After summer, winter and monsoon, this year Bollywood has added election season to its schedule. A look at the films eager to prey on the political animal in you

Election fever has gripped the country and the entertainment industry also seems to have bitten the ballot this time. The other day one watched the television commercial of a major cement brand where a student tells his teacher about an invisible bad wall between the two communities. Far-fetched, not quite! In the advertisement of an automobile major, the rider impresses upon his pillion rider friend the need to rise above regional barriers in the biggest talent show in Indian democracy. Bollywood is leading the way with a series of films, directly or indirectly dealing with the political process. In the past, elections have inspired filmmakers and distributors to time their film’s release according to the election schedule. In 2009, Anurag Kashyap’s much delayed “Gulal” and Nandita Das’ underplayed “Firaaq” surprised us with their direct approach and punched above their commercial weight at the whimsical box office. Similarly in 2004, Mani Ratnam’s “Yuva” coincided with the electoral process. But this time the efforts seem more deliberate, concerted with satire as the dominant leitmotif.

The trend started on a shallow note last week when “Youngistan”, a film on the life of a young boy who is thrust with the responsibility to lead the nation seemed like a half-hearted effort to enter into the political territory without letting go of the romantic track. It turned out to be a story of a dove among hawks where none appeared anywhere close to reality. Similarly, Atul Agnihotri’s “O Teri” tried to rejig Kundan Shah’s “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron” in the season of scams but ended up killing the masterpiece.

Politics often comes in the form of a parable in Hindi films and this week we have Girish Malik’s “Jal”, a film based on water crises in the Kutch region of Gujarat. The timing of release assumes importance when the country is talking about the ‘Gujarat model of development’. However, lead actor Purab Kohli denies the film has anything to do with politics. “It is just the media’s creation because a popular leader from Gujarat is in the fray for the PM’s post. It is a progressive film which will make urban India realise the importance of water conservation without preaching about it. And the way it is shot, it will augment tourism in the Kutch region.” Playing safe? The jury will be out this weekend.

However, director Nitesh Tiwari claims that he is not holding back as he pits a friendly ghost against a politician in an election in the much-awaited “Bhoothnath Returns”. The Amitabh Bachchan-starrer will see Bhoothnath taking on a corrupt politician played by Boman Irani at the hustings. It gives an impression that we have a reached a stage where only a Bhoot can outwit a politician. “It is an entertaining film where election provides the backdrop. At another level it is a satire that gives vent to the common man’s angst. You will laugh at many situations but at the same time feel that the issue is serious,” says Nitesh. He says the release date is not deliberate. “When we started writing the elections were not in our mind but along the way as the political developments took shape we had to revisit our characters so that our stance remains neutral.” Does it mean dilution? “No. It is an extremely harsh take on current state of affairs from the people’s point of view,” promises Nitesh. On making Bachchan agree to play a role with political shades, Nitesh says he might have shunned politics in real life but he has never said no to strong characters.

Meanwhile, veteran director Kundan Shah is going one shade darker in “P Se PM Tak”, where political compulsions ensure that a prostitute comes close to clinching the dance of democracy. “It is a political satire and we will come up with the release date in the next 10 days,” says Shah refusing to comment on “O Teri”. “I haven’t seen the film but it seems everybody is in a hurry to exploit the political mood.”

Risky proposition

Though crucial to capture the current state of affairs in the country, films with political undertones have been a risky proposition. And no form is safe from controversy and ban. Once the Iranian government found animation film “Persepolis” insensitive towards the Islamic Revolution. Recently “The Lego Movie” was criticised in a section of the American press for pushing an anti-capitalist agenda among kids. In India, things take a violent form as Santosh Sivan recently discovered when “Inam”, his film on the Civil War in Sri Lanka was taken out of theatres in Tamil Nadu because of protests from some Tamil groups. Ironically, its Hindi version “Ceylon” doesn’t face any threat. This is not something new as Gulzar will tell you. His “Aandhi” was allegedly stalled by the Congress and propped up by the Janta Party. He will be returning to the turnstiles as a presenter for Vijay Raaz’s film “Kya Dilli Kya Lahore” next month. Director Feroz Khan, whose “Dekh Tamasha Dekh” is also scheduled to release this month, says filmmakers are soft targets for fringe groups and that’s why filmmakers often refrain from direct engagement. “In the ’70s and ’80s filmmakers had to deal only with the government but now every political party has a constitutional face and a reactionary face. A group of 20 people is enough to bring a film out of theatres.”

“Now, more than ever, it is imperative that everyone, including writers and filmmakers push to protect the space for their freedom of expression, for their right to be critical and irreverent, and resist the pressure and anticipated threats from fundamentalists of all hues. If we bend now, they will soon make us crawl,” says Anjum Rajabali, who has been consistently scripting mainstream films around social-political themes. Rajabali picks “Aakrosh” as his favourite political film and goes on to add, “I have never had to deliberately shy away from tackling political themes in a more direct way. There have been reactions of course, but mostly out of apprehension before the release.” (See box)

Feroz, however, doesn’t give filmmakers a clean chit. In a veiled reference to “Shanghai”, he says some filmmakers see a foreign film and then try to find a parallel context in India. “Such films don’t smell right.” He considers the Prakash Jha kind of engagement with politics in the recent years shallow and finds them “more potboiler than political.” “To me the last real political film that emerged from Hindi cinema with nuances and layers was ‘New Delhi Times’. If done well satire is the most direct and powerful tool to comment on the socio-political scenario. But we often reduce it to idiocy. My film raises the question whether identity is more important than humanity. I haven’t pulled any punches.”

On the critique of “Satyagraha”, based on Anna Hazare movement and rise of Aam Aadmi Party, Anjum Rajabali says, “Frankly, a clear critique of the Hazare movement, and the threat of an apolitical narcissism was in fact the reason for doing that script. However, along the way, it became subject to differing interpretations of that movement, and as a result some ambivalence did creep in. So, it isn’t too far off the mark when people read Hazare into it!”

On soft pedalling and dilution of content, he feels, “This dilution is also a generational thing. Vijay Tendulkar and his generation of writers and filmmakers were much more involved in the political scenario. He was an activist, and the directors that he wrote for were politically engaged. That is not the case today. The audience (as well as filmmakers) don’t seem to concern themselves much with politics, barring some knee-jerk wish for change, without the labour of reflecting on the implications of their choices. But, having said that, of late we are seeing many more political scripts coming from young people.”