February Issue 2019
Movie Review: The Accidental Prime Minister
At the outset, The Accidental Prime Minister – a political biopic of the former Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh – clearly states the film is intended for purposes of entertainment, and consequently certain creative liberties have been taken in the interest of dramatisation.
Unfolding against the backdrop of the 2004 Indian general elections, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), a coalition of 11 political parties led by the Indian National Congress, emerges as the winner to form the next government. Sonia Gandhi (played by German “doppelganger,” actress Suzanne Bernert) is then not only the undisputed head of Congress, but also the chairperson of the UPA. However, she cannot pick up the Prime Minister’s mantle because of objections by the opposition that she is not a natural-born Indian citizen. After considerable deliberation, she relinquishes the premiership to the mild-mannered but brilliant former finance minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, much to the chagrin of other prospective candidates.
The film is based on a tell-all memoir, The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh authored by Sanjaya Baru (Akshaye Khanna). Baru, an Indian policy analyst, was appointed media advisor to Dr Manmohan Singh (Anupam Kher) when he became India’s 13th Prime Minister. The book, as well as the film, chronicles his tenure from 2004 to 2014 and the main focus of film is Dr. Singh’s relationship with Sanjaya Baru, who accepts the PM’s offer to become his aide and official spokesperson on condition that he will only report to Dr Singh.
While taking the audience into the inner sanctum of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the film also explores the kind of control India’s most powerful political dynasty wielded over Dr. Singh and his cabinet during his two terms in office.
Dr. Singh had several achievements to his credit, namely the National Rural Employment Scheme, the Right to Information Act, the National Urban Renewal Mission and the highest recorded Gross Domestic Product that clocked at 10.08% in 2006-07. However, the film only highlights the 2008 civil nuclear agreement with the US in great detail. The deal nearly derailed his government but by the time it came through, Dr Singh had become a national hero. Incidentally, he was the first prime minister to complete a full five-year term since Jawaharlal Nehru and returned to the post with his party winning the 2008 elections with a bigger mandate.
Although Kher mirrors the feeble-voiced premier’s body language well enough, the impersonation of Dr Singh’s gentle demeanour comes across as awkward and weak. The treatment of the film strongly suggests that although he was the right man for the job, he was, by and large, a puppet of “the Family” – for unknown reasons the Gandhi family name has been blipped out by the censors. Dr. Singh, in fact, had to take considerable flak for the many failings of the Congress party, particularly during his second tenure, which was rife with corruption charges. His meaningful silences hinted at the fact that he was keeping the premiership seat warm until the time was right for Rahul Gandhi to take over the Congress party. Disappointingly, at no point does the film capture the spirit of a man who was a world-class economist with an astute mind.
Akshaye Khanna as Baru engages the audience by speaking directly to the camera at regular intervals, explaining the political machinations of the characters surrounding Dr Singh, and highlighting his own role in defending and generally being protective of Dr. Singh, who he genuinely respected. While the other actors impersonating Indian politicians bear an uncanny resemblance to their respective characters, Khanna has no resemblance whatsoever to the real-life Baru. Sonia Gandhi’s role is minimal but it is the key that turns the plot, while the actors playing Rahul Gandhi (Arjun Mathur) and Priyanka Gandhi (Aahana Kumra) barely get any screen time.
Unfortunately, The Accidental Prime Minister lacks the intensity and depth of several complex, hard-hitting political dramas Bollywood has produced. Sans any major twists or conflicts, the film fails to develop the tension required in political dramas. There were plenty of “dramatic moments” during Dr Singh’s premiership such as the 2G and the Commonwealth Games scam, the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks and the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement, but none of them get screen space. Consequently, the film ends up being neither entertaining nor dramatic – it’s vapid to say the least.
However, The Accidental Prime Minister scores on one count: it is perfectly timed. With the next general elections in India due in April 2019, the film is intended to discredit the Congress by denigrating Sonia, Rahul and the Gandhi family. The majority of the film critics in India were unimpressed, and the movie was described as a “propaganda” film. By the fifth day of its release, it was struggling at the box office. The clearance from the Pakistan Censor Board and the release of the film here comes as a surprise since the “Modi Sarkar” has not exactly been a friend of the Pakistan government. The film’s producer, Jayantilal Gada expressed his gratitute to Imran Khan’s government and described Khan as a brave cricketer and prime minister.
Baru’s book was published just before the previous 2014 Indian elections, while the movie has been released just before the 2019 elections – allegedly with Bharatiya Janata Party (BLP) funding. The Congress has, in fact, accused it of being an out-an-out propaganda film financed by the BJP, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. Incidentally, debutante director and co-writer Vijay Ratnakar Gutte was arrested last year for a Rs 34 crore fraud by the Directorate General of Goods and Services Tax Intelligence, but was later released on bail. Vijay’s father, Ratnakar Gutte, a sugar baron from Maharashtra, is known to be close to several top BJP leaders in the state.
Additionally, Anupam Kher is a die-hard BJP supporter and his wife, actress-turned politician, Kirron Kher is a BJP parliamentarian, while Akshaye Khanna is the son of the late BJP MP, Vinod Khanna.
The film may very well be part of a political strategy to discredit the Congress, but it has backfired.
The writer is a documentary filmmaker and activist. She is working with the Newsline as editorial assistant.