant (1975). And a classic black comedy like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) would have its neck wrung for it.
Those were decades when creative independence was not so beholden to political patronage, and these “parallel” films, once they got past the CBFC, would nestle briefly into a single screen theatre, and be seen by a certain kind of niche audience, to be destined to an eternity of sanitized-by-cuts TV runs.
After that golden period, it’s been increasingly difficult to make films that matter. When a film like Sudhir Mishra’s sharp anti-Emergency epistle Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005) came out (how it managed to, with the UPA was in power, will always be a mystery), it was a cause for celebration. A filmmaker like Prakash Jha whose early films Damul (1985) and Mrityudand (1997) were brilliant explorations of gender and class inequality has had to blunt his edges with his star-driven follow-ups, Raajneeti (2010), Aarakshan (2011) and Satyagraha (2013). It was easier to drown a specific event in drama and song-and-dance and loud rhetoric, like in Mani Ratnam’s trilogy Roja-Bombay-Dil Se.., even if the filmmaker had to procure a pass from Balasaheb Thackeray (for Bombay, which featured the post-Babri Masjid riots)
Fittingly, it is Thackeray himself who will be on screen soon via Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Political biopics have always had to be hagiographies, or at the very least, be soft and reverential. The chances that the film will be a reasoned look at the Shiv Sena’s hardline politics, and the “supremo” himself? Slim to none. Ditto for the film in which Vivek Oberoi, not Paresh Rawal, will play PM Modi, which is being rapidly filmed and is meant to be out before the polls. No questions. Only mann ki baat.
Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika is doubtless the worthy story of a brave princess, but equally, doubtlessly it will come wreathed in the au courant hues of divisive nationalism and patriotism. And the people who will sing hosannahs for this Jhansi Ki Rani will be the same who were delighted that Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati was allowed to release only when its name was changed to Padmaavat (2018), and after the dissenters made sure that a Muslim invader was never going to be allowed to cast his filthy peepers at a Hindu queen.
There was a time when an occasional Gulaal (2009), Anurag Kashyap’s striking if not entirely effective reimagining of a new political dawn, or a Firaaq (2008), Nandita Das’s emotive film based on the Godhra riots, would somehow come out. It’s now only time for the sabre-rattling Uri, where India takes revenge against her enemies, or films fashioned around government-schemes like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) or Padman (2018), the last two being at least socially relevant.
The maximum noise in the next few months will be reserved for films which are about Us vs Them, and to show Us In Good Light. The space for nuance is now officially dead. May Day.