Director: Ravi Jadhav
Writers: Ravi Jadhav, Rishi Virman
Cast: Pankaj Tripathi, Raja Rameshkumar Sevak, Piyush Mishra, Payal Nair, Pramod Pathak
Runtime: 139 minutes
It’s hard to go wrong with the story of a politician who’s also a poet. It’s harder to go wrong with a ready-made brew of art and diplomacy. Imagine the inbuilt lyricism, the cinematic licence, the oratory swag, the lonely mindscape and the literary motifs. Imagine the provocative marriage of words and visuals. Imagine the philosophical depth and cultural acumen. Imagine the natural chemistry between narrative and subtext. Imagine the rhyme and reason. (Imagine all of the above in John Lennon’s voice.) Yet, against all odds, director Ravi Jadhav manages to do the impossible. He goes wrong with Main Atal Hoon, an unimaginative 139-minute biopic of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Bullet-point storytelling is not new to a Hindi hagiography, but Main Atal Hoon commits the unique crime of sacrificing the famous personality of a statesman at the altar of new-age discourse. Not for the first time, a person of history is reduced to the language of the future. A man is reduced to a series of shallow moments.
This lack of integrity is inextricably linked to a lack of craft. The first few lines of the opening disclaimer — “this film intends to inspire patriotism, nationalism and reverence of our great nation not only amongst the youth but people at large” — set the stage. This is an unabashed tribute, so the timeline of a country exists to serve the timelessness of a leader. The film-making is stagey, dull, laboured, and too apprehensive to be curious. A Gold Spot bottle being opened during a movie screening of Sangam (1964) is probably the sharpest period detail. The cinematography in the archival footage is more ambitious than the starchy palette of the film. (The lotus iconography is shot with zero aesthetic.) The sound design unfolds like a Hitchcockian nightmare; every other line reverberates through the frames, making it difficult to distinguish the voice-over from the lofty dialogue. The background characters look like they have stage fright at a costume ball.
Main Atal Hoon spans more than six decades of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s journey – ranging from his early days as a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker during the British Raj, to his eventful reign as prime minister during the Kargil war and Pokhran-II tests in the late Nineties. We see his rise up the political ladder, but we never understand why he thinks a certain way. His ideology is a given, and the film unquestioningly goes with it. Apart from his stint as editor of post-partition publications like Rashtradharma, there is no backstory to his desire to view nationalism through the lens of religious domination. And apart from a few awkward scenes with his adopted family, we don’t see any meaningful representation of the unit as a whole in his life. It’s almost taken for granted that his career doubles up as the origin story of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As a result, the enemy is always within: The Indian National Congress (INC) is the overarching villain of the film. The writing often implicates itself in its pursuit of political one-upmanship, pitting the victim complex of one party against the superiority complex of the other.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ascent is defined by his ability to either impress or dethrone Congress leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru (“Mark my words, this man will one day be PM of India!”), Lal Bahadur Shastri (a montage of sullen post-war expressions), Indira Gandhi (“I’m impressed with your empathy for women despite being single”) and even a Bond-baddie-esque Sonia Gandhi. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t do a better job of casting younger BJP figures such as Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, and most of all, L.K. Advani. Former president Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam gets the shortest straw in terms of performance-to-parody ratio.
Speaking of which: Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this soulless biopic is Pankaj Tripathi’s rendition of Vajpayee. It’s a turn that loses its truth in uneven mimicking patterns — exaggerated hand and eye gestures, dramatic pauses and intonations, prosthetic tenderness and taunts. The chaste Hindi becomes more form than manner. The acting is too visible, even when it’s clear that Vajpayee is often ‘playing’ the role of a charismatic speaker. His monologues in the Lok Sabha sound too rehearsed to be the narrative punchlines that they are.
The void between intent and image is encapsulated by a scene in which the protagonist — the new prime minister walking through the halls of his office — asks about an empty space on the wall. When informed that the picture of a former leader from an opposition party was taken down from there, he requests the staff to restore the portrait to its original place. This is meant to signify the magnanimity of the man over the ruthlessness of the politician. Except Tripathi makes it look like a strangely condescending gesture. It’s the sort of thing that sore winners say to rub their opponents’ noses in the dirt. I suppose this failed ambiguity is fitting in the grand scheme of the film’s themes. Main Atal Hoon pretends until it can no longer pretend. Make of this lyric what you will.