While Barack Obama, sweat dripping from his forehead, fielded pointed questions from collegegoers on a humid Diwali weekend, and gave our parliamentarians and industrialists much to hope for (and fawn about), producer Ashok Pandey and director Subhash Kapoor were busy promoting their creation, Phas Gaye re Obama. Written by actor Rajat Kapoor, the film will release in theatres on 3 December. The makers could not release it while the US President was here because they would have had to survive the fierce competition from Golmaal 3.
Neha Dhupia in Phas Gaye re Obama directed by Subhas Kapoor
Phas Gaye re Obama is about Om Shastri, a bankrupt NRI trying to restore his bearings after the recession, in a small town in Uttar Pradesh, where too, incidentally, the recession has had its impact. Om, kidnapped by gangsters, has no money to pay the ransom. The film, which stars Neha Dhupia, Kapoor and Amole Gupte, premiered at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York in October.
For the depressed and deprived goons, Obama is a beacon. Everyone in this town believes Obama has the panacea for their misfortune. In passionate speeches, residents urge the US President to save them. Pandey says it is serendipity that the film releases soon after Obama’s visit.
What makes American presidents a potent cinematic tool? Films around the world have used the US president as the focal point, such as the 2003 Bosnian film Fuse in which a small town descends into chaos as it prepares to host Bill Clinton’s visit. According to Pandey, this has much to do with the US’ involvement in conflicts around the world. “Whether it’s Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine, America is involved in all the major conflicts around the world. So it’s natural for people in conflict zones to look up to the American president,” says Pandey.
In the 1996 Hollywood film Independence Day when aliens attack the world, everyone looks up to the American president to redeem humanity. President Thomas Whitmore, played by Bill Pullman, of course, delivers and in a classic speech towards the end of the film declares the day of the fight with the aliens as the world’s independence day.
Closer home, even years after the 9/11 attack in 2001, Hindi films looked at the American president for deliverance. There was Rizwan Khan, played by Shah Rukh Khan, in My Name is Khan who wanted to tell the president that he is not a terrorist. Rizwan’s need to meet the president also acts as a device. The difference being that the commentary in the Karan Johar film was about the inhumanity of branding Muslims as terrorists. Rizwan writes to his wife Mandira (Kajol) that in the Christian world, annals are divided into BC and AD, but in the post-9/11 world, there is a third watershed. “There is the perception that if you set a film in NYC, you’re saying something larger about terrorism,” says comic writer and director Anuvab Pal.
One of the earliest appearances of the US president in an Indian film was in 2008 in the Tamil film Dasavatharam. Directed by K.S. Ravikumar, Kamal Hassan played 10 roles in it, including that of then US president George W. Bush. The film swept across 12th century rifts within Hinduism, the tsunami and weapons of mass destruction. Bush was seen the same year in the Hindi film Mission Istanbul. Brent Mendenhall, who is a regular impersonator of Bush, played the president in this film—a caricature unable to differentiate between Turkey the country and turkey the bird.
In 2009 in the film The President Is Coming, directed by Kunal Kapoor and written by Pal, Bush made another comeback. In 2006, when Bush visited India and expressed his desire to shake hands with an Indian below the age of 30, Pal found his perfect comic device to anchor his plot around. The same year, the Indo-US production Politics of Love about a Democrat volunteer falling in love with her Republican counterpart (Mallika Sherawat), which was set against the backdrop of the elections that led to Obama’s victory was being made. William Sees Keenan, one of the producers of Politics of Love, and his coproducer Govind Menon were in India shooting for Hisss, also starring Sherawat, when Obama was sworn in as President. At the time, the American press carried several stories about “campaign romances”, which inspired the story of Politics of Love.
Even Munnabhai is prepared to possibly sort out matters with the premier in Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai Chale Amreeka, which is still being written.
There is a perception that the US president is the heroic leader of the free world. “Films such as Independence Day and shows like West Wing made the American president mythical. Now in real situations we’re probably extrapolating these myths on to the real person,” says Pal. “There is a reason why God makes an appearance in so many films. It’s because as a screenwriter you don’t have to introduce God, Obama is like that,” says Pal.
No other film will test Obama’s reinforced—or more accurately, deified— stature in our film-loving nation more than Phas Gaye re Obama’s performance at the box office.
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