Never Credible, Always Ridiculed - History Shows Political Biopics Never Stand a Chance

Archita Kashyap - 76 weeks ago

India is currently facing a strange cathartic moment in politics. For the first time since our Independence, a concerted effort, albeit one that has made little impact but churned tremendous public debate, is being made to re-write and re-interpret a new version of our reality.

It focuses on re-telling history from a loosely formed, nebulous anxious Hindu dominated right wing point of view, what is bracketed as majoritarian in political science. But it is not going too well. The fact that a biopic on the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be shown, and has been promoted with eye popping budgets (an average of 50 lakhs a week reportedly), makes it more baffling. After all, political propaganda films, irrespective of storytelling, production value and narrative quality, never works. This particular biopic, with Vivek Oberoi, an actor who always remained a few inches short of realising his potential, and directed by Omung Kumar B, known for making cantankerous, melodramatic biopics without an emotional core, doesn’t make the cut for good, convincing cinema. The only curiosity inducing detail here is the addition of a B to the name of its coiffured and polished director, Omung Kumar, and what the B stands for (anyone can take a wild guess, I suppose). Despite staunch criticism of his controlling nature, and authoritarian administration as well as colossal failures like demonetisation, PM Modi displays consistency and progress as administrator. Why would he need to justify his life’s story with a hyperbolic biopic, beats me. 

Instead, the subtler, unobtrusive web series Modi - Journey of a Common Man serves a larger purpose- that of constructing reality to suit a living legend - effectively. Umesh Shukla traces the evolution of a young Narendra steeped in nation building ideology of the RSS, a Hindu right wing non-political organisation, to his emergence as tireless political worker aiming to curtail Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial Emergency. This version, released without restrictions imposed by the Election Commission of India, his hagiographic without being loud. With five episodes released, it also dilutes the appeal of the audio visually dense film version that has inspired a cult of memes and jokes online merely on the basis of its trailer. 

The key learning from films that propagate a school of political thought and attempt to rewrite reality is that they never succeed. India might find this a strange phenomenon but the West is familiar with this trope since the Thirties. In fact, The Accidental Prime Minister, chronicling the silent suffering of former PM Manmohan Singh even as a corrupt, manipulative Congress party leadership makes him suffer, failed to make a dent. In South India, leading political parties have news channels as their unofficial mouthpieces, a trend particularly visible in Tamil Nadu. These haven’t managed to sway voters permanently either. Propaganda cinema comes across as translucently obvious, a marketing pitch so muddied by ulterior motive that no one cares enough to believe it. A second Modi biopic is presently doing the rounds.

Propaganda films peaked during the Nazi era in Europe with films by Leni Riefenstahl made for the Third Reich. An actor who charmed Hitler as the embodiment of the Aryan Woman with her physical features, Riefenstahl found global recognition when she made The Triumph of The Will in 1935. Till this date, chunks of the film displayed on YouTube carry a disclaimer of being offensive content, so powerful is the imagery and sound of this proud, lavish propaganda film. Riefenstahl made The Triumph of The Will in 1934, opportunistically building upon her success as actor and director of ‘mountain movies’, a sub-genre of German cinema that perpetuated the myth of Aryan superiority and German greatness falsely built on labour and natural physical superiority.  She also made two Olympia films in 1938, focused ostensibly on the greatness of competitive Olympic Games, but thinly concealing myth building of a greater German race and its natural right to dominate. These films stand out for technical excellence, with first time usage of tracking shots in documentaries, pitch perfect audio editing and panoramic cinematography of real life events. They leave one wonderstruck with their scale. But as the Second World War began and the true face of Nazi Germany and its genocidal regime emerged, Riefenstahl earned herself global infamy. Like most contemporary artists of her times, Riefenstahl gave numerous interviews to deny her role as Nazi propagandist. She continued to produce baffling explanations for her lavish, expensive films and her focus on fanning pro-Nazi sentiments through her work as journalist before filmmaking, without agreeing to her role as wilful collaborator ever. Despite the technical mastery displayed in Riefenstahl’s films, Nazi propaganda began to feel ridiculous and downright dangerous soon after their release. 

(A still from the 1935 release The Triumph of The Will)

Amongst those who saw this threat - that of striking awe in the hearts and minds of millions with Nazi propaganda, were Hollywood’s leading filmmakers. Studios in Hollywood, ironically led by Jewish businessmen, steered clear of making a strong statement against Nazi Germany throughout the Thirties. The German speaking market was too big to miss out on. But filmmakers like Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Ford, John Huston and George Stevens decided to park their flourishing Hollywood careers to work with the US military on making film a tool of propaganda for the Allies. In the Forties, these five men took up army pay cheques, managed endless bureaucratic interference and micro management to create training films, documentaries from the frontline and the war theatre in Europe and newsreels to inform Americans about the need to fight against the Nazis. 

(Filmmakers Frank Capra, John Ford and John Huston)

In fact, Capra, whose patriotism for America as an immigrant who had found immense success in his new home inspired him to lead this war filmmaking effort, took it upon himself to create a seven-part film series titled Why We Fight. Capra had watched The Triumph of the Will at MOMA, New York when it released. He remembered a sense of terror and failure, that We Are Gone, with its grandeur and scale. Strapped for budgets, Capra turned Riefenstahl’s film on its head with the first film in this series - Prelude To War. He used her films and other Axis propaganda material to make Why We Fight, which basically utilised speeches and demagoguery, displays of military might of the Japanese and Hitler, to establish their ridiculous ambitions and the dangers posed by military dictators. He let young American army recruits to hear and witness events shaping these films first hand, for them to understand the importance of fighting a bloody, long drawn out war against just violent enemies. Each filmmaker amongst these five used real footage of men at war, the action and the shocking videos of prisoner of war camps as well as concentration camps to provide a visual record of the horrors of war. 

Ultimately, it was artistic, honest cinema that worked and stood the test of time. Contributions of these five filmmakers makes for an enjoyable read in Mark Harris’ Five Came Back- A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Netflix also has a documentary featuring the stories of these men narrated by Meryl Streep and told on camera by leading filmmakers of present day - Paul Greengrass, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro and Lawrence Kasdan. It’s worth viewing, simply to understand the power of cinema in its capacity to bear witness to history in the making. 

In fact, a brilliant example of artistic rejection and expression of grief, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, is also a masterpiece in counter- propaganda. Chaplin painted Hitler as ridiculous and ominous with each scene, the most iconic one being where he toys with the globe in his palatial office. Indian artistes and film personalities that stand in opposition of Narendra Modi and the BJP in these elections could take a leaf from his page. Artistes are more convincing when they don’t pick sides and argue from a point of neutrality. Letting art speak above all else is powerful and sustainable in the long run. Which is why, tons of Soviet propaganda films, some produced to global standards of filmmaking, lie forgotten, gathering dust in archives today. They constructed a reality on film just to score a political point and to justify a school of political thought. Neither is sustainable or credible. Those that make political biopics would do well to bear this in mind. 


PM Narendra Modi / Modi Journey of A Common Man / The Accidental Prime Minister / The Triumph of The Will / The Great Dictator / Five Came Back / Frank Capra / John Huston / John Ford / Vivek Oberoi / Omung Kumar B

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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