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Interview Hindi

On 23rd the poll results come in, on 24th we arrive, maybe it will be for the best: Omung Kumar B

Omung Kumar B, director of the controversial biopic PM Narendra Modi, speaks about the reasoning behind the film's making, the election hoopla, and why 24 May is still a good day for the film.

Shriram Iyengar

"What happened maybe happened for the best," is a philosophical way for Omung Kumar B to sum up his reaction to the controversy around his upcoming film, PM Narendra Modi.

The first biopic on an incumbent prime minister of India, the film features Vivek Oberoi as Narendra Modi as he is transformed from a 'chaiwallah' to the prime minister of the world's largest democracy (by population).

Philosophy would be a good way to approach a film's release, except when the subject is as political as this. However, the director refuses to accept the charge that the film presents a biased portrayal of the prime minister.

"People put two and two together and reacted straightaway," Omung Kumar told Cinestaan.com on the telephone. In a short conversation, which ended suddenly, the director maintained that he had only shown 'what happened'.

One of the 'twos' that the director refers to is the recently concluded Lok Sabha election. The film was initially scheduled to be released on 11 April, a day before the first phase of polling in the seven-phase general election. Naturally, a film on an incumbent prime minister who was seeking re-election ran afoul of the model code of conduct. Objections were raised, which led to a battle in the Supreme Court as well. In the end, the Election Commission of India stood its ground, calling the film 'uni-dimensional' and violative of the model code of conduct, and stayed its release. 

Now, the film is set to be released on 24 May, a day after the results of the election are declared. Omung Kumar is buoyed by that. "Maybe 23rd poll results come in and 24th we [the film] come in, maybe it will be for the best," he said.

While the director said he 'respects' the Election Commission's observations about the film, he argued, "If it feels heroic in the film, that is because he [Modi] has done it. He is a superstar in his own right, and that is what I have shown."

PM Narendra Modi is set for release on 24 May. Following are excerpts from the telephone interview with director Omung Kumar B:

How are you? Do you feel relieved that the film is finally coming up for release?

Yes. 24th is what we are looking at. It is good that the film has finally got a go-ahead for the release. 

With all the controversy around the film, and the legal wrangling, in hindsight, would you have rather picked a different subject for a biopic?

Not at all. I am not bitter at anybody. This happened, it is a sad thing that it happened, we went through it. Yes, maybe this is the right time to release the film.

It is a labour of love that we have made. Hardships come in every filmmaking process. This is one for us, and good to talk about later on in life.

Maybe 23rd poll results, and 24th we come in, maybe it will be for the best.

Producer Sandip Ssingh, lead actor Vivek Oberoi and director Omung Kumar. Photograph: Shutterbugs Images

But you must have expected it, considering the subject was the prime minister, a very political person.

We had thought there would be some controversy, where some will oppose the film, but it will go in our favour. It should have [gone in our favour], but let’s not push it. That is something one will always debate all our life. What if we had come on the earlier date?

But we honour the EC’s decision and we are abiding by it. Maybe this was the right time. Everything happens for a reason, and we are going ahead and releasing on this date.

Your latest poster for the film also runs the tagline ‘Aa rahe hain dobaara’, which plays on the recently concluded elections.

It is a pun on our film. We came earlier, but we didn’t get a chance to release it. That’s why we are coming again.

But it does work both ways, considering the recently concluded elections.

Yeah, it works both ways. But it is a part of our film. We did not purposely shoot this portion again. The shankh [conch] element is there in the film. We did not shoot it for the poster. 

The entire film was also shot in a very short period of time, making it in time for an April release.

No. The movie has been planned for a long time. Sandip Ssingh has been planning it for a long time. It happened that while I was judging India’s Best Dramebaaz (July 2018). Vivek Oberoi was with me on the show one time. It was then that he [Sandeep Ssingh] asked me, and we approached Vivek. He immediately said yes. But the process was in place way before.

It is not a short span of time. It took us 38 days to shoot. We doubled our unit, because I had another unit to shoot the crowd shots. So, we took 48 days in all. If you see Mary Kom (2014) or Sarabjit (2016), it took 50-52 days to shoot them. Also, we had worked on the scripting for six months. So, people thought, "Oh how come it is ready in such a short period of time?"

Everything was planned in such a way that we will be shooting in this time frame, and the time needed to shoot for a film, we have used that.

The release date certainly brought up the issue. It was timed for the opening phase of the election. Perhaps that blew it up....

Yes, people put two and two together and reacted straightaway.

But when the initial date was planned, since it was election season, the connection was inevitable. Had you thought about that?

Well, for the producers, they thought this was a good time for them to release the film. People think of Eid, Diwali, so why not election season? This is also a celebration. So we took it in the same way. 

First, we got a go-ahead for the release. We were going to release [the film]. But suddenly, to change on the last day was a little too much. We did not expect that. We fought everywhere possible. The film became a soft target.

We took it on the chin and decided to move ahead.

The trailer for the film does offer an overly heroic portrait of the prime minister, and there has been criticism of that. What do you make of it?

I have told the story of a person who has faced all that and gone through [all that]. If it was not a heroic story, I would not have done it. Yes, he has gone through all that, and it is his life story. I have not exaggerated anything. It is out in the open, there are books written about it.

If it feels heroic in the film, that is because he has done it. He [Modi] is a superstar in his own right, and that is what I have shown.

In fact, my other movies also show similar things. Nobody said back then that Mary Kom was not like that. I only showed what she was. 

People are making these judgments. They keep talking ‘you must have not shown this or that.’ All I ask is see the movie and then make the judgment.

Which is what the Supreme Court also asked the Election Commission to do, I suppose.

Yes. How can you judge on the basis of a two-and-a-half-minute trailer and call it a propaganda film? This is not a propaganda film. I am not a person to make something of that. I believe in the story and I believe in the person, and that’s why I have done it.

What happened is the timing, maybe everybody thought that since it was being released during the election campaign, it was so. All we thought was that it was good timing.

So, what do you make of the Election Commission’s observation later that the film is ‘uni-dimensional’ in its portrayal of the prime minister.

I respect their opinion. I have nothing more to say about it. Maybe we were targeted. But what happened maybe happened for the best. Now, let's move ahead and talk about the film.

Out of curiousity, would you stick to the same date if the election results don’t go in favour of the prime minister?

We had to release at this point, na? Results, whatever they be, we don’t know what happens on the 23rd. We had made up our mind about releasing the film on this day.

This is your third biopic, and more challenging in terms of what it has faced so far. What separates this from the other two, Mary Kom (2014) and Sarbjit (2016)?

The challenge is that he is larger than life, a big figure. This is the first time in history that a reigning prime minister has had a film made on him. It is a different ball game than Sarbjit and Mary Kom.

It is India’s sentiment, and I have taken care of that. Yet, I wanted to be true to the person and the character. I am not a political person, so for me, I had to change my mind if I want to do this film or not. But, finally, the human story is bigger than the political figure. That is why I made this film. 

How do you make a film larger than life when the reality itself is so big? You cannot be short-changed by life.

But how can you steer away from the politics of it?

When you watch the film you will know. I have not shown that he did this and that great thing. It is a chaiwallah-to-PM story. Whatever difficulties and things he has gone through is what I have shown. 

If I was a political person, my storytelling technique would have changed. But I am not. Maybe that has helped me in my filmmaking. I didn’t even go that side.

When we were discussing with Sandip and Vivek, I told them the same. They said, "That’s fine. You say it your way. You have done other biopics, and you know what the high point and low point are.” So then I said yes. If I am doing it my way, then I am doing it my way. We have shown all the highlights of his life and matched the storyline. There are several interesting parts which I couldn’t fit in. Subtlely, we have mentioned them. 

Have you shown the prime minister the film, or do you plan to?

I have been waiting for that. But till now, nothing.