After a delay of nearly a month, the Narendra Modi biopic, PM Narendra Modi, hit cinema screens after the elections were done and dusted. Unlike the overwhelming approval that the man the film is based on enjoys in real life, the film has not been showered with much love. Irrespective of what the producers would have liked the viewer to believe, the biopic always ran the risk of being an underachiever. The reason for this is the absolute lack of subtext in contemporary political films. Most successful movies, either this year or in the recent past, refuse to waver from the path of being direct, and dare one say, in your face. As a result, films that might offer some social commentary to the future generations have become rare and more so in the case of a political film.
At a career retrospective at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Sylvester Stallone mentioned how he had not intended his film First Blood to be a political statement. While addressing the audience, Stallone smiled and put his hand to his head as everyone broke into laughter when he mentioned that President Ronald Reagan saw First Blood and said, “I saw Rambo, and he’s a Republican!”
Stallone thought of the story of John Rambo, a troubled Vietnam War veteran and former US Army Special Forces Soldier, to be a tale about alienation. But how the film captures the zeitgeist of the US in the 1907s—which in the shadow of Nixon resignation was coming to terms with the hopelessness of the Vietnam War—ended up making both the character and the film a political statement.
Every film, at some level, is a political film. What separates a handful of them is the narrative’s ability to become an immortal comment on the times irrespective of the theme or the genre. In this aspect, it’s the film’s subtext, which as seen in First Blood or closer home in Footpath, Naya Daur, Kala Bazar, Arjun, Indian or Bunty Aur Babli to name a few, that invariably made the difference between seemingly good films and great cinema.
In the face of it, Shankar (Dilip Kumar) racing his tonga against Kundan’s (Jeevan) bus in the climax of Naya Daur appears as a fight to preserve the livelihood of his ilk, but it was, in fact, a statement on the human cost of industrialisation. The reworked Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca as Kohraa set in rural Bengal is a social comment on the Zamindari system. Similarly, Arjun is about the politicisation of the youth via unemployment.
Up until the early 2000s, popular Hindi cinema considered the subtext. This was visible in Jaideep Sahni’s scripts ranging from crime (Company), small-town-Indians-dreaming-big (Bunty Aur Babli, Chak De! India), urban middle-class grappling with dreams (Khosla Ka Ghosla) or identity (Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year). This trait of popular cinema to juxtapose escapism with some semblance of reality is now a near lost art. Everything needs to be direct. Even if the image or the context isn’t straightforward, the interpretation, unfortunately, is.
What was once accidental such as Stallone’s ‘other’ great character, Rocky Balboa, being labelled ‘right wing’ simply because the battered boxer wrapped himself in the American flag, is no longer as subtle. Not only does it need to be direct, but also instantaneous and as readily available as the solution offered in an internet search. Had a Garam Hava or Ankur been released today, they would need a deus ex machinaesque character to come and spell it out.