‘Main Atal Hoon’ movie review: Pankaj Tripathi salvages this uneven homage to Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Director Ravi Jadhav sets out to explore the alternative idea of India but ends up with a flat narrative dotted with some sparkling speeches of the poet-politician

January 19, 2024 03:30 pm | Updated 04:48 pm IST

Pankaj Tripathi as Atal Bihari Vajpayee in ‘Main Atal Hoon’

Pankaj Tripathi as Atal Bihari Vajpayee in ‘Main Atal Hoon’ | Photo Credit: @TripathiiPankaj/Twitter

Largely a fawning tribute, barely an assessment, Main Atal Hoon paints the colourful personality of Atal Bihari Vajpayee with broad brushstrokes. Based on journalist Sarang Darshane’s biography of the former Prime Minister, the film is a great opportunity to understand the genial bulwark behind the rise of right-wing politics in India. As a young poet who grew up on the banks of Yamuna, Vajpayee chooses to see the pain of labourers who made the eternal symbol of love called the Taj Mahal. On the day India wins independence, a tea seller tells a young Vajpayee that he listened to Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech but could not understand a word because it was entirely in English. Vajpayee emerged as the voice of an alternative idea of India that has amplified over the years. However, after a persuasive start, the tale of the poet-politician who wields a lathi and pen with equal felicity reduces to a prosaic collection of Vajpayee’s speeches and achievements that are easily available on the Internet.

For a large part, it remains a wide-angle shot, tinged with unqualified adulation for the popular leader who articulated that being a liberal democrat and a Hindutva ideologue are not contradictory. It hardly gives us an insight into how the conservative mind took wing and how his worldview was shaped. It rather chooses to play safe. There is no clarity on what Vajpayee thought of Gandhi. There is no space for his good friend Sikandar Bakht or how he made friends across the political spectrum and how some of his liberal ideas found opposition within his parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Pankaj Tripathi does his best to bring alive the magnetic persona of Vajpayee. Like the former Prime Minister, Tripathi has the oratorial skill to hold the audience in thrall. Not just his changing mood and mannerisms with age, he seamlessly reflects Vajpayee’s calm resolve and equanimity in the face of a crisis that made even his critics describe him as Teflon-coated. Curiously, Tripathi hasn’t put on weight to depict an ageing Vajpayee but it doesn’t come in the way of his performance for the most part.

Main Atal Hoon (Hindi)
Director: Ravi Jadhav
Cast: Pankaj Tripathi, Piyush Mishra, Daya Shankar Pandey, Pramod Pathak, Raja Sevak
Run-time: 137 minutes
Storyline: A biopic of former Indian Prime Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) co-founder Atal Bihar Vajpayee

However, the actor is hamstrung by a sincere-sounding glib writing. An unimaginative sound and production design don’t help his cause either. Director Ravi Jadhav hardly sneaks behind the moderate mask as some of his senior colleagues described Vajpayee and doesn’t probe the doublespeak he indulged in when it came to controversial issues. There are two instances where the film addresses the seemingly conflicted views of a liberal man in a conservative party: The Lucknow speech where Vajpayee talks of flattening the surface a day before the demolition of Babri mosque but expresses deep remorse after communal riots broke out in different parts of the country. Then, Jadhav opens a little window into the personal life of the leader who famously described himself as a bachelor, not a celibate. Ekta Kaul tunes well with Tripathi to depict the bond between Raj Kumari Kaul and Vajpayee but in both cases, Jadhav hardly delves into the crevices between the poetic heart and political mind and stays firmly on the sanitised surface.

At a time when what is cooked and consumed by characters on screen is also under mob scrutiny, Vajpayee’s soft corner for non-vegetarian food and taste for liquor doesn’t pass muster. The film doesn’t take into account how his foreign visits helped in shaping his progressive outlook in public and private life. More importantly, it doesn’t give space to his opponents and critics in the Jan Sangh and Sangh Parivar, like Balraj Madhok and Dattopant Thengadi. And when it talks of the Ram Temple Movement, it remains conspicuously silent on the Mandal Commission report.

While Daya Shankar Pandey and Pramod Pathak do justice as Deen Dayal Upadhaya and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, the performance of Raja Sevak as Lal Krishna Advani disappoints. He reduces the second most important figure in the film to a caricature and the writing also doesn’t do justice to Advani’s complex relationship with his senior and his friend, particularly when he is the voice of the film. Why he brought Vajpayee from the sidelines to the hot seat has not been addressed. The actors who play Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj and APJ Abdul Kalam indulge in cheap mimicry of the stalwarts. In fact, after intermission, it seems Tripathi is enacting episodes drawn from the BJP manifestoes to tick Pokhran II, Kargil, Lahore Bus ride and Golden Quadrilateral project. Obviously, the Kandahar Hijack doesn’t figure in the list.

The narrative is dominated by Vajpayee’s trenchant critique of the undemocratic ways of the Congress but his grace in acknowledging the contribution of Nehru also finds space. It reminds us of the times when the ideological divide was porous. The revision is timely because the film inadvertently provides some delicious meta moments where Vajpayee, the credible opposition leader, speaks truth to power. The cascading downpour of his fiery words after the Emergency where he charges Indira Gandhi with crony capitalism and arrogance of power sounds relevant in the current context.

Main Atal Hoon is currently running in theatres

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