Anjali Jhangiani
Friday, 25 January 2019

Political films seem to be the flavour of the season. But can they impact opinions? Anjali Jhangiani explores

Films are taken seriously in India. There have been riots, violence, death threats to actors, filmmakers and so on. Before the upcoming elections in April-May, quite a number of films that are either based on political figures or active political parties, have, and will be, released. While the release date for Narendra Modi, a biopic on the current Prime Minister, has not been announced yet and The Tashkent Files is getting final touches, The Accidental Prime Minister and Thackeray have hit theatres. 

Will political films like these change the point-of-view of audiences, will they impact the elections at all? We dive deeper into this topic and speak to personalities related to these films to find out. 

Film historian Anil Zankar talks about how the idea of political films in the ’70s and ’80s was different from what it is now. “Back then, it was more related to ideologies, the kind of films that Mrunal Sen made. It was not so focussed on individuals as now. In fact, I would not categorise these new films as political films, they’re more like political soap operas. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar by Jabbar Patel and Gandhi by Richard Attenborough were biopics of political personalities and they had a certain validity because there was a considerable distance of time between when the film was made and the death of the personality. What additional information are you going to show in a biopic of a living person?” he asks.

Zankar, who has been honoured with two National Awards, shares how it’s almost impossible to look at a politician’s life objectively. “It’s very difficult to make a critical biopic showing the person fairly balanced in shades of grey without being disrespectful and irrational. It’s difficult to write a factually-correct script because if the person’s followers believe that s/he is great in all aspects, they’ll expect to see exactly that on screen.”

Filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri talks about how back in the day, almost all Bollywood films would include a socio-political commentary, be it a Raj Kapoor film or a Javed Akhtar film. “There was a message that was conveyed, subtly if not overtly. Then came the phase of Govinda-Kader Khan phase followed by Shah Rukh Khan, Farhan Akhtar, Karan Johar phase. Since they were totally cut off from Indian middle class reality and exposed only to elite class problems, their films were isolated from politics, leading to the dearth of strong political films. Prakash Jha and a few makers kept the genre alive despite resistance from certain studios,” explains Agnihotri, adding, “When I made Buddha in a Traffic Jam, a hardcore political film, nobody was willing to even finance it, forget distributing. But now, due to increased awareness about politics, people want to see such films. I can see the enthusiasm around The Tashkent Files,” he says. 

Scheduled to release in March-April, The Tashkent Files explores the mysterious death of the second Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shashtri, in the capital of Uzbekistan on the day of signing a peace agreement between India and Pakistan that resolved the Indo-Pak war of 1965. “I believe everyone has the #RightToTruth. But in our democracy, ‘truth’ is the last thing anyone bothers about. There have been so many assassinations, murders, disappearances, controversies, scams, scandals but we don’t know the facts in any case. A few years ago, I tweeted in the memory of Shashtriji and some followers of mine started asking me to make a film on his mysterious death. There was no post-mortem, no inquiry, and everything carried on as if nothing happened, despite Shashtriji wife, fans, supporters, journalists, veteran leaders and almost all Indians asking for an inquiry. I was told not to even attempt digging deep into this subject. Though the government had no papers, I filed several RTIs with various ministries including MFA, PMO, Home etc, researched on the Cold War, Uzbekistan, USSR, Parliament records, and met with veteran journalists,” says Vivek. 

Though films like Padmaavat and Bajirao Mastani don’t fit into the category of political films per say, some political parties took the opportunity of their theatrical release to create some ruckus based on rather baseless facts. The Accidental Prime Minister was also released with some fuss. Aahana Kumra, who plays the role of Priyanka Gandhi (the recently appointed Congress General Secretary for UP East), admits that when she read the script, it did occur to her that the release will not be a smooth one. “But I thought if the book had released without problems, then I didn’t see why the film should face one. Whether you like a film or not, it will be made, I think that’s what cinema and democracy actually means. If you don’t want to watch a film, don’t. Nobody is asking you to watch it. It’s really upto you. Nobody forced anyone to watch Lipstick Under My Burkha, but it was watched because it intrigued a lot of people who had preconceived notions. They changed their opinions after actually watching the film,” says Aahana, adding, “Apparently there’s some FIR lodged against all the actors of The Accidental Prime Minister. I’m not prepared to react to that yet.”

Sanjay Raut, Shiv Sena leader, who recently wrote the script and produced the film Thackeray, based on the life of the party’s founder, claims that his film is not a documentary, but it aims to show Bal Thackeray in a light that will familiarise him with the generation after his time. “Millennials are aware of Balasaheb’s powerful speeches, his terror, but they don’t now how he was in real life or the story behind how he got to that position. To become the kind of powerful politician he became wasn’t an easy journey. More than 50 years ago, when he started Shiv Sena, there were hardly any regional forces. Today, you have Trinamool Congress, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazghagam (AIADMK), The Telugu Desam, and many more springing up across the country. Congress was the first to oppose Balasaheb’s ideology, but today they have understood his words. When Kamal Nath came into power in Madhya Pradesh, one of his first announcements was about encouraging jobs for locals,” Raut says. 

Aahana doesn’t think that people will change their political opinions based on a film. “If people want to vote for somebody, they will go and do it. A film can provoke a thought, but an opinion is something that someone always maintains inside themselves. Elections are very subjective. Just like how you can’t tell anyone how to live their life, you can’t tell anyone who to vote for. But films can definitely make you think, and thinking is important,” says Aahana who claims that she was not intimidated at all to portray the active politician in her film. “While studying Priyanka Gandhi for my role, I came to admire her because of how she stood her ground. In her interviews, she claimed to be happy with family life. I found her to be the kind of person who doesn’t bother about what other people think of her, she’s come into her own and she doesn’t need anyone to tell her how to lead her life,” she adds.  

Agnihotri believes that there are two main narratives in politics. “Every article, book, or movie justifies or rejects one of the narratives. In that sense, they can help the people who believe in one story. But Lal Bahadur Shashtri’s story is beyond politics. It’s about us, our country, and our democracy. As a filmmaker, I’m here to investigate the truth and the reasons why truth never reaches the citizens,” says he.  

Zankar uncovers an obvious contradiction here about films on active politicians changing their image in people’s minds. “The current personalities are very exposed to the public through their media utterances. The public is free to make their own judgements based on that. The trick to change public perception might work if you make a film about a historical figure who has long passed away and people today may not know so many details about that person. But through news, social media and what not, you’re watching current personalities everyday, so what different perception-changing version of them can be shown in a film?” says the film historian, adding, “Followers of Modi are not going to act positively to any image of Rahul Gandhi, and vice-versa. Maybe these political films are being made as commercial propositions rather than political propositions. But I don’t think this can become a trend because it is an obvious contradiction to me,” he says. 

Emraan Hashmi who starred in the recently-released film Why Cheat India? that throws light on the shortcomings of the education system in the country, says, “My political views are quite limited. Though I can’t say whether these films will affect the elections or not, I feel that these movies will shed light on some core problems in India and guide people towards the right direction.” 

His film didn’t do quite as well at the box office, but Emraan believes the film’s job is done as it highlights a topic that desperately needs to be addressed by professionals as well as the government. “Why Cheat India? will make audiences think before they take admission anywhere. Similarly, other films will also make the public aware of issues that need attention. I believe the government already knows about these problems, and perhaps these films will start the required conversation in the Parliament which might result in the passing of a bill to address them,” he adds. 

When talking about impacting people’s sensibilities through the film, the demographic considered is the urban, educated, multiplex-going population. But often it is this demographic that prefers to enjoy free time during the election day rather than going to the poll booth to stand in line to cast their vote. Then you also have the question of professionals living in different cities who don’t want to travel to cast their vote in their consistency. 

Agnihotri believes that the sensibilities of the filmmaker play the most important role as far as political films are concerned. “The intent of the market determines the impact of a film. But the audience takes no time in figuring out the intent of the maker,” he riddles, as he further explains, “Elections are fought on real issues. I don’t think any film has the power to influence a voter. Lot of people I know who have loved Uri: The Surgical Strike will vote against Modi. And lot of people who didn’t like The Accidental Prime Minister will  vote for Modi. But what is very surprising and shocking is that we haven’t released the poster or trailer of The Tashkent Files as yet but some people have already started trolling and abusing me,” he says, adding, “The other day, a (believed-to-be) party worker called my home at midnight and told my domestic help that if I release this film, they will cut me into 50 pieces. I wonder what has happened to their minds.”

Zankar puts forth an obvious contradiction to the films changing people’s opinions. “Audiences who watch news and those that go to cinema are the same. It’s in minds of people that audiences are segmented but that’s not the case. Right now, the genre of political films in India is still developing. Closer to the election, what happens, who loses out, how the momentum picks up, all these are just variables that nobody can predict. About the current political leaders, a lot of stuff is circulated on WhatsApp everyday, but people will believe what they want to,” he concludes.

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