Atal Bihari Vajpayee passes away at 93: Ex-PM's fondness for the arts separated him from other prime ministers

Gautam Chintamani

August 17, 2018 11:50:43 IST

Lovingly known as at the poet among the politicians, the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee had a fondness for the arts that separated him for the other Prime Ministers that India has had since its independence. Legend has it that Vajpayee was a huge fan of Hema Malini and was said to have seen her iconic Seeta Aura Geeta (1972) more than 20 times. In fact, it is said that he became tongue-tied when he came face to face with her and while one would be advised to take such folklore with a pinch of salt, there is a possibility of it being true.

Indian Prime Ministers have always had a soft corner for cinema and Atal Bihari Vajpayee took it a step further.

**FILE PHOTO** New Delhi: In this file photo former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee addresses the media at his residence in New Delhi. Vajpayee, who has been ailing for long, was today admitted to AIIMS for routine check-up and investigation. According to a report, the 93-year-old leader will be under the supervision of AIIMS Director Randeep Guleria. (PTI Photo)(PTI6_11_2018_000202B)

New Delhi: In this file photo former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee addresses the media at his residence in New Delhi.  (PTI Photo)

In 2002, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s collection of poems, Samvedna, was converted into a music album by Jagjit Singh and a music video for the album’s most famous track, Kya Khoya Kya Paya was directed by Yash Chopra, narrated by Amitabh Bachchan and even featured Shah Rukh Khan.

If Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru inspired the troika of Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand-Raj Kapoor to imbibe some aspects of his brand of socialism in their films, the second Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri, following a screening of Shaheed (1965) invoked the patriot within the film’s star Manoj Kumar to make a film based upon his clarion call of ‘Jai Jawaan, Jai Kisaan’. The result was Upkar (1967) where Manoj Kumar’s character Bharat readily gives up his life as a farmer to join the Army when the dark cloud of war looms over India.

In the pre-Independence era, Bal Gangadhar Tilak recognised the power of the moving image and regularly reviewed films beginning with Dada Saheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra (1913). In fact, both Tilak and Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore found cinema to be a potent tool and felt it was the perfect medium to further the spirit of nationalism and promoted stories that would inspire the countrymen to join the swadeshi movement.

When it comes to a head of state unleashing the power of cinema to get a certain kind of message across, very few can come close to the Gandhi-Nehru family.

During the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi, the son of the then PM Indira Gandhi, is said to have coerced many Hindi cinema stalwarts to sing praises for the government. A few of them like Dev Anand and Kishore Kumar refused to tow the line and were troubled by Income Tax officials and other government machinery. In 1977, when the Janta Dal was slated to hold a huge rally as a show of strength against Mrs. Gandhi on the eve of the elections that she had announced, the then PM reportedly ordered Doordarshan to telecast Bobby (1973) as the Sunday evening film to keep the crowds away. Later her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi even got his then close friend Amitabh Bachchan to join Congress and unleashed the star against Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna in Allahabad in the 1984 elections. During the next elections in 1991, Rajiv Gandhi got Rajesh Khanna to contest elections against LK Advani in New Delhi.

Although one is used to seeing the photographs of Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi adoring the walls of police stations and the offices of politicians in Hindi films, Atal Bihari Vajyapee could well the one the first Indian Prime Minister to enter the popular culture unlike any of his predecessors.

The manner in which the recently released Parmanu: The Story of Pokran — that follows the story of India’s tryst with nuclear tests — cleverly opted to use archival footage and Vajpayee's real speeches as he was the PM at the time, has laid the foundation of ABV’s cinematic legacy. Director Abhishek Sharma and actor-producer John Abraham decided not to get any actor to play Vajpayee, and in the manner of speaking, might have very well made Vajpayee immortal on the silver screen.

Unlike Parmanu - The Story of Pokran, the upcoming Accidental Prime Minister will feature an actor Ram Avatar Bhardwaj playing Atal Bihari Vajpayee and with the announcement of a biopic tentatively titled Yugpurush Atal there will be a lot of ABV on screen in the days to come.

Updated Date: Aug 17, 2018 15:34 PM