PM Narendra Modi, the controversial biopic starring Vivek Oberoi which is set to release on the first day of polling, was shot over just 38 days, the movie’s director Omung Kumar told HuffPost India in an interview. The movie’s team received approval from the Prime Minister, who had also watched the film, Kumar said.
Edited excerpts from an interview.
Other than the fact that you were getting to make a film on the Prime Minister of the country, what was the other incentive to make a film such as this?
If you look at my other films, Mary Kom, Sarbjit or Bhoomi, both are stories of struggle. If you put the politics aside, this too is a story about struggle—of a chaiwallah who dreamt of doing something different and went on to become the PM of India. It was very inspiring. I want to make a film that stands out in the shelf. This subject was that. I’m not politically inclined. At all. That’s why I think I’m either the best or the worst person to make this film. I’ve no alignment with the BJP. I am a filmmaker and I’ve done justice to the subject. Everything is there.
How was the project announced and completed this quickly, just in time for the Lok Sabha elections?
My partner Sandeep Ssingh had plans of making a film three years ago but I was busy with something else. Even now, I was planning to make another film but I realised that the actor I wanted had no dates. So Sandeep insisted that I make the Modi biopic. I gave it a thought and agreed. If I keep the politics aside, I am making a clear picture. Things then just fell into place. Even before it was announced, a lot of leg work—such as recce etc—were done. I finished it in 38 days. My other films have also been completed fast—Mary Kom took only 52 days. Once we went into production, everything went smoothly.
“We felt the elections are happening at this time... we will benefit. Of course we will benefit. Why shouldn’t we? If other producers benefit out of Diwali, Christmas and Holi, we are doing the same”
How closely was the PMO or the BJP involved with the making of the film? Did you meet Modi?
No. I didn’t want to meet him as it would colour my perspective.
Did you meet other members of the leadership from the BJP like Amit Shah?
Were Modi and Co. shown the script of the movie before or during the film?
I have no idea.
Surely, the approval of the Prime Minister would have been sought...
Later on, yes. We started writing 10 months earlier. I was also writing as we shot. But towards the end, the team met them and everything was sorted out.
Have they seen the film - people from Modi’s team or the govt.?
Yes, they have. They’ll be reverting later on.
And the release of the film, on the day of the elections, is entirely coincidental?
We had planned this almost a year ago, so yes. At that time, election dates weren’t announced.
But for many years, April-May is the window when elections take place.
Yes.. but for us it was a good window. Most movies don’t release at this time because of the IPL. We knew the deadlines of the other films and felt this was a good window.
Come on, you are saying that you and your team were entirely unaware that the film won’t coincide with the Lok Sabha elections?
Of course. Finally, we came to that. We felt the elections are happening at this time ...we will benefit. Of course we will benefit. Why shouldn’t we? If other producers benefit out of Diwali, Christmas and Holi, we are doing the same?
Those are long holidays. You are comparing festivals to the most important aspect of the democratic model?
Are you saying my film will influence people to vote for Modi?
Um, yes. You... don’t think so?
So as a filmmaker you are essentially saying that films don’t influence people?
I am not saying that... films can inspire people. It doesn’t mean I will get votes because of it.
Historically, dictators and autocrats have used cinema as a tool for propaganda, which has worked...
So for the next four years, parties shouldn’t do campaigns as all that a government needs to do is get a film made to get votes?
Are you saying this film is a BJP campaign?
I am not saying that, I am saying that if that was the reason—I made this film for Modi to get votes—then from next year the opposition should just not do any work, sit and make films. That’s wrong. Honestly, this is a film I made because I believe in it and I am not a political person.
...but your film looks like an advertisement for the government
How can that be possible? All I am showing is a chaiwallah becoming a PM.
...And that man is the sitting Prime Minister of the country which is about to vote.
Yes, but I am making a biopic of a person. It ends when he becomes the PM. After seeing and reading about this person, you can read the books, he himself is an open book. It’s inspiring.
Okay, you are saying this isn’t orchestrated propaganda. But even unintentionally, that’s what it ends up becoming at a time when we are fighting the most crucial elections in Indian history.
If people watch this film and change their minds about who they are going to vote, it means they are fickle-minded and haven’t made up their minds.
You are infantilising your own medium by suggesting films don’t affect opinions.
I don’t think they do. Not a lot. Why are you just looking at the votes...
Well, in that case, you could have released it after the elections.
I could have. But it is ready now. Why not make use of that? Even I want to make money. We are all very aware of that. It’s not that this happened ‘accidentally’. We knew it was supposed to come, not the specifics. But now that it has, why not make use of it? Why act holier than thou and say ‘I don’t want to earn money’. Basically, I am looking at a potential thing. We preponed the film because of Kalank. We will think about the movie and want the largest possible window. Why not? We wanted a bigger run. It’s purely a commercial decision. Why should my producer suffer?
“If people watch this film and change their minds about who they are going to vote, it means they are fickle-minded and haven’t made up their minds”
As an artist, don’t you feel the moral burden of making a film that glorifies a man who was accused of orchestrating the Godhra riots in which over 1,000 people died?
There are 2 sides of every coin, every story. During Sarabjit, I was accused of the same. Of making a film about a person who was a spy. But I made the film and it was critically acclaimed. Even here, I have laid out the facts. The SIT gave him a clean chit, right? I have shown the riots, I have shown what happened, why it took so many years for him to get a clean chit. And after that he got elected as PM... there’s nothing wrong in what I am doing.
Okay, irrespective of whether he initiated or colluded in the riots, the fact remains that under his leadership, Gujarat did burn and mob violence killed hundreds of people....
You are passing a judgement now.
It is not a judgement, it’s a fact—he was the CM and riots happened.
So I have shown that in the film.
Have you shown it with a critical lens, considering it’s a gross failing of a leader?
If that was the case, he wouldn’t have been re-elected and that too with such a huge margin... I mean, we elected him, didn’t we? Blame the whole of India then.
Well, even Hitler won an election.
Well...yeah, no, but still.
We celebrate Modi for what he did against Pakistan, right? Everybody boasts of him now. We have shown everything.
There’s a shot where Modi is seen saying, in the context of the riots I’d assume, that “My Gujarat is on fire...”
...and why do you think he wouldn’t have said that?
In a sworn testimony to the Supreme Court, an officer who served in the Gujarat intelligence bureau during the riots said that in a meeting on the night before the riots, Modi told the cops that the Muslim community ‘needed to be taught a lesson’ following the Sabarmati Express attacks...
Who gave him the clean chit? The SIT did. So who am I to question it? It’s not my game. There’s a different perspective in the film. For me, it’s an inspiring story... so there’s rise, there’s fall.
Post 2014, we’ve seen a steady rise in instances of communal violence—again, before you say, this isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. Fringe groups feel emboldened to attack because of the tacit support from a right-leading State. Whether it’s Gauri Lankesh or MM Kalburgi, hate has gone mainstream under this government....
I don’t think so. Things are happening to me with this film also. Films have been banned during Congress also... it’s not that this one is good or bad. Give him time. Let’s see what happens in the next four years. Nobody had the balls to do what he did with Pakistan. He did it, no? We backed him, no?
“Who gave him the clean chit? The SIT did. So who am I to question it? It’s not my game. There’s a different perspective in the film. For me, it’s an inspiring story... so there’s rise, there’s fall.”
Do you think that absolves him or the BJP of the legitimacy they give to hate, the communalisation, the increasing polarisation?
There are so many other things that he has done which the public doesn’t know of ...which I found out during research. I didn’t put it in this film because it wasn’t relevant but I wondered....why does this not come in the media...
Um... you mean other good stuff?
Yeah, yeah, good stuff which people didn’t know. Things he has done for women, children etc... why did Gujarat not have any riots after that? The Gujarat model has been adopted worldwide... you can see it for yourself.
Well, there may not have been riots in Gujarat, but Muslims have been lynched across the country, journalists shot down. There’s a sense of fear grappling the minorities. Your own community of artists—600 of them—have appealed to the citizenry to vote out hate...
I don’t think so... if it was that case, I wouldn’t have made this film.
You said you are apolitical. But after this, you will be seen as endorsing a certain party, an ideology?
No. I don’t even get affected by this. I am answering your questions because you are asking but I am very honest in my work. Once you see the film, you will know...
You don’t think you are complicit in emboldening and advertising a dangerous ideology?
No, I don’t think so.