Nobody who can call himself civilised really likes to see derision and mockery of the disadvantaged, especially when it flows down from the vantage upper riparian position of power and control and targets one who does not react in anyway and stays silent against all barbs.
Even among the most vicious, after a point, the manufactured laughter does not quite reach the eyes.
Anupam Kher as former PM Manmohan Singh in the trailer of The Accidental Prime Minister. (Photo: Still from The Accidental Prime Minister trailer)
However, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is in no way disadvantaged and another long recount of his impressive credentials and years of experience and performance in the two UPA governments is not necessary.
Yet, the optics that comprise so much a part of our lives today and, to a large extent, inform our political opinions and decisions have, because of a single film, The Accidental Prime Minister, made with an ostensible eye on the 2019 general elections, created more sympathy for him on social media in the last few days than ever before.
Made on a budget of Rs 23 crore, which squarely puts it in the high budget category, based on a book by Sanjaya Baru, former adviser to Manmohan Singh, the film claims to narrate the events in Singh’s life that led to him becoming Prime Minister, and the days that followed.
According to another media adviser of Manmohan Singh, Pankaj Pachauri, the film is nothing but part of the BJP’s election campaign.
The scenes and dialogues of the film are obviously completely dependent on the anecdotal reminisces of Sanjaya Baru and we have to take his word and believe that the interactions between the major players of the narrative took place in exactly the same way.
The trailer of the film begins with the cautious note: “The film is based on the book The Accidental Prime Minister by Mr Sanjaya Baru (who served as Dr Manmohan Singh's media adviser during his first term as Prime Minister). All characters, events and incidents are based on the book and have been fictionalised for dramatisation.”
It goes on to cautiously state, “Nothing in the film is intended to defame any person dead or alive… nor the makers of the film… intend to disgrace… any political party in any manner…” (sic)
Since the film is solely based on the book, and not on any other sources, it is interesting to see the disclaimer of the book itself:
"The views and opinions expressed in this book are the author’s own and the facts are as reported by him, which have been verified to the extent possible, and the publishers are not in any way liable for the same."
“…And the facts are as reported by him, which have been verified to the extent possible…” is as vague as it can get.
There is ample ground here for imaginative concoction, exaggeration and hyperbole.
To base a biopic on this shaky edifice and serve it to an impressionable public does seem a tad on the questionable side, especially in these days of extreme political partisanships.This is why Pankaj Pachauri’s observation that the film is “fiction turned into fiction” seems appropriate. Whether the film is intended to disgrace any political party or not is not exactly decided by a legal disclaimer; it comes across in the way one writes the dialogue, the body language of the actor, and the convenient scripting – if one has a mind to do so, as any film-maker will tell us.
All this is highly subjective, and no amount of debate or nitpicking over specifics is likely to draw specific conclusions. Sanjaya Baru’s introduction in the book seems to be quite reasonable, and hardly offensive to the persona of Dr Singh as the media and many sections of the Congress are claiming about the film.
The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, Sanjaya Baru, Penguin Books India, 2014.
Here’s what Baru wrote in the book:
“I have not ventured to speculate on UPA-2 beyond my limited knowledge of what happened during Dr Singh’s second term in office. I will argue, in the coming chapters, that the Manmohan Singh of UPA-1 was not the ‘puppet PM’ that he came to be seen as in UPA-2. He was certainly an ‘accidental prime minister’, as he readily confessed, to all and sundry, but that did not prevent him from occupying the country’s most important chair with both dignity and great competence."
He goes on, "With regard to the relationship between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, I do not claim deep knowledge of how the two dealt with each other in closed-door meetings; my account is based only on what I saw and came to reliably know. However, I hope this book will help readers understand, at least in part, the complex relationship between the PM and the party president. After all, the complexity of this relationship lies at the root of both Dr Singh’s success, and failure, as prime minister. His ability to manage this relationship better than any other Congress party politician has done, or could have done, laid the foundation for his two terms in office. He is the only Indian prime minister not from the Nehru–Gandhi family to have served this long. On the other hand, the public perception that he accomplished this feat through unquestioning submissiveness lies at the heart of the image problem that has come to haunt Dr Singh.”
Sanjaya Baru was close to former PM Manmohan Singh for years. (Source: India Today)
There is always a problem with such depictions.
Anecdotal or experiential recounting of events is unreliable in a biopic, especially one which purports to navigate its way around the complexities of events, politics and personalities.
This is for the very simple reason that without triangulation of facts and evidence, one lays oneself bare to a confirmation bias. This is even more so if it is only one person providing the inputs and not a combined effort of various experts, eyewitnesses and documentation.
If it was intended as an agitprop to provoke, the film has already succeeded.
The BJP promoted the trailer of the movie from its official Twitter handle.
Riveting tale of how a family held the country to ransom for 10 long years. Was Dr Singh just a regent who was holding on to the PM’s chair till the time heir was ready? Watch the official trailer of #TheAccidentalPrimeMinister, based on an insider’s account, releasing on 11 Jan! pic.twitter.com/ToliKa8xaH— BJP (@BJP4India) December 27, 2018
Some Congress workers protested against the film, calling for a ban in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
“Modi ji, people will vote for you based on your achievements in the last five years and not because you malign someone’s image. We will not let this movie release as it gives out a negative image of the Congress ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls,” read the posters that have been put up on street corners across Lucknow reportedly by Rahul Awasthi, a Congress worker.
In 2017, attempts were made to portray former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi negatively through the movie Indu Sarkar and according to Awasthi, The Accidental Prime Minister falls within that genre.
Information and Broadcasting minister Rajyavardhan Rathore coyly asked what is wrong with the BJP promoting a film and where has the freedom of speech the Congress espouses gone now?
And so? I&B minister Rajyavardhan Rathore asked what is wrong with the BJP wishing a film well? (Source: India Today)
It is a question the Congress needs to introspect about, not only because of the implication that they have double standards with regards to freedom of expression, but also because it so easily falls in the traps laid out by the BJP.
Rahul Gandhi ‘wearing a janaeu’ or calling for bans on films which portray the party in bad light are examples of the Congress walking straight into the BJP’s trap.
Perhaps the Congress should learn from Dr Singh himself and simply respond with a gentle and dignified “no comments”.
That has earned him far more goodwill than all the howls of outrage and agitations on the streets can ever do.