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Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019

Propaganda films: Bollywood needs more craft, fewer props

As things stand, the best defense against the propaganda films is to go see them

mumbai Updated: Jan 13, 2019 00:33 IST
Deepanjana Pal
Deepanjana Pal
Hindustan Times
A still from ‘The Accidental Prime Minister'.
A still from ‘The Accidental Prime Minister'.(REUTERS)
         

The moment Akshaye Khanna appeared in the trailer of ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, we all knew this was not a film built on historical accuracy. Media advisor to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, political commentator and policy analyst Sanjaya Baru in reality has a head of white hair and a wide-eyed stare that makes it seem as though he’s perpetually just a little shocked by what he’s seeing. Baru has been on camera many times, and not once do I remember him smirking the way Khanna does at regular intervals in ‘The Accidental Prime Minister.’ As you watch Khanna attempt to be rakish in the prime minister’s office, it’s impossible to forget the knowledge that’s in our blood as Bollywood-guzzling South Asians — historical accuracy is for textbooks and documentaries, not commercial movies.

However, what muddies the pond of accuracy is the effort put into making some actors in ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ look like their real-life inspirations. The film’s costume and make-up crew do their best to transform Anupam Kher and Suzanne Bernert so that they look like mannequins of Singh and Gandhi smuggled out of a local branch of Madame Tussauds wax museum. Whatever realism the cast lack in their looks is mitigated to some extent by real names being used. Add to that the source material for ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ — it’s based on Baru’s memoir by the same title — and an audience would be forgiven for thinking they’re getting a glimpse into the reality of Indian politics. That there are absurd bits and caricatures don’t actually damage the film’s credibility. Considering how recent twists in the curious case of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director have made Balaji Telefilms’ serials seem staid, non-fiction is clearly way ahead of fiction in the race to entertain us.

Unfortunately, ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ is more tripe than truth, which has led to questions about whether there are insidious motivations driving the film. Could it be a coinkidink that ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ has been released just a few months before the Lok Sabha elections and that it received a shout out on social media from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? Should we make anything of director Vijay Gutte’s father being a sugar baron who contested the 2014 Assembly polls as a candidate of a BJP-led alliance? Is it relevant that Gutte was held for GST fraud in August 2018 after his company, VRG Digital Corp Pvt Ltd, was accused of wrongly claiming a cash refund of ₹28 crore?

The good news is that we have an infallible weapon against propaganda — Bollywood’s ability to take a story with potential and turn it into an awful film. We can rely upon the film industry’s general mediocrity and the lack of talent in the scriptwriting department to protect unsuspecting audiences from being hoodwinked. It’s not as though we’re immune to a little cinematic brainwashing. When the basics are in place, like in ‘Toilet – Ek Prem Katha’ (which was basically a promotional film for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and managed to sneak in a song praising demonetisation) and ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’ (essentially a cheerleader for the current administration camouflaged using jingoism, clichés and impressively-executed action sequences), audiences will flock to the theatres. However, that rarely happens in Indian popular cinema and as things stand, the best defense against the propaganda films is to go see them.

The real test, however, is going to be director Omung Kumar’s ‘Narendra Modi’, starring Vivek Oberoi in the leading role. Maybe the current prime minister’s star power will pull Oberoi out of the black hole of obscurity that’s been the actor’s lair for the past decade. Or maybe Bollywood will short-circuit the system by making a propaganda film that ends up being anti-propaganda. Keep the faith in Bollywood’s awfulness, and truth might just find a way.

First Published: Jan 13, 2019 00:32 IST

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