Review Hindi

The Accidental Prime Minister review: Manmohan Singh deserves more than to be a caricature in a poorly crafted film

Release Date: 11 Jan 2019 / Rated: U / 01hr 51min

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Shriram Iyengar

Vijay Gutte's film sheds the nuances without improving the drama or the politics of this tedious film.

Sach badhe ya ghate toh sach na rahe
Jhooth ki koi intehaa nahi
 — Krishan Bihari 'Noor'

Truth embellished or reduced is no longer truth
Lies have no such compunctions

It is a good thing the makers of The Accidental Prime Minister introduced a warning before the screening, suggesting that the 'characters in the film are dramatized for fictional representation'. That alone should serve as an insight into the nature and style of Vijay Gutte's film.

Based on Sanjaya Baru's experience as media adviser to former prime minister Manmohan Singh, the film is a poorly crafted drama that is filled with caricaturish portrayals of politicians and the politics in which they live.

Gutte's film captures snippets and moments from a decade-long UPA term to paint a one-sided picture of baiting, political bickering and machinations that, according to the film, led India to ruin. In the middle of all this is Manmohan Singh (Anupam Kher), the kind gentleman who seeks to serve his country but is impeded at every step by the bureaucracy and party politics.

The makers promoted Manmohan Singh as the 'tragic hero' of the UPA but fail to do his intelligence, courage, or perseverance any justice. Kher's transformation into the former prime minister is almost caricaturish. A few young members of the audience in the same theatre as your reviewer were laughing at the performance.

For a man who was well versed in Punjabi and Urdu literature, the film portrays Manmohan Singh as someone who did not know the phrase 'Que sera sera'. Perhaps it is true, but to have him repeat the question twice like a child is unworthy of his long years in public life.

It is not just Manmohan Singh. The film presents a whole coterie of caricatures from Indian politics, including a two-minute appearance of Hansal Mehta as the hapless Naveen Patnaik, chief minister of Orissa. These simply serve to present Baru's version of the mousetrap that was the government.

A ray of light is Vipin Sharma's sly portrayal of Ahmed Patel, the Gandhi family loyalist, as the man watching out for the family over everything else. Sharma's tete-a-tete with Akshaye Khanna's Baru adds some spark to the proceedings.

The greatest injustice, though, is to the bureaucrats and IAS officers who are presented as opportunists waiting to serve their political masters.

It is Baru who emerges as the true hero of the film. As the outsider, the fly-on-the-wall journalist who gets to peek behind the curtains, Khanna portrays him as the shrewd manipulator protecting Manmohan Singh. He is the morally ambiguous but sentimental protagonist who loses a friendship due to his loyalty to 'speaking the truth'. It is his lens through which we view the prime minister and the government. It is quite coloured, to say the least. Khanna does a good job as the suave, fourth-wall-breaking conversationalist, but is let down by a shoddy screenplay.

These caricatures could have been effective with some drama and better dialogues. The subject of Manmohan Singh's tenure had enough for the makers to mine, but it is not used. The film skims through the key conflicts in a superficial manner, refusing to divulge any information other than that which is already known. The muted dialogues, erasing mentions of some key political names and moments, dulls the effect as well.

Political opinions can be successfully, and overtly, translated into good scripts. Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing series is a good example. Unlike Sorkin's series, through 110 minutes, this film appears like a re-enactment of several press conferences, interviews and some personal talks which does not make for cinema.

The political bias of the film is also very evident, and well timed. Watching the film a day after an entire group of Hindi cinema producers and actors met the current prime minister, Narendra Modi (who makes an appearance towards the end of the film as the new champion of the country), adds a different dimension to the narrative.

While it is true that the film seeks to lionise Manmohan Singh, it does so at the cost of his own integrity and intelligence. Suzanne Bernert's Sonia Gandhi is portrayed as the machiavellian widow trying to usurp power for her son (Arjun Mathur as Rahul Gandhi). Nowhere is this more evident than in the symbolic portrait of a defiant Indira Gandhi hanging behind her when she speaks with Manmohan Singh. Meanwhile, Manmohan Singh always speaks with the Mahatma in his background.

Of course, the use of words and dialogues is also subliminal. Hence, Rahul Gandhi is always 'Rahul', with one reporter even asking Baru about his actions as 'Rahul ki harkat', a fairly casual term for a voluntary political action.

The thing about propaganda is not that it is hidden, but that it acts subliminally. The fact that the makers targeted Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi rather than Manmohan Singh is telling. Manmohan Singh is no longer a political player. It is the former two who have a major role to play in the upcoming general elections.

The snippet of Narendra Modi's campaign speeches towards the end, pitted against Rahul Gandhi, add more colour to the story.

But that is another article. Ours not to question why, as Tennyson would say. Vijay Gutte seems to have chosen the same path.


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