Madhur Bhandarkar’s Indu Sarkar is a compelling story undone by clumsy storytelling. Bhandarkar takes us back to one of the darkest periods in Indian history – the Emergency, imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977. It was a time marked by severe censorship, forced sterilizations and the mass incarceration of opposition leaders and dissenting voices. But the focus in the film is a timid, stammering girl whose only dream is to be the perfect housewife.
Indu, played by Kirti Kulhari, is married to a government official, played by Tota Roy Chowdhury. Her ordinary life gets derailed when a wrong turn lands her in an area where the police are razing a slum. There is a lathi charge, tear gas and bullets. The horror of the Emergency, in which her husband is an enthusiastic abettor, comes alive. Indu cannot unsee what she has seen and she is forced to take a stand.
Indu’s graph is handled nicely. Kirti is a fine actor who skillfully renders Indu’s evolution. I liked that Indu finds her voice metaphorically but not literally. Even in the climatic courtroom scene, she speaks with surety but with a stammer. The trouble is that nothing else in the film has the same nuance. Take the bombastic dialogue by veteran Sanjay Chhel – at one point, Indu’s husband tells her – haklate, haklate hak mangne chali.
Indu joins an activist group and then asks to play a key role in disrupting an important official conference. When the leader questions her resolve, she replies: Arjun ke irade hil sakte hain, ghayal Draupadi ke nahin. But the best of the lot are reserved for Neil Nitin Mukesh who plays Sanjay Gandhi, here referred to only as Chief. He says lines like: Sarkaren challenges se nahin, chabuk se chalti hain. Or Emergency mein emotions nahin, mere orders chalte hain.
I was also intrigued by Chief’s entourage, which includes a Jagdish Tytler look-alike and an attractive woman wearing pearls and shades. When Chief is perturbed, which is often, they tell him – just relax Chief, just relax. Neil Nitin Mukesh isn’t half bad but this character is a caricature. Everyone also keeps saying: upar se bahut pressure hai.
In the second half, the emotional conflict gets dissipated in a series of amateurishly staged scenes of revolt against the oppressive establishment. This is described as desh ki doosri azadi ki ladai. But it comes off a handful of men and women trying to upstage the regime of a petulant leader – there is an almost comical scene in which Chief is listening to a qawwali as his kingdom burns.
If you want to revisit the devastated political landscape of the 1970s, watch Sudhir Mishra’s infinitely better Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. Indu Sarkar is too heavy-handed to be memorable.