So You Think You Can Make Political Films, Bollywood?

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So You Think You Can Make Political Films, Bollywood?

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

Madhur Bhandarkar’s Indu Sarkar opens with declarations of the Emergency, blaring from radios and newspapers, fittingly highlighted with a shot of the famous blank editorial in the Indian Express. But the film’s true beginning point, one that sets its tone and intentions for the next 140 minutes, is the customary disclaimer that precedes the declaration. Repeated in Hindi, and English, the long-winded disclaimer puts forth the claim that all characters and incidents portrayed in the film are fictional, that it is a figment of the filmmaker’s imagination, despite it being based on the Emergency, a real period in the annals of India’s history.

As Indu Sarkar progresses, it becomes amply evident that the disclaimer isn’t a mere formality, one that could have been preempted by the feathers the film ended up ruffling before it saw the light of day. Instead, it forms the foundation of Bhandarkar’s latest, as he attempts to chronicle life during the 21 tumultuous months, with no qualms about royally overwriting fact with fiction.

As a result, we get a film on the Emergency that is riddled with factual inaccuracies; one that never explicitly mentions Sanjay Gandhi, the mastermind behind the excesses carried out by the government, and is instead satisfied with calling him “Chief” (Neil Nitin Mukesh). Additionally, Bhandarkar also goes to great lengths to reduce Chief’s character to a one-note baddie, who alternates between bellowing “Just shut up” to his stooges at every chance possible, and inexplicably getting triggered during an unnecessary qawwali performance. To be fair, his fate, however, is better than that of his “Mummyji” (Supriya Vinod), who appears for a record one time during the entirety of the film, only to do a desi Miranda Priestley impression of putting on a pair of shades inside her car.

In fact, Bhandarkar’s selective recollection of the Emergency is best emphasised through his rather obvious deletion of BJP cabinet minister Maneka Gandhi’s involvement, who according to history, was constantly by her husband’s side during the period. Moreover, the filmmaker alludes to Sanjay Gandhi’s five-point programme, and Indira Gandhi’s 20-point programme more than once, without giving any insight into those terms. It’s as if he’s ticking off check boxes of keywords required to disguise a mindless potboiler as a political drama.

Even the intermittent moments that come close to capturing the flavour of those dismal days — forced mass sterilisation raids, the Turkman Gate slum demolition, the aggressive clampdown on the Press, MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) — are difficult to swallow, for they are coloured by liberties that ultimately take the shape of artless propaganda. Despite having the unwavering support of a rather enthusiastic government, and a rare sympathetic Censor Board, Bhandarkar squanders the opportunity of crafting a hard-hitting film in his greed to appease the ruling BJP government with a gift-wrapped present. In doing so, Indu Sarkar, becomes a prime example of why India can never boast of making a truly piercing political film, continuing Bollywood’s infamous tradition of hobbling when it comes to tackling political subjects.

One could argue that the political climate of India, and the famously intolerant thin skins of our numerous netas, hinder a filmmaker’s ability to put together a political film that is true to its time and people.

In essence, Indu Sarkar boasts of the same flaw that plagued Shoojit Sircar’s semi-compelling 2013 film Madras Cafe, which chronicled the Sri Lankan civil war through the events leading up to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, without as much as naming him. Like Indu Sarkar, even Madras Cafe found itself in the midst of a storm, heavily criticised for its inaccuracies. And, like Madras Cafe, even Indu Sarkar will ultimately be remembered as a morally disinterested record, chiefly because both its makers sought to take refuge in the figments of their imagination, sacrificing every shred of authenticity.

In a time when there is a concerted campaign to rewrite history, not only is it incredibly incompetent to recreate a politically charged moment inaccurately, but it is also a dangerous trend. For unsuspecting laymen, which includes future generations, the interpretations of these filmmakers will end up becoming believable versions of history.

One could argue that the political climate of India, and the famously intolerant thin skins of our numerous netas, hinder a filmmaker’s ability to put together a political film that is true to its time and people. (For instance, characters in Indu Sarkar, use the term “anti-national” back in 1975 more than it is casually thrown around in 2017.) But it is impossible to negate the fact that we did have filmmakers who would go the extra mile, regardless of opposition, to make films worthy of being categorised “political dramas”. Especially, during the time when the Emergency was a lived reality, and not like right now, when filmmakers can afford the luxury of recollection.

Indu Sarkar

Our greatest achievement in the genre still remains to be able to correctly pinpoint Katrina Kaif’s resemblance to Sonia Gandhi in Rajneeti.

Image Crdit / Bhandarkar Entertainment

It was in 1975 itself, that Gulzar made Aandhi, a political drama allegedly based on the life of Indira Gandhi, and her relationship with her estranged husband. Naturally, it was banned by the Indira Gandhi government 20 weeks after its release, the moment the Emergency was declared, but it ended up being re-released when the Janata Party came to power. In fact, it was the Janata Party, who also salvaged the fate of Amrit Nahata’s satirical Kissa Kursi Ka, a film that spoofed the politics of both Indira Gandhi, and her son. Kissa Kursi Ka was not just banned by the government when it released in 1978, but also, all of the film’s prints were confiscated, and burnt on the orders of Sanjay Gandhi, who was later found guilty and jailed for the same. Most notably, the film had no qualms in taking on the most powerful man in the country at the time, with dialogues like, “Sir, give this young man the license to manufacture small cars, because he learnt it in his mother’s womb,” referencing Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti project. In contrast, the audience was treated to pedestrian lines like “Sarkarey challenge se nahi chabuk se chalti hai”, and, “Emergency emotions se nahi, mere orders chalte hai,” in Indu Sarkar.

At this point, we can only look to Hollywood for instruction, whose filmmakers’ astute grasp of history has resulted in films like Nixon, and Lincoln. Back home, our greatest achievement in the genre still remains to be able to correctly pinpoint Katrina Kaif’s resemblance to Sonia Gandhi in Rajneeti. These films act as an able reminder that it’s not only Indian politics that is a joke, but also its representation on the big screen. For now, we can only wait and watch whether Anupam Kher in his upcoming The Accidental Prime Minister is actually faithful to the life and times of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But since we are a country of people who don’t read history and are condemned to repeat it, I’m certain we’re being set up for another travesty, high on factual inaccuracy and low on watchability.