Udta Punjab takes political cinema up north from the deep south

  • Narayanan Madhavan, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 17, 2016 19:15 IST
Udta Punjab takes to the upcountry north the kind of cinema that has made waves in the south since the 1940s.

While Udta Punjab, the film on drug abuse in the election-bound state, released on Friday after a tumultuous court battle and a hurried backtracking by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) on the cuts it ordered in the movie directed by Abhishek Chaubey, one remark by CBFC’s controversial chairman Pahlaj Nihalani still hangs unresolved in the air: “ I’ve heard Anurag Kashyap (producer) has taken money from AAP to show Punjab in a bad light.”

The point is, Mr. Nihalani, despite holding a responsible office, casually said what he did as if the movie or its making involved something improper or unethical. Even if his contention was true, it is perfectly kosher in a democracy to have cinema that talks and walks politics. If anything, political cinema has performed the role of the journalistic media in raising awareness on social issues over the decades, and across India. Cinematic licence has been a blessing in a nation still crawling out of the dungeons of illiteracy and ignorance.

Watch | Video: Udta Punjab mirrors state’s drug menace... learn from it, say viewers in Punjab

The Dravida movement owes its rise to cinema – and let it not be said it was the glamour of an M.G. Ramachandran or a Jayalalithaa that did it. The DMK”s founder, C.N. Annadurai, and his successor Muthuvel Karunanidhi, wrote movie scripts that highlighted and challenged caste domination and exploitation of the poor in the Tamil Nadu of the 1940s and 1950s. Annadurai scripted “Velaikkari” (Maid Servant), a 1949 movie that highlighted a landlord’s atrocities. “Parasakthi,” released in 1952 and scripted by Karunanidhi, mocked Brahmin domination. Both Annadurai and Karunanidhi eventually became chief ministers.

A poster for Tamil movie Parasakhti (1952), which was scripted by DMK leader M. Karunanidhi and mocked Brahmin traditions

In Andhra Pradesh, the Telugu Desam Party was created by N.T. Rama Rao more on the strength of his mythological movie roles, but in a way that shaped the “Telugu Pride” card that Rao used to challenge the dominant Congress party in the early 1980s.

In Hindi’s socio-political cinema, we have had Bimal Roy’s “Do Bigha Zameen” (1953) on the plight of poor farmers, Amrit Nahata’s “Kissa Kursi Ka” (1978) that satirised the Emergency and “Aaj Ka MLA, Ram Avtaar” (1984) on the politics of defections. “Aaj Ka MLA” was directed by Dasari Narayana Rao, who eventually became Union minister for coal under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and has also been investigated for his role in the coalmine allocation scam.

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Directors like Sudhir Mishra, who captured the Emergency and its milieu in “Hazaron Khwaishen Aisi,” and Prakash Jha, whose “Aarakshan” recently examined the politics of job reservations, are just two examples in a veritable procession of Indian movies exploring various shades of politics. Jha’s “Chakravyuh” probed Naxalism and his “Satyagraha” was said to be inspired by the Anna Hazare movement. Mishra’s “Yeh Woh Manzil To Nahin” examined student politics.

Some of these films are termed arthouse or “parallel” while others are in the mainstream – such as the Anil Kapoor-starrer Nayak, directed by S. Shankar, which is a remake of his 1999 Tamil film, “Mudhalvan,” about a TV journalist who takes the chief minister’s job for a day after an on-air challenge.

If the Aam Aadmi Party indeed pegs its assembly election campaign on the issues raised by Udta Punjab, it would only be the latest, and not the last, among political groups aiming to influence voter behaviour. Political cinema has now reached up north from the deep south. And why not?

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