Director: Vijay Ratnakar Gutte
Cast: Anupam Kher, Akshaye Khanna, Vipin Sharma, Suzanna Bernert, Ahana Kumra, Arjun Mathur
When a political movie “surveying” the mighty reign of the UPA government through a decade, graces the big screens barely months before elections and the BJP even tweets the trailer from its official handle, there is anything but accidental about this project. And while I am inclined to use the word ‘propaganda’ in this review already, herein I have attempted to assess the movie on purely cinematic grounds alone, elements that are inextricably linked to political ethos discussed and debated in the movie. Propagandist or not, how does it affect a movie-goer’s senses and intelligence, is what remains once we step out from the political mud-slinging of who’s the hero and who’s the culprit.
Now. For the uninitiated, The Accidental Prime Minister is based on Sanjaya Baru’s memoir (of the same name) based on his stint as media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from 2004 to 2008. That the world would finally get to see Dr. Singh’s side of the story (past the memes and accusations) is a reason inviting enough to watch the film.
And yet, this is a grand opportunity director Vijay Ratnakar Gutte misses in his debut.
The Accidental Prime Minister opens with a footage of the UPA’s 2004 win in the general elections, with equal parts’ support for Sonia Gandhi assuming office and equal parts protesting against a foreigner deliberating heading the world’s largest democracy. No time is lost as we are taken through the hallways of power, right inside the Gandhi family’s startlingly opulent sarkari bungalow where discussions are rife as to whether Sonia Gandhi should indeed be accepting the Prime Ministerial post, amidst heated sentiments in the country.
A quick fearful reproach from a rather unconvincing-looking Rahul Gandhi (Arjun Mathur masquerading as RG) takes us right into the stunned, bewildered silence where Dr. Manmohan Singh is called upon to assume office as the PM. Veteran actor Anupam Kher walks in as Dr. Singh, mild-mannered and unassuming, and just when you are struck by the uncanny resemblance with the erstwhile Prime Minister, and are possibly hoping for a cinematic fiesta, Akshaye Khanna as Sanjay Baru enters the scene wearing a vibrant assortment of colours, speaking directly to the camera. From that point on till the end, he becomes Dr. Singh’s “voice”, whether the ex-PM may or may have approved of it, as is hinted at later in the movie.
The references start seeping in quick and fast. The painstaking effort behind getting the appearances of the central characters right becomes evident, as you look up to see German actress Suzanne Bernert play Sonia Gandhi with conviction, restraint and an uncanny intuition. Bernert’s grip over the diction and mannerisms are what help maintain the nuance in Gandhi’s characterisation. Ahana Kumra as Priyanka Gandhi makes a short, dignified yet ineffective appearance, having been relegated to eulogizing her mother’s decision of not accepting Prime Minister’s post in a short interview.
Mathur’s characterization of Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, is deliberately designed to suggest the Gandhi scion’s inability to handle the rough, dirty political turf. Not to suggest that Gandhi is a liability to his own party-members, but to have someone in the movie pointedly say, “Yeh election Rahul Gandhi ke bas ka nahin hai” merely months ahead of the 2019 general elections can hardly be construed as innocent portrayal of facts alone. Add to that, towards the end, as Mathur’s Rahul tears up his party’s ordinance, the insinuation becomes clear enough to echo in your ears well till the elections and beyond, “Rahul Gandhi is an accidental political candidate best to be averted”.
Top-notch makeup and slick performances further work the trick as Ahmed Patel (Vipin Sharma of Taare Zameen Par fame) and Baru interact in hushed tones, and through barbed looks, pursed lips and cold, hard threats issued in soft undertones. Kher, in particular, is outstanding as the soft-spoken, mild-mannered, shy Dr. Singh and succeeds in portraying a strength not many may associate with the former Prime Minister. Given that he had to constantly fight ‘the powers that be’, as the movie quite unsubtly suggests. Reference to the ‘The Family’ is unmistakable, as dynasty politics rears its ugly head and makes it impact known.
To comply with the censor board and to possibly keep some semblance of cinematic objectivity intact, a shoddy attempt is made at beeping the phrase. This is, however, met with hoots and chortles in the movie hall, as scene after scene makes a stab at the opposition’s murky role in the downfall of the very empire it created. While the first half showcases Dr. Singh’s brush with authority and power ranks within his own party as well as the opposition in moving forward with the nuclear deal, the second half focuses on the former PM’s inability to stand up to the pressure of doing the right thing amidst dynasty politics, his naivety in handing media coverage and generally reclaiming a waning public persona.
Full marks to the director for ingeniously painting the former PM in neat, clean strokes of a good man thrust into the big, bad world of politics. In fact, Kher’s portrayal of Singh’s incorruptible, honest disposition is what makes The Family look evil, manipulative and insidiously abusive towards a man who was likely filling in boots too big for him. As Khanna in Baru’s sharp, stinging voice addresses Singh saab as “Bheeshma” who knew everything, but chose to side with “the family” and his vows of loyalty to the clan, I inadvertently cringed, because there was no camouflaging the unspoken accusation: the Prime Minister could have spoken up, reclaimed his authority given his constitutional rank and authority and saved the nation (or the party, or his image, fill in the blanks).
However, there is only so much a filmmaker can achieve with sweeping references and generalizations. While the former PM’s role in letting party politics perpetuate despite his misgivings is open to debate, the plot becomes quite complacent and lazy in its execution, especially in the latter half. References to the 2G and 3G scams are thrown in our faces without showing a plausible build-up, it is almost as if the makers want to rush into the thick of things: Look there, this is what the UPA was doing to the country all those years.
Disappointing also is restriction of Singh’s portrayal to one as a man under the Gandhi family’s thumb rather than a constitutional voice with a will of his own. Barring the oath-taking ceremony, no public addressals have been included in the movie, a lack that fails to establish the former PM’s connect with the junta at large, a connect that helped him win a second term despite all the naysaying.
The editing is at best, patchy and the background score, sloppy. Thankfully, there are no songs to pep up the rather lurid goings-on in the movie. The constant intercutting between Khanna’s over-enthusiastic Baru and the actual occurrences of the film strips away all seriousness that a project such as this otherwise commanded. As I write this review, my mind goes back to a rather comic scene between Singh and Baru, where Kher’s Singh is shown acting amused at “Que Sera Sera”, a political innuendo uttered in the context of the nuclear deal. Not even an Oscar-worthy performance could have justified this caricaturish, insincere patchwork attempt at showing the human side of Dr. Manmohan Singh, the man, in all his ordinariness.
What makes the direction worse is Khanna’s Baru taking centre stage, popping up on the screen every few minutes, pushing past the highest ranks, opposition and even the PM himself. Truth be told, this could very well be Baru’s claim to fame, meant to glorify his mistaken role as Dr. Singh’s “Sanjay” (get the Mahabharata reference, folks?) than the PM’s media advisor who had the good (or bad, depending on how you see it) fortune of having been witness to historical events in the annals of politics in that era. Hours after watching the movie what dominates my experience of The Accidental Prime Minister is Akshaye Khanna’s controversial comeback in a high-octane role rather than Kher’s portrayal of Dr. Singh against the UPA era, which feels like a let-down considering I paid to watch a slice of the former PM’s tenure in office, not Sanjaya Baru’s self-aggrandizement.
That said, with top-notch mimicry of the country’s highest-ranked politicians and actual footages used to establish contexts, The Accidental Prime Minister is undeniably on point and hits the bull’s eye. And while the slapdash execution of the movie is in itself disheartening, I cannot help but also be amused by the underlying motives peddled by the movie. To conclude, if I may borrow Khanna’s dialogue in the film, “Rajneeti mein star girte huey maine bahut dekhe hain, par itna neeche girte huey pehle kabhi nai dekha” – quite matches my sentiments.
This is an aggressive political campaign disguised as cinema, just falling short of being touted as a parody and clearly insulting the intelligence of the audience. How it has been allowed to see the light of the day boggles my mind. And yet, if even a sliver of the honesty portrayed in The Accidental Prime Minister can spill over to PM Narendra Modi’s biopic (political slip-ups and deliberate deviance from concrete issues included) releasing later this year, I believe we’d be all too happy to make a democratic, fair choice in the upcoming elections.
Politics or not, accidental or not, I am left keen and hungry to read the actual book now. The movie was a punishment, the book better be good.