The chances of feeling positive when one thinks of netas or elections as depicted in popular Hindi films would range from slim to none. Uncouth politicians, political murders, booth capturing, citizens utterly helpless in netas’ clutches, inundate one’s screen memories. Scratch just a little and you’ll see how elections and politicians in reel roles ended up as pure evil.
One of the earliest films to showcase elections was 1964’s Leader, where Dilip Kumar, acting as a law student, who also moonlights as the editor of a tabloid, is accused of murdering a political leader amidst the country’s general elections. The timing of the film’s release played a major role in establishing the ethos of the neta on screen hereon. This was close on the heels of the India-China war of 1962 when the humiliating defeat the country faced brought certain failures of Nehruvian thinking to the forefront. For over a decade and a half, Nehruvian idealism was followed unquestioningly and it steered the young nation towards building its “modern temples” (like the IITs, dams, etc.). But no one seemed to notice how alongside, in popular depictions, the politician was now replacing the village money lender, the zamindar, the traditionalist opposing widow remarriage, as thegreatest social evil.
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Perhaps Leader, a satirical comedy Dilip Kumar attempted on the advice of a psychiatrist who felt the thespian had taken his “tragedy king” tag too seriously, foretold the criminal-politician nexus which would eventually dominate the cinematic narrative. By the late 1960s, the decay in the political system was more than apparent when it came to popular films. In Aadmi Aur Insaan and Satyakam, “the system” had become the biggest impediment in the way of justice. Depictions deteriorated further through the 1970s; on the one hand, you had a film like Mere Apne that showed two rival political parties using young college students as their muscle power to sway the mandate, and on the other, a Kissa Kursi Ka, whose negative was rumoured to have been destroyed by Sanjay Gandhi, son of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, apparently for being an unflattering roman à clef. Nestled in-between were films like Roti Kapada Aur Makaan, where the failure of the system compels a common man, Bharat (played by Manoj Kumar), to rethink being honest. Politics’ growing cynicism was highlighted in Aandhi, where a woman politician, Aarti Devi (acted with elan by Suchitra Sen), finds her separation from her husband JK (a restrained Sanjeev Kumar) made into a public issue on which the opposition plans to take her down.
The fact that the film’s release was delayed apparently as the Emergency-imposing Congress government found the narrative to share a similarity with Indira Gandhi shows how tarnished real-life politics had become.
Cinematically, the 1960s was when the abject loss of faith in the system was on full display with “dacoit films”, and later, in the 1970s, with the Angry Young Man. In both, men and women were forced to take on political evils within or outside the purview of the law. Had the system been more effective — or, had the post-independence political class not become so self-serving — would the individual be forced to take such drastic measures? By the 1980s, this format transformed into vendetta films, citizens fending for themselves while politicians got away with murder. The decade featured films like Arjun and Bhrashtachar; in Arjun, neta Shiv Kumar Chowgule (Anupam Kher) couldn’t hurt a fly in public but in private, used the aimlessness of unemployed, educated young men like Arjun (Sunny Deol) to get dirty work done. In Bhrashtachar, violence intensified; the villain-neta didn’t even bat an eyelid before killing or raping someone.
The 1980s also saw two critically acclaimed films that were the first, post-Leader, to highlight a strengthened political-mafia nexus. New Delhi Times followed Vikas Pande, a journalist (played by Shashi Kapoor) who moves to Delhi and uncovers a political assassination. Main Azaad Hoon, a remake of the 1941 Frank Capra film Meet John Doe, had a journalist, Subhashini (Shabana Azmi), “creating” a conscientious man, Azaad (Amitabh Bachchan) through her newspaper writing. Azaad then gets used for political advantage by the paper’s ambitious owner.
By the 1990s-2000s, be it university elections in Haasil, where the caste of two student leaders impacts everyone around them, or Raajneeti, where certain dialogues were too close to real life, such as “Le jayegi vidhwa support samet ke” (the widow will sway the electorate; “vidhwa” or widow was changed by the censors to “beti” or daughter), Shool, where an MLA kills a colleague given a ticket over him, or Mr Azaad, where a man wins an election even while serving time, reel politics has become as bizarre as the real stuff.
Right from Mere Apne to 2017’s Raees, the neta uses every trick in the book to stay a step ahead of the aam aadmi. If in Mere Apne, the warring students led by Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha become collateral damage while the leaders who employ them go scot-free, in Raees, netas shake hands across party lines to teach the common man a harsh lesson — even if the common man is Raees (an edgy Shah Rukh Khan), a powerful criminal who openly threatens them.
When netas are increasingly vile reel villains, deteriorating from the rivalry-turned-friendship of Shri Anokhelal (Mehmood) and Biloki Prasad (Asit Sen) in Mere Apne to the brutal cynicism of the political leaders in Raees, in real life — heroes notwithstanding — often, the ordinary citizen ends up losing. The writer is the author of ‘Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna’ and ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak —The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema’