Indu Sarkar review: A stuttering voice, but one that needs to be heard

Release Date: 28 Jul 2017

Cinestaan Rating

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Mayur Lookhar

Though the film has its flaws, Kirti Kulhari’s brilliant performance and Madhur Bhandarkar’s mature handling of the subject deserve applause.

Time may heal physical wounds, but the mental scars are more difficult to erase. It has been 42 years since the Emergency was imposed, plunging India into darkness for two years, when all constitutional rights were suspended. The one calling the shots was then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Early attempts to bring aspects of the Emergency on to celluloid, IS Johar’s Nasbandi (1978) and Amrit Nahata’s Kissa Kursi Ka (1978), were nipped in the bud, being denied theatrical release. Earlier, Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) had run into a political storm, getting banned a few months after its release, though it was later showcased on state-run Doordarshan in 1977, after the fall of the Indira Gandhi government. Fear of such repercussions, perhaps, turned the Emergency (1975-1977) into a danger zone for filmmakers.

Forty-two years later, a struggling director decided to reopen the dark chapter, but not without some opposition. However, today, the grand old party of India (the Congress) is facing the prospect of political oblivion. Despite some agitation, this, then, is the most opportune moment to produce a film like Indu Sarkar.

Though the time is right, Bhandarkar, like any other director, stays clear of pointing the finger at the Gandhi family. There is no mention of Sanjay Gandhi nor do we hear the name Indira. Indu Sarkar, thus, is a well-crafted title.

Set in the Emergency, the film tells the story of Indu Sarkar (Kirti Kulhari), a stuttering poet who raises her voice against the dictatorial rule. Born an orphan, Indu finds her soul mate in Naveen Sarkar (Tota Roy Chowdhury), a section officer in the urban development ministry. Naveen is loyal to his boss, the minister Om Nath (Satyajit Sharma), and will do whatever it takes to make him happy.

Indu harbours no ambition of being a rebel, but her eyes are opened to the dark reality outside the comfort of her home when she witnesses a violent land-grab by the police. Indu shelters two Muslim kids and takes them home after an unsuccessful attempt to trace their parents. But Naveen does not want to invite trouble and orders her to choose between the homeless kids and him. Indu chooses the former and joins the small revolutionary group Himmat India Sangathan, headed by Nanaji Pradhan (Anupam Kher).

Bhandarkar had said his film is 70% fiction and 30% fact. We don’t know how he arrived at this ratio, for much of the film is centred on true events that took place during the Emergency. Naveen is a government officer who is in cahoots with the powerful in carrying out nefarious deeds – land grabbing, forced sterilizations, gagging the press, etc.

If one goes back into history, those who thrived during the Emergency were the sycophants, the yes-men who carried out nefarious deeds for their political masters, Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay, whose own power grew considerably in the two years and who became an extra-constitutional authority. It is these yes-men who are the antagonists of the film. They also happen to be the soft and convenient targets.

Before the film’s release, Bhandarkar was slammed by Congress politicians who called Indu Sarkar a 'sponsored' film. The director, though, should be complimented for turning out a film that has no overt political agenda. Bhandarkar steers clear of professing any political ideology, probably not wanting to hurt sentiments. There is no mention of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi, the Congress, or, for that matter, the Janata Party. But the director has done his research well and brings to light some important happenings.

Bhandarkar also deserves credit for successfully recreating 1975 in 2017. From attire to hairdos, LPs to rotary telephones, humble press offices to the impoverished bylanes of Delhi, Bhandarkar and his team have paid great attention to detail to ensure that the film takes you back to those distant days.

And yes, the film does mention Kishore Kumar songs being banned from All India Radio, as the singer had refused to perform at a Congress PR event.

Bhandarkar has often been guilty of dramatizing and exaggeration in his earlier films. The filmmaker has a tendency to generalize about people and professions as we saw in films like Page 3 (2005), Corporate (2006) and Fashion (2008). Be it the entertainment industry, big business, or the fashion industry, a Bhandarkar film has usually left you with an ‘oh, it’s a bad bad world’ expression.

The director has, however, curbed these tendencies and indulged in simple storytelling, reminding people what happened during the Emergency. Much of his research is based on the Shah Commission report, authored by former chief justice of India JC Shah. So, Indu Sarkar is quite unlike your usual Madhu Bhandarkar film. 

The film does suffer from tardy writing and some timid dialogues by Sanjay Chhel. This causes a few dents in the screenplay. It is also not backed by good performances by most of the cast. Tota Roy Chowdhury’s angry outbursts lack intensity, and there is a pretentiousness to his character through the film. Neil Nitin Mukesh bears a striking resemblance to Sanjay Gandhi, but his character is merely addressed as 'Chief' by his stooges. (Bhandarkar, perhaps, did not wanting to offend Sanjay Gandhi’s widow Maneka Gandhi, current Union minister for woman and child welfare).

While he nails the look, Neil Nitin Mukesh is far from convincing in his act. He also bears the brunt of poor dialogues and is surrounded by poor followers. Many among the aggrieved, oppressed supporting cast (Sheeba Chaddha, for instance) are guilty of melodrama. The real disappointment, however, is Anupam Kher’s uninspiring act as the leader of Himmat India Sanghatan.

Fortunately for Bhandarkar, he gets fine performances from Kirti Kulhari, Zakir Hussain, Satyajit Sharma and Manan Vij. Zakir Hussain, best known for playing Rashid in Sarkar (2005), fits the role of top cop Mishra who leads the oppression of the meek. Manav Vij shot to fame with Udta Punjab (2016). Inspector Sodhi (Vij) partly represents the Sikh opposition to the Emergency. However, he is given very little screen time. Satyajit Sharma is remembered most from his Balika Vadhu (a popular TV serial) days. An alumnus of the National School of Drama, Sharma is flawless as the urban development minister.

Finally, the film boils down to the stellar performance of its protagonist, Kirti Kulhari, who was superb in Pink (2016). Kulhari had told that she wouldn’t want her stammer to evoke laughs beyond the first scene. She was wrong. Not once do you laugh at her speech problem. She has put in the hard yards to get into the skin of the character and pulls off her role with elan. She has a soft but commanding voice, and that is backed by her supreme confidence and screen presence. Clearly, she is a talent to watch out for. 

Judging Indu Sarkar in the usual manner may expose the film's many flaws, but the best judges are those who had experienced the tough times. A Supreme Court advocate emerged from the screening saying the events in the film were just a few of the many wrongs that took place across the country and appreciated the director for his simple and sincere storytelling.

The unbiased voice in you will find flaws, but Inda Sarkar is still a voice that needs to be heard.