Right from the opening scene of The Accidental Prime Minister, something feels off.
And then one realises that this film, directed by one Vijay Ratnakar Gutte (who, in August 2018, was held for GST fraud), doesn’t feel like a movie but a hurriedly and unskilfully put together low-budget stage production with actors who wear cakey make-up and look like extras from a film set.
Adapted from Sanjaya Baru’s book by the same name, the film is essentially about former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s repeated clashes with then Congress President Sonia Gandhi and how her constant interference created a hindrance for Singh in running the government.
That the film, which paints the Congress leadership as one corrupted by dynastic politics, is releasing months before the Lok Sabha elections is, well, just a massive coincidence.
As a viewer, one gets the sense that here was a real opportunity to delve deeply and comprehensively into the power corridors of Delhi’s political circuit, and actually provide some compelling insights into a complex internal conflict—between a prime minister and his own party—but the film is too incompetently made to create that immersive experience.
Whether it’s the music video-like camerawork (Sachin Krishn) or the blaring background score that blasts with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the film relies on costumes and prosthetics instead of plot, dialogue and performances for effect.
The result? A farcical drama that looks like a student’s college project, offering no real insights into national politics or the reasons for the clash between Singh and Gandhi and how key policy decisions and corruption scandals were affected by their nearly 8-year long tussle.
Anupam Kher plays Singh as if he’s been briefed to parody the former Prime Minister, in the manner of Alec Baldwin who plays Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live. He walks as if he’s being (literally) controlled by strings in his back while his dialogue delivery sounds like a man who has wailed to a point that he cannot anymore.
Akshaye Khanna, playing Baru, tries his best to channel Frank Underwood from House of Cards but lands flat because of his theatrical mannerisms and lines which elicit laughter instead of reflection. Just like Kevin Spacey, he constantly breaks the fourth wall to deliver wisecracks and sways around the PMO blinded by his own hubris, but all of it has such a substandard quality, it actually feels like a discounted version of House of Cards.
Which is a consistent problem with The Accidental Prime Minister.
All the actors, from the one playing APJ Abdul Kalam and Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Sonia Gandhi and P Chidambaram, look like cheap mannequins stolen from a wax museum, giving the impression that the producers had to hire small-time actors from a defunct theatre group. A frail LK Advani, who bumbles around the PMO without any purpose, is particularly hilarious.
Gutte’s direction is so weak it makes the film look dated. The editing is poorly done, so that the transitions are painfully obvious, making it a woefully incoherent film, which feels longer than its 110 minute running time.
However, the lack of technical finesse isn’t even the worst aspect of the film.
That would be how little it cares about telling the story of Singh or even exploring the psyche of a politician who was ostensibly caught between running a country and feeding the ego of a tyrant. It’s a conflict that’s conducive to riveting drama but the film fails in capturing this feud with any depth, nuance or interrogation. Neither does it satisfyingly explore a potential subplot on journalism’s problematic proximity with power.
Instead, the makers, for whatever reason, are so absorbed in projecting Baru as some sort of a political shark that his personal narrative overshadows that of the Prime Minister’s.
The film is more about Baru than Singh.
It’s a big pat on the back for Baru, as the film argues that he was Singh’s voice and without him, Singh would be in a state of mental paralysis, which is, by all means, a false perception.
The biggest indication of the film’s flawed writing is how casually it introduces political events (Indo-US nuclear deal, meet with the then Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani) without aiding the viewer with any contextual information. Those who don’t keenly follow Indian politics would be at a loss to understand. And for those who do, it’d come across as oversimplification.
Towards the end, the film, which constantly exaggerates Sonia Gandhi’s villainy (much more than the book) strangely features a scene where the relationship of Singh and Baru is chronicled in a sepia-tinted flashback, the way ’90s cinema would treat a nostalgic romantic track.
Just like the actors in the film, who look like cardboard cutouts, the film is superficial, incoherent and has absolutely nothing to offer that goes beyond the headlines we’ve already read and gotten tired of.
What’s more disappointing is that Hansal Mehta (Shahid, Citylights, Aligarh) and Mayank Tiwari (Newton), both respectable professionals, were involved with this film, which in all likelihood, appears to be a political tool to sway public opinion in favour of the ruling party.