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Lights, Camera, Votebank!

Mainstream cinema finds a new formula in the run-up to Lok Sabha polls 2019, as films about politics and politicians keep the box-office busy

Firstpost print Edition

“How’s the josh?” Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted a packed auditorium of Bollywood celebrities while inaugurating the National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai last week. By now, Bollywood fans recognise those words as a popular dialogue Vicky Kaushal mouths in Uri, essaying a gallant Major who leads Indian troops during the 2016 surgical strike on Pakistan.

The `45-crore Uri is patriotic melodrama, and fast inching towards a `200-crore global haul. If Uri has raked it in reconstructing a high point of India’s military history, Modi’s using a popular dialogue from that film (which recreates him as an architect of the operation) to greet B-Town’ swish set has impressed most of his target votebank. In India, few efforts endear a leader to the masses as a Bollywood connect.

The content of Uri, as well as the prime minister’s use of the film’s dialogue at a high-profile do, represents a new era of political propaganda. Only recently, The Accidental Prime Minister claimed to espose how Sonia and Rahul Gandhi routinely scuttled the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh’s efforts during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule. “Mahabharat mein do families thi. India mein toh ek hi hai(the Mahabharat was a tale of two families. India just has one),” drawls Akshaye Khanna as Sanjaya Baru. The camera cuts to a close-up of German-origin actress Suzanne Bernert’s Sonia Gandhi even as the dialogue fades, underlining which family Baru, media adviser to Singh, is referring to.

In Petta, superstar Rajinikanth reloads vintage action hero flourish but accommodates a new breed of villains — goons from Uttar Pradesh who talk of gau raksha and force young lovers into marriage because they were celebrating Valentine’s Day. “Yeh dhartiyeh mitti kissi ke baap ki jaagir nahin hai (this land is no one’s private property),” Rajini roars, snubbing right-wing diktats in a threadbare script about a Hindu-Muslim romance. Ahead of his entry into politics, Rajini insisted Petta is not meant to push an electoral agenda. You do note this is the second time in a year that Thalaivar has condemned hardline Hindutva, after Kaala.

 Lights, Camera, Votebank!

Rajinikanth in a still from Petta. YouTube screengrab

A political backdrop and politicians (mostly depicted as villains) are not new to mainstream cinema, but the intent of the new crop in the genre is. Never before have commercial films pushed political propaganda as in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.

It seems to be working. If Uri is a superhit, The Accidental Prime Minister, riding a small budget, is seeing reasonable returns (`28.54 crore after 14 days, and counting). Petta continues its bumper run (`150 crore-plus after 14 days). The film might be a success because of Rajini, but its political message is not lost on viewers.

If cinema of political propaganda makes most of the charged political atmosphere all around, the advantages are obvious: The real star is the subject and not the actor, and there is a ready fan base. Propaganda cinema conveniently sets up lucrative prospects without having to invest in expensive superstars.

A section of Bollywood has found its star in Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Two biopics of the prime minister are being readied ahead of the polls, one starring Vivek Oberoi and the other Paresh Rawal. While Rawal is a member of Parliament for the BJP from Ahmedabad East, the party’s push will be crucial for Oberoi’s home production.

Regional satraps are at it, too. Thackeray, starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray, opened this week. The film, written by the Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, justifies the late right wing leader’s aggressive credo of asserting Marathi identity. “Yahan pehla haq Marathi logon ka hai (the Marathi people have first right here),” thunders Siddiqui’s Thackeray, as the poster of a Hindi film is taken down from a Mumbai single-screen’s facade to accommodate a Marathi release.  Elsewhere, NTR: Kathanayakudu, a biopic of NT Rama Rao starring and produced by his son Nandamuri Balakrishna, deifies the late Telugu matinee idol-political titan to boost the Telugu Desam Party’s prospects.

In a nation besotted with idol worship, intelligent cinema that questions the hallowed and the mighty can be a risk. Gulzar’s Aandhi, said to be influenced by the lives of Indira Gandhi and Tarkeshwari Sinha, and Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi, a political drama around the Emergency, are ample proof. Both films struggled to find release. Sanjay Gandhi is said to have confiscated all prints of Kissaa Kursee Kaa, Amrit Nahata’s satire on the Indira Gandhi regime. There have been the stray Inquilaab, Raajneeti or Satta, but these films used politics as a backdrop to merely create formula fare.

The latest crop is not trying to be intelligent either. In sync with mainstream diktats, the slant is towards setting up tales of hero worship. The outcome, mostly, is hagiography. It’s obvious. If push comes from the same party as the subject, the film will avoid all shades of grey, as Thackeray or NTR: Kathanayakudu did. If the idea is to tarnish an opponent, the protagonist can always be caricatured. The Accidental Prime Minister is a case in point.

Anupam Kher, who plays ex-PM Manmohan Singh in the film, downplays the idea. “When people vote, they do not decide anything based on a film. It would be silly to say this film will change election results this year,” he argued.

Kher’s contention may not necessarily hold true in a semi-literate mass market hugely influenced by cinema, you realise, as the actor ambles and mumbles awkwardly in a bid to project Singh’s style of walking and talking. The effort, inadvertently comic, leaves you wondering how an actor of Kher’s calibre manages to botch it up. It makes for bad cinema but it also works at reducing the former UPA regime to a joke ahead of the elections.

There are other projects. Nithya Menen plays J. Jayalalithaa in The Iron Lady, an upcoming Tamil biopic. BJP sympathiser Vivek Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files probes conspiracy theories around Lal Bahadur Shastri’s mysterious death during his 1966 visit to the then Soviet Union.

Agnihotri’s film must make the Congress wary. After what the party felt was objectionable portrayal of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in The Accidental Prime Minister, could Shastri’s death be ammunition for the BJP to take aim at Jawaharlal Nehru?

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