The Rise of Reel Politics
A prime minister is assassinated. There’s a movement against apathy. An anti- terror unit is trying to stop a daring attack. Three releases mark a new wave of political cinema.
A prime minister is assassinated. There’s a movement against apathy. An anti- terror unit tries to stop a daring attack. Three releases mark a new wave of political cinema.
The next few sentences are a work of fiction; the resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental. It’s the early 1990s. A former Indian prime minister goes for a preelection rally to a small town in Tamil Nadu. As he arrives at the bustling venue, he is beckoned by a young woman with thick- rimmed glasses. She steps forward to garland him, and bends to touch his feet. The woman, a Tamil separatist from Sri Lanka, presses two buttons— one on her back, and one on her stomach. There is a massive explosion. The former prime minister is assassinated. His white sports shoes have streaks of blood on them.
This scene is the central plot around which Shoojit Sircar’s Madras Cafe, which released on August 23, is constructed. The film comes with a work- of- fiction disclaimer in bold letters but everyone involved in its making, and anyone who watches it, immediately knows it is about Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination at Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991. The creators give the former prime minister no name, referring to him as “ex- PM”. In one scene, his shawl is tucked under the right shoulder in Rajiv’s signature style. Protests against the film have started already, but one way to look at Madras Cafe is as a Bollywood landmark: A film that dares to depict a recent political incident involving a national leader, and to tackle a real story, even if in the garb of fiction. One could even call it a trailblazer, paving the way for modern- day political cinema in a country famous for its intolerance to mundane onscreen portrayals.
Madras Cafe comes at an interesting time for the Hindi entertainment industry. Prakash Jha’s Satyagraha, an Amitabh Bachchan and Ajay Devgn starrer that loosely mirrors the peoples’ movement sparked by Anna Hazare in 2011 and the Delhi gangrape agitation in 2012, will hit theatres on August 30. The film is about a young corporate professional and an idealistic older man who join forces to fight against corruption and government apathy. It will be followed in mid- September by 24, a slick new TV series in which a Mumbai anti- terror chief, played by Anil Kapoor, will try to save a young prime minister from a deadly assassin over the course of 24 nail- biting hours. Its first episode reveals that the young prime minister’s father was killed by separatists. His mother is his political caretaker. His sister, also in politics, is walking the thin line between her family legacy and an errant husband. Viewers are free to draw their own parallels.
So, one would think the time has finally come for more Hindi movies and TV serials to take the plunge into uncharted territory. To pick up where the socio- political cinema of the 1950s and 1960s had left off. But in reality, the gap between Bollywood and realistic political dramas is still extremely wide.
It took Sircar, 46, the director of Yahaan ( 2005) and Vicky Donor ( 2012), seven years to make Madras Cafe. Apart from 18 months of meticulous Internet fact- finding and book- reading to decipher the twists and turns of the Tamil conflict by a dedicated research team that included co- producer Ronnie Lahiri, the list of problems was long. Big production houses didn’t want to touch the script for fear of a political backlash, and distributors were shying away because of all the pre- release hassles they expected from the censors. The film was finally made by Sircar’s own production company,
AN UNNAMED TAMIL BOMBER, RESEMBLING LTTE ASSASSIN DHANU, WAITS TO GARLAND THE ‘ EX- PM’ATA 10 P. M. RALLY IN ATOWN IN TAMIL NADU, IN ASTILL FROM MADRAS CAFE
THE ‘ EX- PM’AT HIS LAST RALLY MINUTES BEFORE HE IS KILLED, IN ASTILL FROM MADRAS CAFE
ARJUN RAMPAL ( LEFT), AMITABH BACHCHAN ( CENTRE) AND AJAY DEVGN LEAD APROTESTIN ASCENE FROM SATYAGRAHA, REMINISCENT OFTHE DELHI GANG- RAPE AGITATION