Some subjects prove extremely tricky for film-makers in India. One is sex. The other is politics. There’s a widespread reluctance to make movies about the men and women whose decisions influence, and sometimes transform, our lives.
We can watch television footage of our elected representatives throwing chairs at each other in Parliament with fascinated horror. Almost everybody in India has an opinion about politics and governance. But the deep interest in matters of state doesn’t translate too often into cinematic material about back-room dealings and insider accounts of contemporary events. More often than not, politics makes for interesting television but uninteresting cinema.
Political parties across the spectrum have regularly misused the freedom they enjoy under the Indian Constitution. Leaders dispatch their foot soldiers with alarming regularity to trash the offices of producers whenever a film is perceived as offensive.
Screen idol: Kaif’s character, says Jha, is not based on Sonia Gandhi.
It doesn’t take much to upset our politicians. One of the characters in a film could resemble a beloved leader. The director could be referring to a recent event that involves one of the political parties, or to a certain caste or region in dialogue or a song. Only in dictatorships, and it seems in India, do political parties act as censors, often challenging the official jurisdiction of the Central Board of Film Certification and raising objections after a film has been certified. Why don’t we cut out the farce and simply reconstitute the Censor Board with representatives of all political parties?
At least Hindi movies are more circumspect than Tamil cinema, where it is very common to come across a villain of Andhra or Uttar Pradesh extraction (the role of the north Indian is often played by a Mumbai television actor such as Gaurav Kapoor or Akashdeep Saigal). The censor board in Chennai doesn’t think there is anything offensive in repeatedly portraying some communities as inherently unscrupulous and villainous. But try making a film about any of Tamil Nadu’s revolutionary leaders and a few hundred buses are sure to burn. Sometimes, with people inside them.
Allegory is the strong suit of films such as Shyam Benegal’s Mandi, a ribald comedy set in a brothel, that was said be a critique of Indira Gandhi’s regime. Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti, which opened on Friday, hides behind the Mahabharat epic to justify its choice of subject. Raajneeti is about feuding political families and the machinations of various members to win a crucial election. Any resemblance to the powerful clans that rule much of north Indian politics must surely be coincidental—especially the casting of the Hindi-challenged Katrina Kaif as a charismatic female politician. Jha said in an interview that he was ready to show his film to the Congress party, which was worried that Kaif’s character was based on Sonia Gandhi (surely the most powerful woman in Indian politics should be flattered?). The Congress may be India’s grand old party, but it as tolerant of even indirect criticism as a hormonally charged teenager.
What passes for political cinema in India by and large are hagiographies about political personalities and uncomplicated accounts of historical events. In the bargain, the opportunity to make critical movies about the key events that have shaped modern India is lost. The American movie Frost/Nixon, which recreates the television interviews that Richard Nixon gave broadcaster David Frost in 1977, is critical of the former American president’s role in the Watergate scandal. The film didn’t lead to dharnas by Nixon’s descendants and admirers. On the other hand, it would be inconceivable to make an Indian movie about, say, the diplomatic wranglings between the governments of Nixon and Indira Gandhi, which were characterized by suspicion and distrust on both sides because of personality clashes between the leaders.
We get the politicians we deserve. Thanks to our politicians, we also get the political films we deserve.
Raajneeti released in theatres on Friday.
Nandini Ramnath is a film critic with Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org