Recreation of Modi's rise for cinema is melodramatic, offers little insight

Narendra Modi biopic
PM Narendra Modi opens sometime before the 2014 Lok Sabha election when, one is told, India had been faced with the choice of either making history or becoming history (“itihaas banaana ya itihaas banna”). Perhaps dealing with a similar dilemma in their own middling careers, the filmmakers choose to manufacture portions of political history. In telling the story of Modi’s ascension from poor small-town boy to the country’s premier, they draw from and fuel popular rightist vantages. The devotion is strong with this one.

That a film directed by Omung Kumar (Mary Kom, Sarbjit) and starring Vivek Oberoi (Great Grand Masti, Saathiya) can fill half an auditorium early on a Friday is testimony to the robust appeal of the movie’s subject. It is unlikely anyone other than followers of Modi will watch this one-dimensional project, in which the protagonist is a singularly patriotic man who sells tea and cleans up politics, while his rivals are ruthless profiteers who drink single malts. 

Kumar sticks to his preferred directorial style of melodrama minus conceptual range. The intention, as a disclaimer in the beginning spells out, is to excite feelings of nation love. Here, “Modi” and “nation” are interchangeable concepts. At one point the protagonist even admits: “Modi is not a person, he is an idea.” The type of idea that makes some in the cinema hall sing the national anthem out loud. For two hours, the film softens and valorises its superhero.

The film imagines many Modis as he goes from being a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worker to Bharatiya Janata Party leader. He plants flags in the snow in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, gatecrashes a conference and rains leaflets on Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, and physically lifts debris and injured children after the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat. He consoles Muslims following the 2002 communal riots in the state, the blame for which is attributed instead to other state governments led by the opposition who ignore Modi’s calls for help. The attempt to underplay the role of religion — Modi asks that the death toll be described in terms of “Gujaratis” rather than “Muslims” and “Hindus” — is particularly insidious.

Given its release was deferred, the film which could have been poll-season propaganda has diminished purpose. As Modi returns to power now, it might only confirm or intensify favourable views of the leader. In this version of history, lesser rivals within and outside BJP quickly fold their cards. A swift segment showing how he won over businessmen by fast-tracking industrialisation in his state provides some interest. However, this is followed by a finale, involving holograms and Modi masks, which is more dragged-out than thrilling. 

Fittingly for a man who enjoys making grand statements, there is a punchline a minute, including, “Main Gujarat mein dhanda hone doonga, Gujarat ka dhanda nahi.”