By Anamika Chatterjee
It’s not often that one finds that someone penned a book titled The Book I Won’t Be Writing And Other Essays. And yet, H.Y. Sharada Prasad did just that. In the brief introduction, the former media adviser to Indian prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi made a case for not writing the book his peers so badly wanted him to write: an insider’s account of the leader that was Indira Gandhi. He said he lacked “the capacity to do justice to her complexity” — that prevented him from trying.
Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister takes off from where Sharada Prasad left (there’s even a nostalgic recollection of Baru’s interaction with him in the introduction), detailing the complex legacy of a simple man. That man is the former prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh. How does the champion of India’s economic liberalisation end up becoming the country’s accidental prime minister? Baru’s book maps that journey. When it released in 2014, critics had rued the timing of the book. It was a year when India had its last general elections. Interestingly, four-and-a-half years later, as the country prepares for election season once again, a film adaptation of the book is all set to release amid much controversy. Is it a film? A piece of propaganda? Or a bit of both? The world of Twitter cannot decide.
The title of Baru’s book was followed by an unambiguous catchline — the making and unmaking of Manmohan Singh. That the trailer leans more towards the ‘unmaking’ becomes obvious when you see Suzanne Bernert’s Sonia Gandhi telling Anupam Kher’s Manmohan Singh as he offers to resign, “Ek ke baad doosra corruption scandal. Aise mahaul main Rahul kaise take over kar sakta hai?” [One scandal after another… how can Rahul (Gandhi, Indian National Congress’ then heir apparent) take over amid these controversies?] However, it’s the controversies revolving around the film that pose more interesting questions. First, is it time we developed an appetite for political biographies? Second, how does one separate truth from propaganda in such a film? Finally, does the presence of an actor with strong political views do justice to a character that stands at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum?
A quick disclaimer: I haven’t seen the film, but as someone who subscribes to the politics of rationale rather than the one of Left and Right, I quite rejoiced at how the names of some key characters had not been changed. Perhaps the fact that it is an adaptation of a book written by a former media adviser to the prime minister grants that licence. Still, it feels like a speck of victory in a film that appears to be building a convoluted legacy for itself. In the past, films even loosely based on politicians or political events have been frowned upon and banned. Take for instance, the 1977 film Kissa Kursi Ka that satirises the Emergency. Or the 2003 documentary Final Solution that was based on the Gujarat riots, was banned for several months. If the Emergency or the riots have indeed been defining events in a nation’s history, why must their depictions be camouflaged? Why must blows be softened to make the truth seem more palatable?
Many argue that in India, cinema is soft power, a powerful tool to disseminate ideas and ideologies. However, with sites of debates constantly shifting to popular platforms, the audience is not always naïve or incapable of recognising and rejecting the propaganda served on the big screen. Of course, a political film will hurt sentiments. But, in doing so, it will also ignite debates about our past that could define our present.
To my mind, the most honest works of cinema and literature are ones that do not claim a hegemony on truth. Because truth itself can be seen in myriad ways. These perspectives often collide when a book or a film sets out to tell a ‘definitive’ tale. For example, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), hailed as a masterpiece on the American president’s efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. An alternative view of the film — such as the one by Kate Masur in The New York Times — argues that in lionising Lincoln, the film perpetuates the “notion that the African-Americans offered little substance to their own liberation”. With several perspectives, who should own the narrative in a historical or political film? Should filmmakers tell stories that we want to hear? Or the ones that they want to make?
Debates on Twitter also question how an actor who is seen as being a strong supporter of the ruling party can do justice to a character in a film based on the rival party. If actors were to only embody characters that align with their political positions, wouldn’t that also be propaganda?
Sharada Prasad may have been right. Politicians, at large, are far more complex than the image they set out to craft for themselves. To that end, it’s normal to have a debate on whether a film or a book has captured them in all their ambiguities. But when a political party decides to retweet the trailer of a film based on its rival, with the latter mounting a protest, there’s greater scrutiny on the ideology that informs a film. But is that reason enough to reject it altogether prior to its release? Certainly not. Because in protesting it, we might be giving up our rights to watch our history unfold on our screens.
Anamika is interested in observing and recording thought and action