Poll passions on the big screen

Gulzar’s sharp words focus on how politicians buy votes by doling out an essential like food and hide the naked destitute in shrouds.
Shah Rukh Khan in Rahul Dholakia's Raees
Shah Rukh Khan in Rahul Dholakia's Raees

While many debates have been raging about the transparency of electronic voting machines as opposed to the traditional ballot paper system, Shah Rukh Khan starrer Jawan (2023) EVMs under the arc light on the big screen. It showed them as easy to pilfer, but also deployed them in sending the message out to the people to exercise their franchise with care; to not get swayed by caste and religion, demand basics like education and healthcare, and to vote responsibly for the right candidate.

Talking of the right candidate, back in 2017, in Rahul Dholakia’s Raees, SRK as the titular Robinhood-like, criminal-messiah figure is shown winning the polls despite being behind bars, all because of a sympathy wave among the masses.

These are two of the many Bollywood films down the years in which elections and their inherent incongruities have played on in the background. While political issues like corruption, both systemic and individual, have been underscored time and again, there are just a handful of films where the actual process of voting has been foregrounded and probed. Polls, like all else in cinema, are treated in a generic and simplistic manner rather than bringing out their specifics and complexities.

Tamil cinema—which steals a march over Bollywood on several counts, including on its political acuity—boasts of a film on electoral fraud, A R Murugadoss’s Sarkar (2018), with superstar Vijay underscoring an individual’s right to vote. The same year, Vijay Deverakonda made his Tamil debut with Anand Shankar’s tantalisingly titled NOTA, which was less about the process of voting and more about the machinations of parties in forcing chief ministership on a reluctant youngster.

Madonne Ashwin’s Mandela (2021), a persuasive satire, dealt with vote bank politics and how caste becomes the determinant in panchayat elections in a small Tamil Nadu village.

Khalid Rahman’s critically acclaimed Malayalam film, Unda (2019), with Mammootty in the lead, was inspired from a real incident at the 2014 Lok Sabha election when a group of Kerala cops were sent on duty to the Naxal-affected areas in Chhattisgarh without sufficient ammunition.

In Hindi cinema, 89-year-old Gulzar is a rare filmmaker who has consistently engaged with electoral issues, however tangentially, right from his debut feature Mere Apne (1971) to his lastest film as director, Hu Tu Tu (1999). While the former deals with youth unrest, unemployment and the political exploitation of the young, the latter touches upon innumerable electoral issues with the stridently political parlance of its soundtrack. The song ‘Ghapla hai’ speaks of corruption, ‘Bandobast’ deals with the plight of farmers, and ‘Jaago jaago jaagte raho’ is about divisive politics.

In 1975, Gulzar created a stir with Aandhi, supposedly based on the life of the then Odisha Chief Minister Nandini Satpathy. Though set in the thick of an election campaign, the film looks more at the personal ramifications of the political, and how it strains the ties between a politician and her husband. The most significant aspect of the film is its satirical, cynical election song, ‘Salaam keejiye aali janaab aaye hain, ye paanch saalon ka dene hisaab aaye hain’, that talks about the five-yearly accountability of politicians.

Gulzar’s sharp words focus on how politicians buy votes by doling out an essential like food and hide the naked destitute in shrouds. He then has the electorate declare it won’t vote needlessly but based on what the candidates have achieved.

Like Gulzar, politics has been an integral part of Anurag Kashyap's cinema—be it Black Friday (2004), Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) or Mukkabaaz (2017). His most direct film on electoral politics, Gulaal (2009), is all about a political party in formation. Set in Rajasthan, it touches upon issues as diverse as college politics, the fading of the aristocracy, vote banks and, most of all, separatist movements. Sahir Ludhianvi’s classic from Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957)—‘Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye’, reinterpreted by Piyush Mishra as ‘O ri duniya’—continues to resonate today.

Preceding Gulaal was Tigmanshu Dhulia’s debut feature Haasil (2003), by far the most incisive look at student politics in Indian cinema that was set in the Allahabad University campus. Later, he went deeper into politics with Saheb Biwi aur Gangster (2011), about the member of a royal family who desperately courts politics to maintain his steadily eroding stature and power.

Over the years, there have been several other films from Anusha Rizvi’s Peepli Live (2010) to Shyam Benegal’s Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008) that have talked about significant rural issues in the light of elections. Election campaigns and speeches have been the narrative mainstay in Nitesh Tiwari’s Bhoothnath Returns (2014), Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti (2010) and A L Vijay’s Thalaivii (2021).

However, Amit Masurkar’s Newton (2017), set over one day in a polling booth in conflict-ridden Chhattisgarh, has been Indian cinema’s most authentic representation of the electoral process in the hinterland. A grassroots look rather than a bird’s eye view. It is about an ordinary, idealistic polling officer’s quest to conduct free and fair polls despite the odds. Opposed to him is the apathetic CRPF commandant who regards polling as a sham that no one truly cares about. Between the two are the residents, caught between the government and the Maoist rebels, exercising their right under tremendous danger. The irony couldn't be starker.

Namrata Joshi

Consulting Editor

Follow her on X @Namrata_Joshi

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