Do bureaucrats want to set the record straight about what worked and what didn’t in the governments when they plotted and planned and toiled away in the back offices? And why are we compelled to buy these books when most of us call politicians Machiavellian, and hate the way they manipulate the truth to suit their version? Sanjaya Baru’s book, The Accidental Prime Minister was released in 2014 when the country was set to elect new leaders and it was happy to ‘tell all’ about a man who did not say much, but accomplished a lot.
Dr. Manmohan Singh is an intriguing political figure. Extraordinarily intelligent (has been a successful Finance Minister twice and even the Governor of the Reserve Bank Of India and worked at the World Bank), he was appointed Prime Minister. Upright to a fault, achieved all the political goals in his manifesto, and yet, weakened by his silences at what could be perceived as a wrong time politically. The book written by a man who was a journalist and his media advisor naturally garnered controversy. Was the book written to push the BJP because it is directly critical of the Congress party and how it functions as a ‘family concern’?
It’s 2019, and the elections are upon us. The film of the book releases January 11, and you wonder how hard the BJP propaganda machine is working. The film
URI: The Surgical Strike releases at the same time, and not one but two biographical films on Narendra Modi-ji release later, and yes, films called Mere Pyare Prime Minister and Thackeray release soon. If you want to count all the politically correct films that pander to the current government, then you must add Padman and Toilet Ek Prem Katha to the list. But I watched the film The Accidental Prime Minister and am glad I have read the book. VIDEO
Anupam Kher stars as the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and Akshay Khanna plays the role of Sanjaya Baru, the media advisor. Now to give Anupam Kher due credit, the man imitates the Prime Minister rather wonderfully. He comes across as a sweet, rather gentle person who seems to be too reluctant to be effective. This is where perhaps you wish there was more to the man in the film than just being mimicked for his mannerisms. I wanted to see the intelligence and problem solving skills. After all, the man is an accomplished economist and managed to keep a coalition of 22 political parties together through not one but two terms, through jaw-dropping scandals and scams.
The film chooses to give the role of the hero to Sanjaya Baru (played by Akshay Khanna with a wicked gleam in his eye and a knowing smile). Sanjaya turns out to be the problem solver, the one with all answers to the nations problems that need to be dropped into the ears of the hapless Prime Minister. ‘Tell me Sanjaya!’, ‘Show me Sanjaya!’ is said every ten minutes in the film, and Sanjaya magically (and because he is so clever) produces solutions with a wink and a smile. I must admit that the book is guilty of the same God complex. And you, as audience is expecting something like Rashomon. A 360 degree version of the truth. A different view from the PMO, perhaps from ‘Mike’ MK Narayanan (an IB and RAW plant who would look after security matters, and insist, ‘I have a file on you.’), or ‘Mani’ JN Dixit, or TAK Nair… The book clearly narrates the power equation each men created when they ran the PMO together. The film falls short on the power struggles or get close to any of the details in Dr Singh’s achievements.
Take the Nuclear deal with the United States, for example. The book shows how much went on behind the scenes with diplomats as it did with the heads of the two countries. President George W Bush is said to have immense respect for the Indian PM… The film uses really poor archival footage inserted rather tackily to make that point. It takes away from everything the book shows. It just touches on the problem and then does not finish it. The fact that Dr Singh had to wade through so much opposition - with he Left Front worrying about upsetting Iran’s Muslims, the Congress not wanting to upset the Left Front, all of them not understanding that signing the deal would mean more electricity rather than signing away our rights to make bombs - does not come through in the film. The film just skims through Dr Singh’s hard work and does not show us what a huge achievement the nuclear deal was. The film merely shows a doppelganger of former Prime Minister Vajpayee smiling at Dr Singh. Is the audience supposed to know that the smile was more than just a smile? That it actually brought the opposition on Dr Singh’s side when the Left Front decided to withdraw their support to the nuclear deal?
People will argue that a film cannot show everything. But when you are cramming two terms of the Prime Minister into two hours, then the best needs to be chosen. Alas, the filmmakers make a great effort in finding good actors who imitate the characters they play. Sonia Gandhi is played by Suzanne Bernert rather well. Aahana Kumra looks the part when she plays Priyanka Gandhi but has barely a line of dialog in the film. Many other characters look the part, but is that what the film is all about? Vipin Sharma plays Ahmed Patel, Principal Secretary to Sonia Gandhi, as if he were a villain. Arjun Mathur plays Rahul Gandhi as if he were a gawping, bumbling fool. If he were that, then the audience with surprise when he suddenly tears up the ordinance. Where did that come from? Rahul Gandhi may have been a callow youth at the time, but showing him to be an utter fool makes me question the intent of the film. Now that Congress seems to be winning elections, is this a BJP propaganda film after all?
Sanjaya Baru creates for the readers an account of a personally incorruptible PM who turned a blind eye to the faults and sins of his cabinet. The film barely mentions the Radia Tapes scam that exposed the connect between the government and the media. And Akshay Khanna is told off to go find another job because he won’t be part of Sonia-ji’s durbar. But it does not say why the part people spread rumors about Sanjaya Baru or show how the scams affected Dr Singh, if at all. But then neither does the film show why Dr Singh care so much about Narasimha Rao and why the Congress did not want his funeral in Delhi. The film skims on that as well.
Fine, you say, one film can only show this much, but the shabbiness of the film then gets you really mad. Lutyens’ Delhi is beautiful, not ghastly. You begin to wonder why there are so many artificial flowers in the PMO and the colours so garish. Does the inside of the South Block really resemble some lesser palace of a maharaja? Why does the view from the Prime Minister’s office look permanently hazy? It looks like a work of a Photoshop or Chroma intern. And the colour of everyone’s skin would put an English rose to shame. I stopped counting Akshay Khanna’s natty suits because I liked the House Of Cards style technique that breaks the fifth wall to make points. He talks directly to the audience to tell us what he’s feeling or to comment on events.
The film makes you want to buy bobblehead dolls of the entire cabinet or create a need-a-hug emoji for Dr Manmohan Singh who is made to look mostly pathetic in the film. The book manages to inject humor even in the sad fact that Dr Singh was an orphan, sent to school by his uncle who did not care to remember his correct date of birth. The book shows how the Prime Minister joked about rivals who prayed and did yagnas hoping to trounce him would never get the astrological data right because the birth date entered in the school register was not accurate. The film doesn’t get it. You are only taken aback when you see Anupam Kher say, ‘Sher kabhi daant saaf karta hai kya?’ to Akshay Kumar who requests him to freshen up before meeting the press.
The book is a scathing account of how the press is used by all kinds of politicians to score points, spread lies and even inform. The book shows us how stories are planted and how Sanjaya Baru, played the press to showcase his boss’s image. The film uses Vir Sanghvi’s historic and telling interviews of Sonia Gandhi and then the Prime Minister’s rebuttal so badly, you wish someone else had made it. The same with Manini Chatterjee’s interview with the Prime Minister which, according to the book, was manipulated by Sanjaya Baru...
The machinations of politicians are best read in the book which is controversial to say the least. But we’ve made political films before, and I still root for the Shyam Benegal film about two warring families called Kalyug (1981) which is based on the Mahabharata. But as Sanjaya Baru says, ‘In the Mahabharata, there are two families, here, there’s only one.’
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.