Director: Vijay Ratnakar Gutte
Cast: Anupam Kher, Akshaye Khanna, Arjun Mathur, Suzanne Bernert
Let’s begin by accepting that The Accidental Prime Minister is propaganda. Strategically, it’s a smart move. In election year, the film takes us into the corridors of power and doesn’t shy away from taking names. The film gives us a noble, reluctant hero – ex-prime minister Manmohan Singh – who is then emasculated by his own party and his own leaders – namely Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. All of which is observed and recorded by his closest advisor – the journalist-turned-media-advisor Sanjaya Baru. The Accidental Prime Minister, based on Baru’s book The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making And Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, gives us Baru’s version of events. He’s not a politician but he’s a Congress insider so the unmasking comes from within the party. In no uncertain terms, the film indicts Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, depicting them as selfish and manipulative, which then of course paves the way for the arrival of the real hero – current prime minister Narendra Modi.
Like I said, strategically, a smart move. But here’s what I don’t get – why create such a shoddy product? The Accidental Prime Minister is narratively incoherent, technically sloppy and flat-out tedious. Debutant director Vijay Ratnakar Gutte assembles two fine actors – Anupam Kher and Akshaye Khanna – but he saddles them with a script, which is so disjointed that it feels like they randomly pulled out pages of the book and decided to shoot them. The screenplay has been worked on by four people, including Newton writer Mayank Tewari. The story begins when Sonia Gandhi, after winning the the elections in 2004, decides not to become the prime minister and appoints Dr. Singh instead. The move effectively creates two centers of power and despite his best intentions, Singh is ultimately forced to put the Gandhi family above the party and the nation.
The film tosses in news footage of real people and then cuts to their onscreen counterparts. Which of course makes this whole enterprise even less convincing
Gutte’s big flourish as a director is to position Baru as the sutradhar, who breaks the fourth wall like Frank Underwood in House of Cards and speaks directly to the viewer. Baru is our man on the inside – he describes bhartiya rajneeti as an ‘ajeeb Mahabharat’. Dr. Singh is Bhishm, jinme koi burai nahi hai par family drama ke victim ho gaye. Baru is intelligent, loyal and arrogant. Unlike Dr. Singh, he’s adept at Machiavellian power games. It’s a delicious part and Akshaye does well, giving us smugness, charm and cynicism in equal parts. Baru is also a fashion fiend – I spent considerable time checking out his sharply cut suits and spiffy pink ties. But Gutte overuses the speaking to camera device. The story also jumps back and forth in time and some dialogue has been bleeped out so we are forced to lip-read and figure out what the characters are saying.
But for me the biggest hurdle was the portrayal of Dr. Singh. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, you will agree that Dr. Singh exudes an intelligence and an innate decency. There is an endearing awkwardness and humility about him, like he never got used to the power he wielded. Anupam works hard but he is unable to capture the essence of the man. He focuses instead on the externals – an overtly high-pitched voice and an awkward shuffle that comes dangerously close to caricature. The film positions Dr. Singh as a puppet and it seems like Anupam is trying to interpret that literally, with a physicality that suggests that someone is pulling strings from behind. Suzanne Bernert, as the permanently sour Sonia Gandhi, is absolutely inept as is the usually reliable Arjun Mathur as Rahul. There are also laugh out loud screen versions of journalists Arnab Goswami and Vir Sanghvi.
The film tosses in news footage of real people and then cuts to their onscreen counterparts. Which of course makes this whole enterprise even less convincing. Some frames have odd blurs in them and too much of it seems digitally doctored – like the actors just stood in front of a green screen and the surroundings were added later in post.
Can I just steal a line from the Joker and say that this country needs a better class of propaganda? I’m going with one star.