The Accidental Prime Minister: How BJP, Congress created an accidental controversy through a comedy of errors

Political discourse in India continues to show a remarkable immaturity. The brouhaha over the release of the trailer of The Accidental Prime Minister is a case in point. The film, set to be released on 11 January, is a biopic derived from the book by Sanjaya Baru of the same name. Baru was the media advisor to Manmohan Singh from 2004 to 2008, and his book gave an insider’s account of how the former prime minister was little more than a puppet in the hands of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who enjoyed real clout over the prime minister's office.

Singh, wrote Baru, was saddled with all the responsibilities of his office without any power, while Sonia, who maintained an arm’s length from the prime minister’s chair, enjoyed real power sans responsibilities. Throw in the allegations of numerous scams during Singh’s tenure as prime minister and the prospect that the economist-politician was a seat-warmer for the crown prince to eventually take over, and it makes for an intriguing biopic that casts light on the shadowy world of the Dyansty’s internal dynamics. This subject has long remained a taboo in India’s popular culture due to Congress’s political clout and the influence wielded by its invisible ecosystem.

BJP’s rise in 2014 changed a lot of things in India. Among many structural and tectonic shifts, India witnessed a waning of Congress’s political influence and a concomitant increase in the BJP’s clout. That slowly created space for films such as Indu Sarkar — that dealt with the subject of Emergency —to be attempted. As an essential part of popular culture, films have an impact on society’s collective psyche. In a vibrant democracy, no subject is kept aside as a taboo.

It appears from the context, therefore, that The Accidental Prime Minister — which claims to be a biopic and uses real names to depict the lives of persons — comes at an opportune time for the BJP. It might even put the Congress in trouble simply by throwing light on a subject that the party is deeply uncomfortable about to discuss in public. The fact that it is based on a book written by an insider, whose job made it possible to track the inner workings of the Dynasty and critically evaluate its functions, gives a ring of authenticity to the project and adds to the Congress’ discomfort.

 The Accidental Prime Minister: How BJP, Congress created an accidental controversy through a comedy of errors

Anupam Kher as Manmohan Singh in The Accidental Prime Minister. Image: YouTube screengrab

That said, the film’s trailer leaves a poor impression, though actor Anupam Kher excels in his portrayal of Singh. It lacks A-listers in its roster. That shouldn’t have been a problem, but the film also appears to be hampered by a poor script, low budget and the production appears to have fallen short of professional standards. As author and film critic Arnab Ray points out on Twitter, the poor production makes it difficult to defend the film as “art by itself”.

A critical condition for a movie that deals with a politically sensitive subject is that it must adhere to professional standards. In terms of direction, cinematography, script, editing, acting and production, the film should be able to hold its own. Short of that, the movie runs the risk of being dismissed as a propaganda.

Ironically, by promoting the movie from its official Twitter handle, the BJP has reinforced the impression that The Accidental Prime Minister is a propagandist work that has received saffron sponsorship and is little more than campaign material just ahead of the 2019 general elections.

In trying make political capital out of a film and extending official endorsement, the BJP has not only made an objective assessment impossible, it has compromised the movie itself. The Accidental Prime Minister, for all its real and perceived flaws, now must fight the added smear of being "BJP propaganda" and may find it difficult to attract neutral viewers. Well may information and broadcasting minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore justify the party’s actions by saying that the BJP was simply “extending wishes” to a film, it will be hard to dismiss the notion that Kher’s work, that deals with a much-needed subject of discussion, is a marketing gimmick. The BJP forgot that a veneer of "nonalignment" is essential for propaganda to be successful.

However, political discourse in India is a comedy of errors. If the BJP made a blunder by officially promoting the movie instead of letting its proxies do the work, the Congress ironically emerged as the film’s unlikely "rescuer" by creating a ruckus over the trailer and ensuring that enough controversy is generated for the movie to become a hit in box office.

The Congress should have played it cool. The ability of a movie in shaping perceptions lies in its degree of departure from "neutrality".

Congress had few reasons to be worried about a film which is sure to be tainted in public perception. Besides, if Singh — who has been the subject of corruption allegations and inquires — is portrayed in the film as a "martyr" and a victim to Congress’s internal politics instead of a "perpetrator", it should have exploited the depiction to justify Singh’s image. Instead, by appearing to demand a "prior screening" of the movie, issuing calls for censorship before retracting, showing a thin skin, calling it "fake propaganda" and an attempt to "divert attention" from "real issues", the Congress has ended up lending relevance and publicity to the film.

The political ping-pong has created enough heat and dust for the trailer to grab public attention. If the movie does indeed go on to become a success, it could be a testament to the immaturity of India’s political discourse. One suspects the BJP, at least, won’t be complaining.

Updated Date: Dec 29, 2018 16:19:45 IST