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How cinema simplifies complex politics

Regardless of what election rhetoric one subscribes to, today, one can hardly see either side as representing good and evil, or even patriotic and anti-national.
Last Updated : 20 April 2024, 00:12 IST
Last Updated : 20 April 2024, 00:12 IST

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Politics has long been a popular theme that filmmakers turn to. This election season, it would be interesting to examine how the process has been represented in films. Is there any authenticity in the depiction? And what might ‘authenticity’ mean? Have the films influenced people to see it melodramatically, as a struggle between the forces of good and evil? 

Regardless of what election rhetoric one subscribes to, today, one can hardly see either side as representing good and evil, or even patriotic and anti-national. In fact we cannot even be certain how elections are fought and won and whether the professed ideology actually plays a part. Speeches and propaganda are highly ideological but are most voters swayed by it? 

I imagine political parties are wholesalers of patronage and they recruit political agents (retailers of patronage) to deliver block votes to them. Agents typically mobilise the votes of communities residing in locations (like slums) perhaps dominated by caste groups.

They participate in the everyday lives of the voters — getting them financial assistance, arranging for water supply, assisting them in property matters. They even pay them to vote. There is a personal relationship between the voter and the political agent which means that the voters will (by and large) follow the diktat of the agent after receiving due payment. 

Elections are complex matters but so is India. However, India produces very simplistic cinema on the subject. The tried and tested method (with some exceptions) in political films is to portray the good people as idealistic because of their concern for the masses and the bad ones as selfish and corrupt. Here are some well-known films that deal with politics and the electoral process.

T N Seetharam’s ‘Matadana’ (Kannada, 2002) refuses to commit itself politically. It uses antagonists named Markande Gowda and Putte Gowda to show that it does not wish to take sides in caste matters. A third character is called Ramalinge Gowda (Anant Nag). Placing all political tussles within a single community is evidently the safest ploy. If different caste names were used, it may have looked like the director was pitting one community against another, resulting in controversy. 

The 2004 Hindi film ‘Yuva’ (2004) by Mani Ratnam is set in Kolkata and tells the tale of idealistic student leaders who seek to cleanse college politics. Ratnam introduces a youthful goon, Lallan, (Abhishek Bachchan) from Bihar. He tries to assassinate the idealistic leader Mike (Ajay Devgn) at the behest of a seasoned political leader Prosenjit (Om Puri).

The film ends with the idealistic leader and his followers becoming triumphant. This film again pits the idealistic ‘good’ against cynical ‘bad’. But I found it significant that the students have no other ambitions apart from politics. It could be reflective of the reality of West Bengal — the youth, left with no real career opportunities, are forced to pursue politics. A film set in Bengaluru could hardly portray students thus.   

In A R Murugados’s ‘Sarkar’ (2018), Sundar Ramasamy (Joseph Vijay) is a non-resident Indian ‘Corporate Raider’ aka ‘Corporate Monster’, universally feared for his financial dealings. He arrives in Chennai to cast his vote in the state assembly elections but finds that it has already been cast by an impostor. He assembles a group of people who have faced the same problem. He finds he has made an enemy out of chief minister Masilamani, whose family has ruled the state for a long time. Ramasamy survives several assassination attempts but gains popularity after a speech revealing his humble origins. He then launches a political party. After fighting and winning the state elections with his newly formed party, he declines the post of chief minister but hands over the baton to an honest bureaucrat.

Each of these films follow the pattern I described earlier but Prakash Jha’s ‘Raajneeti’ (2010) is more ambitious. It tries to see politics in ‘epic’ terms, comparing the conflicts between political families to the Mahabharata war and the life of the Corleones, from ‘The Godfather’. While the other films at least acknowledged an electorate that still had to be courted, Jha’s epic family drama makes it seem like electoral conflicts are family affairs. The drama is not provided by elections as much as strategic alliances and it is as if elections were secondary. 

Looking at such a portrayal, one may ask: why are politics and the electoral process portrayed in such an implausible way, bearing no resemblance to what anyone believes to be true. My own belief is that we are uncomfortable with complexities and ambiguities and seek comforting messages — perhaps with puranic (mythological) associations. At the same time, portraying politics ‘realistically’ would also involve naming or alluding to political parties and leaders, which could land filmmakers in trouble. Making truthful political films could be a dangerous business and it may be safer to rely on truisms about ideals in which no one has much belief.

(The author is a well-known film critic)

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Published 20 April 2024, 00:12 IST

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