Writer, Director: Subhash Kapoor
Cast: Richa Chaddha, Saurabh Shukla, Manav Kaul, Akshay Oberoi,
Editor: Chandrashekhar Prajapati
Cinematographer: Jayesh Nair
Producer: Naren Kumar, Dimple Kharbanda, Bhushan Kumar, Krishan Kumar
She has nerves of steel, and villains of iron — Tara Roop Kumar (Richa Chadda in the opening credits, Richa Chaddha in the closing credits, Richa Chadha on Twitter). Madam Chief Minister tracks her journey, from being the jilted side-lover to the stiff-lipped, gel-haired, upper caste Indramani Tripathi (Akshay Oberoi) to becoming the fiery first lower caste, female chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
The former and the latter are connected—after Tara is harassed, beaten up, and kicked in the stomach (while pregnant with Indramani’s child) by Indramani’s stooges, she is taken in and nursed to empowerment by Master Surajbhan (Saurabh Shukla). The child is assumed to have died with the kick to the stomach, but neither this nor its mental aftermath is even so much as hinted at. Master-ji channels her desire for revenge to a pursuit for political power. She now seeks to work for the lower castes, the dalits, who are defined, in this movie, by their lacking— their inability to enter temples, share meals, and miscegenate, all of which find scenes in this two-hour fare.
This is a very interesting premise that is best captured by Swanand Kirkire’s lyrics, ‘Chidi chidi toh uddi uddi’. To be a lower caste is to be in a constant state of provocation; the desire for power, prestige, and popularity — to udd, to fly — comes not from any desire for “self-actualization” but as a coping mechanism, to keep the provocateurs at bay. But the interesting premise is shredded piece by piece. First by the inability to create a gripping political drama — Tara’s rise to power, from a literal nobody to the Chief Minister of India’s most populous state, is a mere montage. Her mobilizing, her winning, her ability to overcome internal dissidents, and external enemies is so finger-snapping in its treatment, without any tension, any build-up, and thus without any anticipation. The election speeches she gives has a cookie cutter charisma, which Chaddha is able to pull off, with the over-rehearsed hand gestures. I can see her remembering the pattern, first, left hand index finger, then right hand swat in the air. But electric charisma can never be rehearsed. It must be embodied, and there is a severe lacking here.
The greater inability is the tackling of social issues with a hand-waving informality. When first released, the poster, with Chadha holding onto a broom, got a lot of flak. In our Trailer Talk, we wrote, “Many also noted that while using the instantly recognizable haircut of Mayawati, the first female Dalit chief minister, it axed her education, preferring to use the … iconography [of brooms and dirt] to make the easier, more sensational association with dalits.”
Glad to present to you all, my new movie #MadamChiefMinister, a political drama about an 'untouchable' who hustles and makes it big in life! Out in cinemas on 22nd January! Stay tuned! pic.twitter.com/7dXDY1KRIX
— TheRichaChadha (@RichaChadha) January 4, 2021
Chadha apologized, and a new poster was released even as the old one remained on their social media accounts. There is no scene with a broom in the film, perhaps axed due to the brouhaha. Instead, the association with caste is entirely issue based. The first mention of it happens in the very first scene, where a lower caste groom is atop a horse traveling through an upper caste gully; gunfire ensues. (This same setup was used in Aashram, albeit more effectively, creating within the viewer a vicarious anger, and anguish.) Then comes caste as a pulpit, during scenes of interdining, then intermarriage, then temple-entrance. Soon, between these scenes the movie is muddled with political maneuvres, assassination attempts, murder, and betrayal.
An issue based way of looking at identity, albeit flattening, can be effective if done well. Here there is no such attempt. Caste looks like a violence that you can retreat from at will, something that can be kept at bay by power. The intoxicating cocktail of patriarchy and casteism, thus, doesn’t feel as imposing or threatening to Tara who cruises through with monologues. There are quiet references we can make to Mayawati, but there isn’t much else — the gold, the Guest House incident, the Kanshi Ram mentorship, the haircut, the line “Tilak tarazu aur talwar, Inko maaro joote chaar”, which was used by Mayawati in her speeches. As a result, there is no profound or nuanced implication.
There is a conversation around representation that is happening with a shrill indifference to the people who the mainstream is seeking to represent. It is as if a lower caste story is exactly like an upper caste story but with lower caste characters. That a queer love story is like a straight love story but with queer characters. The problem here is an assumption: that the only thing differentiating a lower caste from an upper caste is the caste, which is now considered a label, and not a culture. This film and the surrounding narrative seems to come from such a narrow viewpoint. A well-intentioned, narrow viewpoint.