Hindi cinema couldn’t muster a political biopic in the early years after independence. Can it do so now, when many more people are much more divided along political lines?
It is said that to know who rules over you simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise. Often credited to Voltaire, this quote may or may not be his, but it does put things in perspective. Perhaps, the same could also be extended to the missing political biopics in Hindi cinema.
Biopics, like life, cannot be complete without mentioning the trials, failures, and bad decisions but to expect anything less than a hagiography would be unbecoming of Bollywood. Beyond the historical, the patriotic and the political thriller, yes, there have been more than a few even in Hindi films, the political biopic has been conspicuous by its absence. The fact that it took almost a decade and a half after independence of India for someone to make a film on Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, Shaheed (S. Ram Sharma, 1965) should be testimony enough why Hindi cinema is perhaps scared to frequent the genre.
When compared to today, where only a handful of actors such as a Kamal Haasan are comfortable airing their political views in a straightforward manner, the political identity of mainstream Hindi actors back in the day was more in the open. One of the foremost actors known to this country, Balraj Sahni, was even imprisoned by the government for his Communist leanings and was brought to the sets of Halchal every day in a police van with special permission. He would come to the studio in his jail clothes, change into the costume of a police inspector as ironically enough he was portraying a cop, and after the day’s shooting change back into his prison attire and ferried back.
Many of the top stars, especially the triumvirate Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor were often associated with the socialism attached to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India. At times the affinity with a political leader or the ideology that they stood for acted as a silent stimulus to portray the story – Raj Kapoor’s everyman in Shree 420 or on other occasions the leader would inspire or challenge a filmmaker such as Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri urging Manoj Kumar to make a film saluting the jawan and the kisan – the two who upheld the nation from the enemy. Manoj Kumar had met the prime minister during an award function and the brief exchange resulted in Upkar (Manoj Kumar, 1967).
With such interactions, it would have been only natural for filmmakers to tell more stories about the people who shaped the nation. In fact, with the departure of the British that often made it tough for filmmakers to address nationalism in their films, things should have become easier. After all, you now did not need to lace lyrics with inferences such as ‘German ho ya Japani’ to superficially address the Germans or the Japanese to attack the British imperialism as done by Kavi Pradeep in the song Door hato ae duniyawalon Hindustan hamara hai in Kismet (Gyan Mukherjee, 1942). Was the belief in Nehruvian idealism so ingrained or such an intrinsic part of the ethos of Hindi cinema that a biopic of a political opponent such as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose or Shyama Prasad Mukherjee was simply not imaginable even immediately after India became an independent nation?
Of course, a biopic of the Congress’ political opponents such as Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, who served as Minister for Industry and Supply in Jawaharlal Nehru's cabinet but quit the Indian National Congress after a falling out with Nehru, would not have been a go-to topic considering the mood of the young nation but how come the first Indo-Pak war of 1948 or the liberation of Hyderabad in September 1948 were not perfect subjects for a political biopic? If Nehru could be fêted and even worshiped as a demigod during his lifetime wouldn’t it be befitting to have a biopic celebrate him?
When compared to the biopics of Sardar Patel (Sardar, Ketan Mehta, 1993), Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (Ambedkar, Jabbar Patel, 2000) and Netaji (Bose: The Forgotten Hero, Shyam Benegal, 2004) most of which were made almost 50 years after their deaths, biopics of Western political figures happen while many of them are still active. Oliver Stone’s W. (2008), a scathing account of the life and presidency of George W Bush released while the 43rd President of the United States was still in office. While the film opened to mixed reviews the that Stone set out to make the film with – ‘I want a fair, true portrait of the man. How did Bush go from an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world?’ – was not lost on the viewers as well as the subject himself.
Neither the Bush administration nor the President himself officially commented on the film but Josh Brolin, the actor who portrayed the president, claimed that Bush had, in fact, watched the film. He told that former president Bill Clinton told Oliver Stone that he’d lent his copy of W. to Bush and reportedly, Bush himself “liked it very much” and “thought there were sad moments.” Similarly, Barry (Vikram Gandhi, 2016), a Netflix original film, that focused on the life of president Barack Obama in the early 1980s, when he attended Columbia University and began having the experiences that would shape the man he would become, also released while Obama was still incumbent.
Political biopics have to make a conscious effort to be compassionate and dignified and at the same time also take the leap of creativity while ensuring that facts are not distorted, at least not beyond a point. Moreover, leading Hindi film stars have also in some way always expressed their interest in attempting the genre. Dilip Kumar was keenly associated with the development of Leader (Ram Mukherjee, 1964), a film that looked at the nexus between politicians and criminals; Dev Anand opposed the Emergency and even launched his own political party that was briefly active. Rajesh Khanna’s Maha Chor (Narendra Bedi 1976) had graffiti urging people to ‘vote for Congress’ in a scene where he is promising a young street urchin that the government is committed to ensuring a glorious future for the likes of him, and Amitabh Bachchan’s Coolie (Manmohan Desai, 1983), Inquilaab (T. Rama Rao, 1984) and later Main Azaad Hoon (Tinnu Anand, 1989) made relevant political statements depending on which side he was leaning at the time of the films’ release.
Yet, none of them attempted a direct political biopic.
If this was not possible, for whatever reason, in the initial years post-independence then it is almost impossible to think of it in this day and age where notions such as ‘post-truth’ have become common tools to badger one’s opponent. Add to that a dash of presentism, yet another tool applied without much thought to the past and things only become tougher. Forget Nehru, even the biopic of the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, took 18 years to become a reality even though the government of India had officially extended all possible support.
Then to think a film on the Naval Mutiny of 1946, an event that perhaps single-handedly convinced the British to get out of India, or an Indian version that examines Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s role in the horror that followed his call for Direct Action Day or even a fair depiction of the events leading up to the mysterious custodial death of Shyama Prasad Mukherjee when he went to Kashmir after resigning from the Nehru cabinet to oppose Article 370 would be impossible.
In the recent past two events have brought to front how the playfield between the invested parties- the political class, the common folk and the conduits in between when it comes to making films – has for the first time become truly equal. The tremendous response of the common people when filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri that his new film would try answer the question ‘Who killed Shahtri ji?’ and the support, as well as opposition to Meryl Streep’s speech against Donald Trump a few days before the 45th President’s investiture show how everyone is now a participant in political issues.
Films are perhaps one of the easiest ways to let the young visually imbibe the recent past that shapes their present and impacts their future and in spite of the trappings of the medium, films could still be a great tool. Even with such sharp focus on political correctness at all costs, the great Hindi political biopic might just be around the corner.