Cinema and Politics in India

Political drama in Indian television did not take off, and I wonder why – maybe because Indians like to be able to relate to their soap opera characters and this was a step too far. The few one has seen has had characters with local political influence, yet the plot line is set within the traditional zar, zameen, j(z)iadaad mode. With honourable exceptions like ‘Ji Mantriji’ and the utterly hilarious Kakkaji Kahin.

Movies on the other hand have done better. The first political movie I remember having seen is Leader. Too much of a child to appreciate the nuances, the inherent dichotomies of an idealist politician’s life were made clear, as bollywood does through simplification and repetition. A story for the masses, about one of them growing up. A coming of age story if you will.. as many movies of the fifties and sixties were anyway. There was politics in Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420 and Aawara, among others. And in Balraj Sahni’s Garam Hawa. But these were not about political leadership, which is our quest today.

A political movie that I cannot forget is “New Delhi Times’, the story of a newspaper editor battling for his independence in the face of political pressure. It came after a long gap. The big political movie before that had been about the emergency – Kissa Kursi Ka and was certainly censored, if not banned outright. Aandhi was a tamer version of a female politican’s struggle to chart her own path – one of the early ‘having it all’ conversations via cinema. It was a thinly disguised version of Indira Gandhi’s life that veered into fiction whenever the biographical details became a bit too uncomfortable to handle.

There have been more movies about local politics than about grand political leaders – Smita Patil’s fiery eyes as she and her team poured mirchi (red chilli powder) on to the local power-dada’s people comes to mind. That was echoed and raised to the level of a ‘centre’ aspirant in the recent Gulaab Gang, based on a real life group of women in pink who beat up their oppressors for justice. Gulaab Gang’s ‘madam’ has aspirations beyond the local, competencies gained from having trained with the best – her own family. Yet the narrative rarely raises questions that were not raised in the movies of the 60s, nor does the plot line take it beyond contexts set in the more violent movies of the eighties and onwards. Nayak and the entire genre of movies about gangland wars and mafia leaders with political connections wield great power, but none of these can be called political dramas in the sense of the fine intellectual cut, thrust and parry one would expect of true leadership. In that sense, maybe only ‘Gandhi’ makes the cut, but that was worshipfully received into the Indian pantheon though not strictly an Indian movie.

Some, like the recent ‘Rajneeti’ did try to span the broad sweeping canvas of politics in India, falling short in performances and storyline – a grand idea brought to its knees in a quest for – popularity. I mock myself here, because politics itself is often reduced to a quest for popularity in a democracy. The same criteria applied to it’s shadow representation in film often reduces it by many dimensions, losing grit and character along the way. That’s just the way it has been played out in Indian cinema so far. The ones that have been lauded for their grit and realism include the very long “Gangs of Wasseypur’ and the recent ‘Katiyabaaz’, both again scoped to the local or regional.

Political leaders, real or imagined, tend to sweep through our film story lines almost as if they were incidental. They turn the story, true, but their role is merely to catalyse the plot or apportion or absolve leaders of blame – as in the recent Madras Cafe, which is about India’s involvement in the Sri Lankan conflict. One of the strongest characterisations of political leadership in Indian cinema has been in Sarkar, and Sarkar Raj, the former a stronger movie by far. Both apparently were based on real life personas and incidents.

There are many more that are political in nature, marking the twists and turns of India’s troubled secular socialistic democracy. From the traumatised Bombay to the gutsy Dabanng, politics pervades our lives and movies. Is Yahudi less political for having been about the ebb and flow of cultures? If not, then we could count Pinjar, Veer Zaara and Gadar too. Is there room for people’s tales in political dramas – then Mission Kashmir and Shatranj ke Khilaadi epitomise protagonists and anti-protagonists.
Many come as hagiography of historical heroes – all politicians in their own right. Shaheed Bhagat Singh has had four or five movies (and I still love the black and white version best).Tales of war, in victory or loss embed their own political commentary – Haqeeqat an incisive tale of the tragic relations with the chinese mismanaged and misunderstood politically, as well as a criticism of the way political leadership handles logistics and its implications on the ground. The title itself a crisp reminder of the point it is trying to make unlike other war movies that are more jingoistic – probably because they record victories.

Others come from its political history though not always presented as such – I could not call Mughal-e-Azam any more a love story than I could call it political. Lagaan is no less about political leadership for being a story about cricket and taxes. From another age and yet from a bureaucratic system that has its roots in Sher-Shah Suri’s legacy via Akbar lies the tale of systems, power, politics and love comes the movie ‘Hazaar Khwahishen Aisi’. Both cadenced by the ebb and flow of politics in the lives of leaders. Does Razia Sultan also qualify here? I think it does. Indian movies tend to bring love into everything – politics remains the backdrop, yet a key player in the lives of the people who populate the story.

Sharp political commentary however is best done with humour – and I cannot end this little essay without a hat tip to movies such as Peepli Live and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. There is more to say, much more about movies and politics, but as Commissioner D’Mello learnt – “Thoda Khao, Thoda Phenko”. Rarely heard a smarter comment on the choices offered by politics and power.

A list here, of a few hundred movies that offer commentary on people and politics:

(This was just meant to be a listing, not an analysis. It’s not much more, but oh, so tempting to do a meaty analysis. Ah, another time. Do add movies I’ve missed)