The timing of The Accidental Prime Minister is no accident. But everything else about the film is. It seeks to capture an important juncture of Indian political history. But devoid of cinematic finesse and totally clueless about how to go about the onerous job, it hits the skids at the very outset and never recovers.
Co-written and directed by first-timer Vijay Ratnakar Gutte, the film has an unequivocal agenda and spares no effort to make its point in bold relief. If there is anything at all going for it, it is the fact that it breaks something akin to new ground: it is Bollywood’s first ‘fiction’ film about real politicians and bureaucrats who held sway over India not all that long ago. So shouldn’t The Accidental Prime Minister have been a riveting political drama? Logically, yes. But it isn’t. It’s indescribably vapid.
It harps persistently upon the pulls and pressures that made Dr Manmohan Singh’s two terms as the PM of India thankless. ‘Family’ is allowed to be uttered only once – the Mahabharata had two families, India has one, quips the PM’s media adviser late in the second half. On a couple of other occasions, the word goes mute obviously on censor board instructions. But the film makes no bones about its intention.
What it tells us is that between 2004 and 2014, India had a weak Prime Minister who was remote-controlled by the Congress president and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, played here by German-born actress Suzanne Bernert. With due apologies to Simmba, tell us something we don’t know! This insider’s view of the workings of the PMO – the film is partly adapted from Sanjaya Baru’s memoir of his four-year association with Dr Singh – has nothing new to offer in terms of either cinematic quality or contemporary history.
Lead actor Anupam Kher must be commended for putting in a lot of hard work, but his portrayal simply doesn’t work. His performance, which relies more on physical imitation than on genuine empathy, renders Dr Singh as a catatonic, wound-up doll running on precariously low battery. As a consequence, the film’s pivotal character comes across as an amusingly flappable, nervous wreck rather than a sad, forlorn scholar-bureaucrat pitchforked into a role he simply wasn’t cut out for and yet made the most of. The film seems to strip the then PM of his dignity.
The Accidental Prime Minister carries an upfront disclaimer that asserts that it is intended only for entertainment and admits that creative liberties have been taken in the interest of dramatisation. The film, however, is neither hugely entertaining nor engagingly dramatic. At the point when Sanjaya Baru, Dr Singh’s media advisor from 2004 to 2008, broaches the idea of a book on his experiences, he says: “Sach likhna itihaas ke liye zaroori hota hai(Writing the truth is important for history). But in the same breath, he acknowledges that truth has many facets. He tells the PM that the proposed book would present only “your” truth and “mine” truth.