How Indian cinema's timid portrayal of Indira Gandhi confined her to allusions, voices, silhouettes on screen

While several films have been made against the backdrop of Indira Gandhi's controversial decisions like the 1975 Emergency and Operation Blue Star, one has rarely seen an actor portray her in all her guts and glory.

Devansh Sharma April 02, 2021 12:51:34 IST
How Indian cinema's timid portrayal of Indira Gandhi confined her to allusions, voices, silhouettes on screen

Indira Gandhi

August 2014: Months after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre and overthrew 10 years of the United Progressive Alliance's rule, Ravinder Ravi's contentious Punjabi film Kaum De Heere was ready to release. Based on Operation Blue Star, and allegedly involving "glorification of Indira Gandhi's death," the film had waited too long to see the light of day. But on the eve of its scheduled release, Kaum De Heere was stalled yet again.

After years of court battles, the film was cleared for release by Delhi High Court in 2019. While it has still not hit theatres (presumably because of the ongoing pandemic), Kaum De Heere has not encountered a bumpy road to exhibition only because of its 'regional' scale. Over the past six decades, multiple films much bigger than the Punjabi one have either sparked outrage or self-censored themselves for the involvement of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in their storylines.

Gandhi has interestingly been both an elusive and omnipresent figure in Hindi cinema ever since her tumultuous reign in the 1970s.

While several films have been made against the backdrop of her controversial decisions like the 1975 Emergency, the military action in the Golden Temple, and the consequent Sikh riots, one has rarely seen an actor portray Indira Gandhi in all her guts and glory.

Elements like her honey-crisp voice and peculiar hairstyle, or references to her as 'Madam' or 'Madam Prime Minister' have been commonplace to establish context in Hindi films. In Kaum De Heere, a private screening revealed that it made no allusion to Gandhi — the political force who got assassinated — being referred to only as 'madam'.

It is only very recently in Vijay's trilingual film Thalaivi, the biopic of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa starring Kangana Ranaut, that we see the titular character give it back to "Madam Prime Minister" in the Parliament. And there is a face to that address unlike most predecessors. An actor who bears uncanny resemblance to Indira is seen in the next shot, and in two other flashes later in the trailer, there is a clear announcement of her arrival as the former PM.

How Indian cinemas timid portrayal of Indira Gandhi confined her to allusions voices silhouettes on screen

Indira Gandhi makes an appearance in the trailer of Thalaivi.

Prior to this, even remote references to Indira Gandhi have caused a stir. Back in 1975, Gulzar's Aandhi invited comparisons of its protagonist Aarti Devi (Suchitra Sen) to Gandhi. While drawing a parallel was organic since there were not too many women who were politicians, the sartorial similarities were uncanny. Add to that, Aarti's ambitious streak that made her move away from her husband JK (Sanjeev Kumar) once she realised he is obstructing her path to become a political leader. The makers milked the rumours and promoted Aandhi through posters that read, "See your prime minister on screen" as the film released during Indira's term.

Since the protagonist was depicted smoking and drinking, and often as a 'weak' woman owing to her emotional frailty, Aandhi was banned from exhibition once the Emergency was imposed later in the year. Gulzar was prompted to reshoot a couple of contentious scenes, including where Aarti is arguing with her politician-father, who was said to be modelled on Jawaharlal Nehru. But Gulzar cleverly inserted a portrait of Indira in the background, with Aarti saying, "Wo meri idol thi," to put all rumours to rest. It was only after the Janata Party came to power in 1977 that Aandhi was re-released to great numbers, and Gulzar admitted that Aarti was indeed inspired by Indira.

How Indian cinemas timid portrayal of Indira Gandhi confined her to allusions voices silhouettes on screen

Suchitra Sen and Sanjeev Kumar in Aandhi.

Aandhi, while portraying a 'liberal' female politician, was not exactly a satire on Gandhi's prime ministerial reign. Besides a fleeting commentary on the political class through the song 'Salam Kijiye,' there were no potshots aimed at the politician's policies or decisions. On the other hand, Amrit Nahata's Kissa Kursi Ka, that released in the same year, was a political satire all along. Shabana Azmi played Janta, a mute and suppressed woman at the mercy of a politician trying to woo her. As the name of the character suggests, Janta was a personification of the people of India, subjected to deception by the political class. Other references in the film suggested that it was a veiled hit-job at the politics of Gandhi and her son Sanjay.

Prints of the film were confiscated and burnt during the Emergency. A legal battle ensued which resulted in Sanjay and VK Kohli, then-Information and Broadcasting minister, being pronounced guilty of concealing stolen property and disappearance of evidence among other charges. Excesses like these against freedom of speech, whether in cinema or in print, were common during the Emergency, but the fear looms large over filmmakers even today, over 45 years later.

How Indian cinemas timid portrayal of Indira Gandhi confined her to allusions voices silhouettes on screen

Promotional still of Kissa Kursi Ka.

One would assume that BJP coming to power will give a free hand, or even patronage, to cinema targeting the Congress rule. The soft-power and mass-infiltrating potential of films have been exploited by the ruling party over the last six years, which have spawned genres like pop patriotism and period dramas painting Islam in negative hues. But not too many slingshots have been directed towards Indira Gandhi's time at the Prime Minister's Office.

Definitely, there have been more films on the Emergency and Sikh riots than there were during the UPA rule. But the spotlight has never been on Gandhi. For instance, Madhur Bhandarkar's 2017 political thriller Indu Sarkar came the closest to depicting the Emergency and the role of Gandhi and Sanjay in the upheaval. But the major brunt of the blame was attributed to Sanjay's character (Neil Nitin Mukesh), and Indira (Supriya Vinod) made only a fleeting appearance. The political backlash the film received from Congress went on to eclipse the story of Indu Sarkar, an ordinary woman severely affected by the Emergency. The witty spin on the title was in fact Bhandarkar's cleverest take on the former prime minister and her controversial term.

How Indian cinemas timid portrayal of Indira Gandhi confined her to allusions voices silhouettes on screen

Supriya Vinod as Indira Gandhi in Indu Sarkar.

In other films on the Emergency like Milan Luthria's 2017 heist ensemble Baadshaho and Abhishek Chaubey's 2019 dacoit drama Sonchiriya, only Gandhi's voice was used in the background to mark her role in the Emergency. But that device was as ornamental as using her father's 'Tryst with Destiny' speech to mark India's Independence. A more obvious allusion to Indira was made in Raj Kumar Gupta's 2018 crime drama Raid. When local politician Bauji (Saurabh Shukla) visits the PMO to interrupt an IAS officer's raid at his mansion during the 1970s, he is shooed away by the then-lady prime minister, who is projected only through a back side profile. The manner of speaking, the grey streak in her hair, and the sari, left no doubts about the PM's identity.

In the two BJP tenures, no major Congress politician from recent times has been spared. The Accidental Prime Minister, a biopic of former prime minister Manmohan Singh, examined what transpired behind closed doors during UPA-1, pulling back few punches at even Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, leaders of the opposition. But the buck stopped there.

Also, it is surprising there was no puff piece during the UPA rule on Indira, like there was one on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019. A biopic of Indira Gandhi has been in the making for years, and has changed hands multiple times.

In an interview to Firstpost, Vidya Balan explained why she took so long to play Indira Gandhi, a dream role she was chasing for years. "I was offered the role five years ago also, by multiple people. But I told them as long as you don't get the requisite permissions, I can't do the film. But it's much easier in web." Balan has now teamed up with filmmaker Ritesh Batra for a biographical web series on Indira, produced by Ronnie Screwvala's RSVP Films. While she claimed the script is being rewritten for OTT, the new regulations introduced by the I&B Ministry and the recent furore over content in web-shows will not make the task any quicker or easier.

Interestingly, Balan was also offered Thalaivi, the Jayalalithaa biopic that Ranaut is soon coming out with. But she told Firstpost she did not want to play both Jayalalithaa and Indira, two strong political figures of the same era and of contrasting ideologies. Ranaut, however, has no such qualms as she has also announced a film in which she will play Indira, directed by her Revolver Rani filmmaker Sai Kabir. It will be interesting to witness how both these projects envision and capture the phenomenon that was Indira Gandhi, particularly after years of watching the Iron Lady of India smiling from the corners of the big screen.

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