June 6, 2010

Cinema politico

Raajneeti is the latest in a long line of films on the theme of Indian politics. Made against many odds, they gathered critical acclaim, but seldom did well at the box office.

Popular cinema, at its best, reflects the social dynamics of its age. And politics being an integral part of society — not just in the sense of the political system but in the wider one of the power equations between genders and communities — popular cinema has had a long-lasting affair with politics. Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti is proof of that.

Jha’s Raajneeti, which he calls his ‘most complete work’, is set against the backdrop of Indian democracy and politics. “It showcases the politics of the mind, the manoeuvring of relationships for power. It’s about the insiders and outsiders of politics,” says Jha, who contested and lost the 2004 and 2009 general elections from his native Champaran (Bihar)and feels his experience came in handy while making Raajneeti.

As for the controversies it has run into — the censor board gave it an A certificate at first, which was only lifted after the filmmakers took the matter to the Apellate Tribunal — Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO of UTV Motion Pictures, which has co-produced Raajneeti, claims he hadn’t been expecting it. “It’s essentially the Mahabharata in the present political context,” he says.

A film can of, course, be ‘political’ without depicting the political system. As veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal, also a Rajya Sabha member, says, “There are films which directly depict politics and then there are films which take a tangential look at it.” In that sense, all Benegal’s films are political, including his two recent releases, Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008) and Well Done Abba (2010).

Among Bollywood directors, Sudhir Mishra has well-known political connections. His grandfather D P Mishra was a close associate of Indira Gandhi and his uncle Brajesh Mishra is a former national security advisor. Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005), his critically acclaimed film about three people caught in the sweeping political changes in the pre- and post-Emergency period, has many resonances with the current debates on Naxalism. Mishra says his film was “a story of people who took choices and failed, but that failure was magnificent. Naxalism is a kind of symptom, not the cause. It was one of the many expressions people found to speak against the government then.”

Political theatre has been crucial in shaping the careers of Anurag Kashyap and Nandita Das — both were associated with Safdar Hashmi’s Jana Natya Manch in Delhi. Das’s career as an actor is full of films with strong political undercurrents — Govind Nihalani’s Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998), on the mother of a dead Naxalite; Bawandar (2000), about caste politics and the use of rape as a weapon against women; and Mani Ratnam’s A Peck on the Cheek (2002) on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, to name a few. Das’s directorial debut Firaaq (2008), a story set in the aftermath of the 2002 Godhra riots, engages with politics — particularly communal politics. “Art is also politics,” she says. Kashyap’s Gulaal too is overtly political, set amid the violent student elections in Rajasthan and a separatist movement there. “It was and is my most angry film,” Kashyap says.

While films such these have almost always got critical acclaim, box office success has not often followed.

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006) is an exception, breaking records with collections of Rs 60 crore. Talking about his cult movie, Mehra says, “The boys in RDB are really me and my friends, a disillusioned lot in college who wanted to shoot the politicians. Through the film I also wanted to bring out the Bhagat Singh versus Gandhi rhetoric.” Political apathy in the metros is something Mehra finds disturbing, and it’s an issue that forms the subtext of RDB. “People will talk but won’t go out to vote,” says Mehra. RDB was also effective in the way it set off a wave of candlelight protests such as the one that turned the tide against Manu Sharma in the Jessica Lal murder case.

Controversy has always dogged political films. If Katrina Kaif’s role in Raajneeti is rumoured to have been based on Sonia Gandhi, Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) raised a storm too because people alleged that it was based on the life of Indira Gandhi. Aandhi did not get a full release while Indira Gandhi was in power, but premiered after she lost the 1977 elections. Gulzar, of course, refutes the allegations, saying that he needed to model his protagonists on someone and Indira Gandhi and Tarkeshwari Sinha fitted the bill. He considers his other films — Maachis (1996), on the Sikh insurgency, and Mere Apne (1971), depicting the frustration of jobless youth in politically turbulent Bengal — more topical.

Mishra recalls the turbulent times before the release of his film, “When you make a film like Hazaaron..., the entire industry mocks you. I had to battle the censors. Earlier too, the Shiv Sena pulled out Dharavi in 1991 from six theatres in which it was running. That was a major challenge.” Even Mishra’s first feature, the searing Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin (1987) angered many.

Das echoes his sentiments, “A journalist called me to say that Narendra Modi wanted to watch Firaaq before its release, but I refused and went ahead.” Then theatre owners refused to screen the film as they feared it might lead to vandalism, and there was no promotion in Gujarat. “People knew about the film but the details were withheld, thereby slowly killing it,” rues Das.

Even RDB ran into a dispute with the defence ministry and Air Force Board wanting Mehra to cut out the portions where a MiG plane is shown crashing and a CAG report reveals a scam worth Rs 2,000 crore.

Some films were banned outright — among them Prakash Jha’s documentary Faces and Storms (1984) on the Bihar Sharif riots, which was banned five days after its release, but went on to win the National Award.

Kapur, however, is optimistic. “Both RDB and Raajneeti were made with the objective of entertaining and, like RDB, Raajneeti will be as successful in doing so.” Bollywood trade analyst Komal Nahta feels that having saleable stars such as Ranbir Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and Ajay Devgn will help the film, made on a budget of Rs 40 crore. “Being a multi-starrer, Raajneeti will see a fantastic opening. The song ‘Mora Piya’ is a rage.”

In other words, Raajneeti is merely political cinema peppered with Bollywood masala, and thus little different from the other stuff that tinseltown dishes out.