Having read Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister and then seen the trailer for the film, I walked into the screening expecting a sharp and feckless deviation from the source material. The book is an insider account of four years of UPA1, the trailer styled the film as a Gandhi family hitjob.
But in between taking down the family, in the events the film depicts – Manmohan Singh’s first successful press conference, early difficulties with the opposition, a faltering nuclear deal – it is faithful. Incidents are strung together one after another, and however incoherent this might feel for the uninitiated viewer, these are broadly true.
Where it deviates is the rest: its emphases, its tone and ultimately how it presents the characters at the heart of the drama.
The book is former journalist Baru’s account of working as Manmohan Singh’s media adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) between 2004 and 2008. For the most part it is staid and sombre, restricted to Baru’s experiences and interactions, and portrays Singh as an effective and intelligent, albeit eventually hamstrung prime minister.
The book is serious and takes the job of running government seriously. The film is funny and takes the job of running propaganda seriously. In look and feel, in its dialogues and treatment, it manages to recast an analysis of power, policy and office into a comical broadside against the Congress party. Further, the film bloats beyond the book’s purview, mining its less flattering epilogue for more mischievous readings.
Baru is baroque in his detailing of how government functions; and ministerial jockeying and file pushing bureaucrats might not make for stunning screenplays. This means such material is jettisoned in favour of inflating personalities and conflicts and allowing the Sonia-Singh dynamic to dwarf much else. The nuance of that dynamic is lost, and a line like this, could hardly carry the film: “I had no reason to doubt that Dr Singh and Sonia implicitly trusted each other.”
On the page, Baru’s deep respect for the PM despite their differences and disagreements, comes alive; on the screen, Baru morphs into a comical narrator who often appears to be babysitting Singh, not working with him.
In the book Sonia is a shadowy presence – a powerful one, but still a shadowy one – and though Baru offers an analysis of her motives sporadically, he refrains from reconstructing the private meetings between PM and party president.
Akshaye Khanna plays Baru with the moustache missing, but that’s not the only problem with verisimilitude. Khanna is a flashy suit-wearing, cigar-chomping peacock with a permanent sneer. On the page, Baru’s deep respect for the PM despite their differences and disagreements, comes alive; on the screen, Baru morphs into a comical narrator who often appears to be babysitting Singh, not working with him.
The complexity that Singh is allowed in the book, as a mild-mannered, retiring intellectual with unexpected political chops, a man who is popular yet constrained, a man who commands enormous respect, yet fritters away his political capital; all of this is compressed in Anupam Kher’s portrayal into a vacillating, weak caricature battling for survival. Kher’s Singh is someone to whom things seem to happen, his agency in key areas is missing: from directing foreign policy to championing education initiatives. The book’s triumphant climax, the nuclear deal, achieved after long negotiations with US officials, a truculent left and an eventually supportive Samajwadi Party is rendered merely as one of a string of events.
Curiously, in the movie Sonia’s political secretary Ahmed Patel leaps to life as a sinister Machiavelli always ready with cartoonish put-downs for the PM. This shadow boxing between Baru and Patel, a microcosm of the Singh-Sonia face off is given more play than a reader will anticipate, considering “[Patel] was always warm and friendly” and “never behaved in a manner that would demonstrate his real power”.
Still, many scenes ring true – Baru’s desire to project the PM and his reluctance towards personal branding, Baru’s suspicion of darbari Congressmen and palace intrigue, Singh’s eventual capitulation to the single centre of power, a fraying UPA. But where the book focussed its attention on UPA1, the movie’s stretches into UPA2, dwelling longer on its flaws and Singh’s shrinking authority.
Closing segments showing Baru telling the PM he is writing the book and the end of the Baru-Singh relationship following its publication have been newly introduced. Fresh insertions such as Rahul Gandhi flubbing his interview with Arnab Goswami or Narendra Modi’s triumphant campaigning suggest that the narrative has been repurposed as a call for regime change. The film opens with a disclaimer that parts have been fictionalised, and creative license is surely a filmmaker’s right, but the cinematic liberties the film takes only lay bare its intent.