The election season is upon us in India and in the run up to the polls, we will keep hearing a lot of stuff like Mood of the Nation, Pulse of the voter, Ground reports, Elections on the plate and so on. While there is so much riding on these polls politically, can cinema be left behind? In the last few months, we have already seen a surfeit of films with political overtones not just in Hindi but even in regional languages. Apart from trying to cash in on the season, it is not a secret that most of the films are also part of a larger propaganda strategy for the parties concerned. Let’s take a look at some of such films that hit the screens in the last few months in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections.
In the beginning of January, NTR: Kathanayakudu the 1st part of a biopic on the matinee idol turned Chief Minister N.T.Ramarao hit the theatres. The title role was played by NTR’s son Balakrishna who has been trying to preserve his dad’s legacy in vain. He also bankrolled the film. A sequel to this titled NTR: Mahanayakudu was out in the last week of Feb. Between the 2 parts, the film covered the rise of NTR in the film world and the political world. And probably was as an attempt to restore his legacy in the eve of the elections.
In January, we had the release of Uri: The Surgical Strike, a film that reproduces and brings before our eyes a dramatic account of the Indian army’s Surgical Strike on Pakistan in September, 2016. One can argue that it is not a political film in its strictest definition. But, one cannot ignore the narrative of the film which pays copious tribute to the ruling party of the day namely BJP and its leadership for showing courage and gumption to carry out these audacious surgical strikes in POK territory in response to a series of terrorist attacks on army establishments. In particular, the dastardly one at Uri in Sep 2016. In the film, you can see the characters mouthing lines like Ye Nayi India hai and so on which resonate with what the Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been saying.
In January, we also had The Accidental Prime Minister – a film based on Sanjay Baru’s book in the same title. The book and thereby the film can be divided into 2 parts. First part, covering the UPA-1 (2009-09) when Baru was serving as the Media Advisor to the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This part eulogizes Singh and tries to build a more charitable narrative of his 1st term as PM. The second part covering UPA-II (2009-14) is different. Baru, now no longer associated with the PMO, looks at this period as an outsider. And naturally like most of India saw Singh in this period, Baru also looks at him as an ineffective and subservient leader and PM. So, there is no doubt that this film was also intended to show the UPA leadership in poor light and aid the ongoing narrative of Narendra Modi being the strong leader India needs.
In the end of January, Thackeray – a biopic on the late Balasaheb Thackeray hit the big screen. Produced by none other than Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut and his family, it didn’t make bones of being anything else other than being a propaganda film for the Sena in Maharashtra.
Just like Thackeray, in Andhra Pradesh a biopic on the late Y.S.Rajasekhar Reddy titled Yatra made it to the theatres. The film had none other than mega star Mammooty playing the role of YSR. Even in this case, there is no doubt about the purpose or the timing of the release of the film which was to basically to aid YSR’s son, Jagan Reddy in the campaign during the crucial state and Lok Sabha elections in the summer of 2019.
Looking at the public reception to these films, a moot question arises. Does the performance of these films at the box office reflect to some extent or a large extent, the people’s disposition to the parties concerned? Or in short – the Mood of the Nation? In India, we all know that films are quite well intertwined with the lives of a common man.
Take a look at how these films performed at the Box Office. The NTR films failed to impress the audience. And are touted as among the biggest flops in Balakrishna’s career. Let’s face it. Though the present CM of AP, Chandrababu Naidu has been leading the Telugu Desam party founded by NTR, Naidu has not been a torch bearer of NTR’s legacy. There have been many claimants to NTR’s legacy and they have only managed to damage it. So a film on the forgotten legacy has not managed to enthuse the viewers and hence the voters!
Uri: The Surgical Strike has been a super hit. Three months after its release, it’s still running in few theatres in Mumbai, where I live. I would presume it does, in many other cities as well. Post the Airforce Strike on Pakistan, I believe that the film has picked up a fresh momentum. It appears that the people can relate to the message in the film and the success of the film to a large extent explains the tide in favour of the ruling party BJP and its leader Narendra Modi in large parts of India where the film has done well. The very well made film, while showcasing the exploits of the Armed forces, as I mentioned before, equally extols the image of Narendra Modi as a tough leader. In the film, people saw what they wanted to and that helped.
Now coming to the film Thackeray, though it had a great actor in Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the title role, the film failed to set the cash registers ringing even in Maharashtra, the home state of Bal Thackeray and Shiv Sena. My sense is that Thackeray and the Sena no longer command that aura they did in the 80’s when Bal Thackeray’s Hindu Hriday Samrat image was at its peak. As one can see, the vote share of Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has been on the decline. So, it’s not surprising that the film trying to prop up the image of Thackeray and the Sena, couldn’t achieve that objective.
On the other hand, the other biopic – Yatra, despite being criticized of being an unabashed hagiography of YSR, did reasonably at the Box Office. And on the ground, one can see a comeback of the Jagan Reddy’s YSR Congress in AP. Jagan has been copying the play book of his father YSR in the run up to the election. Back then, YSR hit the road in rural Andhra with his Padayatra quietly building his personal support base while, the then CM, Chandrababu Naidu was busy focussing on building the image of Hyderabad. Similarly, Jagan has been hitting the road in AP with his Yatra to build a groundswell in his favour. Another take away for AP politics could be that in the battle for the legacies of NTR and YSR, probably, the latter is winning.
In this analysis however, the reception to The Accidental Prime Minister though, has been interesting. The promos of the film invariably revolved around showing Manmohan Singh in poor light. And that should have appealed to the audience who are favourably inclined to BJP/NDA. Considering the fact that this block is on the rise in terms of vote share, the film should have done well. However, the film did poorly. The critics panned it. My sense is that the film left the audience confused. They couldn’t make out if it was defending Manmohan Singh or criticising him. In the book, Baru had walked a tight rope well by dividing the good and the not so good Manmohan Singh. However in the film, those of the BJP supporters who expected a harsh criticism of Singh found that only in parts contrary to the promos! And those of the Congress supporters couldn’t take the criticism of the Nehru-Gandhi family and the caricaturing of Singh as seen in promos and avoided it. With the result, the film failed to appeal to either of the sides!
One can argue, logically and legitimately so, that the performance of these films could also be attributed to how the films have been made, the performances, the screenplay and the works. And hence has got nothing to do with the related party’s standing or the viewer’s disposition to the parties or the so called Mood of the Nation. At the outset, it would seem so. But, if one scratches the surface, the linkage between the performances of these films and their party’s present standing cannot be ignored and I am fairly convinced on this link!
We are not done yet. There is going to be a film based on Narendra Modi himself. This film directed by Umang Kumar is expected to hit the screens in April right during the peak of the campaign season. Featuring actor Vivek Oberoi in the title role and blessed suitably by the party itself, this film doesn’t pretend to be anything else other than a key element of the larger BJP campaign for the Lok Sabha polls. If one wants to understand how the wind blows at least in the Hindi heart land, the film’s Box Office show may be a barometer! Watch this space!
Image courtesy: Outlookindia.com