Mumbai: His son can’t seem to get into engineering school, his daughter is ashamed of her family name, and a wily builder is trying to con him out of his house. Depressed by his bad luck, Dinkar Bhosale comes to the conclusion that his identity as a middle-class Maharashtrian male is at the root of all his problems. The wave of self-pity awakens the spirit of Shivaji Maharaj, who thunders back with a message to command respect, not demand it, stop blaming immigrant communities for his problems and to look within himself to solve them.
The subtle political message at the heart of Mi Shivajiraje Bhosale Boltoy, Mahesh Manjrekar’s newly released Marathi-language film which has set a new record at the box office, makes it the latest in a slew of pre-election releases to use the medium of cinema to project political messages and themes.
Success story: With its political message, Mi Shivajiraje Bhosale Boltoy has set a record for opening weekend sales for a Marathi film. Ashesh Shah / Mint
The film, which has set a record for opening weekend sales for a Marathi film, taking Rs1.5 crore in its first three days at 139 cinemas across the state, joins recent releases such as Firaaq, directed by Nandita Das, which explores personal relationships within communities in Gujarat following the 2002 communal riots in which 3,000 Muslims were killed.
It also comes in the wake of Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal, a hard-hitting look at politics through the eyes of a student, and Sikandar, set in Kashmir, which tells the story of a boy who dreams of playing football at the national level, but is forced to make difficult choices when he happens across a gun on his way to school one morning.
“I think all films are to some extent political, even if one doesn’t know it,” says Manjrekar, on his reasons for writing and acting in Mi Shivajiraje Bhosale Boltoy. “I wrote it in some anger, because I feel that Maharashtra is the state with the most opportunity and the common man today feels a little neglected and is going into a shell and all the political parties are trying to take advantage of him.”
In order for the film to be successful and the message against attempts at communalism to hit home, it has to be subtle, says Manjrekar, explaining that audiences would not be receptive and open to overtly political agendas in cinema.
“I would like to make a 100% political statement but I am not sure we have the audience for it. We have to shield the audience a little and we need to put the message across in a subtle manner.”
The recent run of films with political messages at their core represent an attempt to take advantage of the access offered by the mass medium that is cinema, explains Anupama Chopra, film journalist and analyst.
“Films are such a potent medium; they have the ability to really influence people’s actions,” says Chopra, citing the example of Rang De Basanti, the story of a group of disaffected youths who take the law into their own hands. Directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, the film spawned an entire activist movement upon its release in 2006. “Cinema should do that. It should move people in a direction. Especially in a country like India which is movie-crazy, it is a very powerful medium to generate awareness,” adds Chopra.
For Das, actor, film-maker and social activist, making Firaaq was the result of a personal need to tell a story based on the events that occurred in Gujarat, which she says serve as a “reminder” of what humans are capable of.
“Cinema is a medium that has many uses,” says Das. “It can be purely entertainment, and so many genres exist. It is also a vehicle of change: It reaches so many people and it has an enigma about it.”
She warns, however, that political films which preach or are high-handed will fail to resonate with audiences.
“The film won’t reach if it is too high-handed or messagey. The honesty and the intent also comes through in the end. Firaaq raised a lot of questions. It stirred the stagnancy of the way we look at things. But it is also important in mainstream cinema to exercise responsibility over what is said and done. If something is communal then that can be dangerous.”
Though film-makers need to take responsibility for messages contained in their films, they are limited by their own understanding of situations, notes Kashyap, who is best known for Black Friday, an examination of the 1993 Mumbai bombings. “At the end of the day, film-makers can’t really offer solutions,” says Kashyap. “Often the solution is tolerance. Cinema needs to be politically and socially concerned and remain relevant. Cinema is an extremely valuable medium for political messages to reach out to people. When I wrote Gulaal, I was questioning the whole idea of democracy and the Constitution—my friends were getting banned and I was not allowed to see this or that. There was a lot of anger.”
In addition to serving as a vehicle for potent messages, cinema has also acted as a launchpad for film personalities with political ambitions, from Chiranjeevi, the Telugu superstar and chief of the Praja Rajyam party, running from Andhra Pradesh, to television star Shekhar Suman and Bollywood actor Shatrughan Sinha, who are both standing for office in the upcoming election from Patna Sahib, Bihar. Also contesting the elections are action hero Brojen Bora, who is running in Assam, as well as writer and director Iqbal Durrani, from Godda, Jharkhand. However, actor Sanjay Dutt saw his application to run turned down.
They follow in a long line of celebrities who have sought to leave a political legacy, including Amitabh Bachchan, and his wife Jaya Bachchan, as well as Dharmendra and Hema Malini, currently a Rajya Sabha MP. Meanwhile, actors including Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Preity Zinta have signed up to actively campaign on the election trail for their chosen parties.
Award-winning film-maker Prakash Jha, who built his reputation on making films with a political bent in his native Bihar including Gangaajal and Damul, is now standing for office from Champaran. He contends that nothing today is devoid of politics, and insists that despite his films dealing with themes such as bonded labour and politically motivated riots, he has never started out with a deliberate political agenda.
“Is there anything in this world that is not political?” asks Jha. “Everything is political. There is no formula for the film and there is no preaching. If it works, it works. I have not yet made any film that is politically intended.”