The Accidental Prime Minister
Director: Vijay Ratnakar Gutte
Cast: Anupam Kher, Akshaye Khanna
I’ve been thinking about a film called Ramgarh Ke Sholay. Made in 1991, it was a tacky, no-budget parody inspired by The Three Amigos, where Amjad Khan, gamely reprising his role as Gabbar Singh from the classic Sholay, was surrounded by various Hindi movie lookalikes — from a duplicate Dev Anand to an artificial Anil Kapoor — as they tried to save the titular village. Vijay Ratnakar Gutte’s heavily publicised new film, The Accidental Prime Minister, based on the book by Manmohan Singh’s former media advisor Sanjaya Baru, feels rather improbably like that Sholay spoof.
All is unsubtle, everyone’s a lookalike. The barrier to entry, however, is substantially lower than the film that starred professional duplicates. Here if you have a beard, you can play Vir Sanghvi. Have white hair? You can play Naveen Patnaik, chief minister of Odisha. Many of these folks, chosen mostly on the basis of their hairlines, outperform the man in the lead: Anupam Kher who stars as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Interview: ‘Performance of my life’: Anupam Kher on The Accidental Prime Minister
Kher’s version of Singh speaks like a freshly bitten squeaky-toy, slides inconsistently in and out of a Punjabi accent, and, every now and then, remembers to move his hands jerkily, as if urgently (yet discreetly) trying to dry nail-paint. It is a profoundly, disappointingly silly caricature from a veteran surely capable of better. Accidental? In an attempt to laugh at the subject, Kher portrays him as a slightly mental Prime Minister. He routinely breaks off conversations at his desk, mid-thought, to stand pensively at the window, like it were a teleprompter. (Perhaps it was.)
Kher’s version of Singh speaks like a freshly bitten squeaky-toy.
Dr Singh was mocked for his silence, but his staunchest political rivals wouldn’t have called him lacking in dignity. Here, in a film where irony dies a million deaths, Kher chides his ally by saying “Please don’t be overdramatic,” and then prances out of the room walking like a marionette.
The clumsiness of this performance is thrown into sharper focus when the film — set from 2004 to 2014 — haphazardly splices in actual news footage featuring Dr Singh, showing us both how far Kher has fallen short, and how unwilling the actor is to let his version of the former PM smile. Kher wreathes his character in a state of constant helplessness, a one-note riff that never lets the character feel alive. An actor would have spent longer preparing.
Gutte appears to be trying to make an episode of Yes Minister with a Priyadarshan-style background score, where lines aren’t allowed to remain dry and every eyebrow is arched with innuendo. There is amateurishness at every bend: shots cut off abruptly, some fade randomly to black, some characters speak without their lips moving at all, and the boom mic makes at least two appearances. The only things in the film’s favour are the lavish palatial rooms, and the smashing shirts worn by the man playing Singh’s aide.
The Accidental Prime Minister is made by people in no danger of knowing too much.
Akshaye Khanna plays Sanjaya Baru by frequently breaking the fourth-wall and speaking to the audience as if he’s letting us in on the joke. It is he who has the film’s few finely honed lines — “It’s been a while since we had a Prime Minister who didn’t have family members in real estate,” he smiles — but so drunk is Khanna on smugness that it feels like somebody told him, before the shoot, that this film is already a monster success. He’s the most unbearable kind of know-it-all: one who really doesn’t see what’s going on.
Early on, there is a hint of some cleverness afoot. The actor playing Rahul Gandhi speaks to the actress playing Sonia Gandhi in Italian, as if he needs a secret language to communicate with his mother in front of her venomous entourage. This is a film transparently motivated to point out how lethal dynasty politics can be, and comes to us a few months before a general election.
The one-sided intent of The Accidental Prime Minister may have appeared more insidious had it felt like an actual motion picture. Instead, we have an apparently political film that borrows its background score occasionally from Kal Ho Na Ho. With all its hamhanded recreations and incessant news-channel roundups, this resembles an episode of Savdhaan India.
Akshaye Khanna plays Sanjaya Baru by frequently breaking the fourth-wall and speaking to the audience as if he’s letting us in on the joke.
Yet what is it warning us about? We are shown a purportedly weak man in power who, nevertheless, believes in facing press conferences without hesitation, tells his advisor not to pass judgement, and declares that his is not a one-issue government. Hmm. It is a film where names like Swaraj and Sibal are muted by the censors, but Dr Singh himself is not known to have voiced any objection. The existence and unimpeded release of this film is one in his win column, and hopefully it will give rise to genuinely powerful and incisive political cinema in this country.
As the band strikes Que Sera Sera, it is apparent The Accidental Prime Minister is made by people in no danger of knowing too much. Agitprop, for them, may simply be a way to describe Mona Darling. The opening credits, featuring the words “directior assistant,” announce as much. This is propaganda by people who can’t spell.
Watch: Anupam Kher becomes Manmohan Singh to promote The Accidental Prime Minister
Disclaimer: One of the film’s four screenwriters, Mayank Tewari, writer of Newton, is a close personal friend of the critic.
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First Published: Jan 11, 2019 13:46 IST