Friday, July 28, 2017


Release date:
July 28, 2017
Madhur Bhandarkar

Kirti Kulhari, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Tota Roy Choudhury, Anupam Kher, Satyajeet Sharma, Sheba Chadha, Manav Vij, Ankur Vikal, Zakir Hussain, Mohan Kapoor

Indu Sarkar is Madhur Bhandarkar’s cleverly titled film on the 1975-77 period when Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi got President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to declare a state of Emergency across the country, allowing her, in effect, to be a Constitutional dictator. It is one of the most dismal phases in India’s post-Independence history, marked by the imprisonment of all Indira’s political opponents, a clamp-down on free speech and the press, and several human rights violations including, most famously, a programme of forced mass sterilisation of men across age groups.

With the Emergency in the foreground, Bhandarkar brings to us the story of the titular protagonist (played by Kirti Kulhari), an orphan in Delhi who has spent her entire life trying to overcome a congenital stammer. Teenaged and surnameless, Indu wants nothing more than to be a good wife to some man some day. On the eve of the Emergency, she meets a Bengali named Navin Sarkar (Tota Roy Choudhury), a government official whose star is rising due to his known proximity to a prominent Congress politician. Indu and Navin marry, and she lives out an opinionless existence as his servile spouse until one day during the Emergency, she happens to venture into Turkman Gate area in Delhi, where the police are engaged in a street battle with residents opposing the bulldozing of their houses by the sarkar (government).

Indu is fictional but the police firing on civilians during the Turkman Gate slum demolition is very much a part of recorded history. Our heroine’s life changes forever when she brings home two children whose parents go missing in the melee that day.

There is rich irony in the fact that some Muslims believe Turkman Gate exemplified Indira’s son Sanjay Gandhi’s “anti-Muslim agenda” (read Turkman Gate relives Emergency horror”, The Times of India, June 2015, and John Dayal and Ajoy Bose’s book For Reasons of State: Delhi Under the Emergency, excerpted on The Wire in June 2015). The irony comes from the fact that Congress has always positioned itself as a secular party, and is currently at loggerheads with the ruling BJP, which makes no bones about its majoritarian, anti-minority agenda.

Bhandarkar – a committed admirer of the BJP – is clearly conscious of the parallels, which should explain why he completely excludes Sanjay’s wife Maneka Gandhi from Indu Sarkar. No doubt, portraying Maneka in the film would have been most inconvenient, considering that she was reportedly constantly by Sanjay’s side through the Emergency, yet she is a Union Minister in the present BJP government and her son Feroz Varun Gandhi is also a BJP member.

If Bhandarkar had had the courage to reference Maneka in his film, he could have made a cutting statement on how, at least in the context of the Congress’ attacks on minorities during the Emergency and the BJP’s anti-minorityism since its inception in the 1980s, these parties are two sides of the same coin. He does not. Instead, he chooses to appease the present establishment, erasing Maneka from the Emergency and showing Sanjay throughout the film in the company of other known figures from that period: prototypes of his real-life shadows Rukhsana Sultana, V.C. Shukla and Jagdish Tytler among others. (Sanjay, oddly enough, is named “Chief” and not Sanjay here, Sultana’s surname is only mentioned in passing, the others are not named but each is styled to resemble the person they are obviously based on.)

The writer-director’s lack of academic objectivity is his film’s Achilles heel. Still, Indu Sarkar is interesting in certain ways. The leading lady, for one, is a telling metaphor for the voiceless who find their voice when faced with extreme injustice. The talented and underrated Kulhari, who was brilliant in last year’s Pink, lends relatable sensitivity to Indu. Neil Nitin Mukesh manages to extract something out of his role, even though Sanjay Gandhi is written here with no nuance and no graph whatsoever. Mukesh’s styling as Sanjay is remarkable. Seeing him on screen is almost like seeing the late politician’s doppelganger.

With the benefit of a better-developed part, Tota Roy Choudhury is notable as Indu’s authoritarian husband, as is Satyajeet Sharma playing the Minister Om Nath. (Note: Choudhury’s name is misspelt in the credits as “Totaroy Chaudhary”.)

These positives, however, are overshadowed by Indu Sarkar’s political iffiness and often shallow writing. For one, apart from Indu, Navin and Om Nath, the rest are all cardboard cutouts and hangers-on. In choosing to downplay the other Indu, namely Indira (and by that I mean not just her fleeting appearance in Indu Sarkar but also in what appears to be her limited role in the goings on), Bhandarkar unwittingly lays almost the entire blame for Emergency atrocities on Sanjay. The character played by Anupam Kher, leader of a group of non-violent, anti-Emergency activists, is clearly an allusion to Jayaprakash Narayan – in Indu Sarkar the great man is reduced to a one-line concept.

In failing to rein in his biases, the director has missed an opportunity with Indu Sarkar. The Case of the Missing Maneka is one of many questionable choices he makes here. By casually setting the film’s first mass sterilisation scene in a largely Muslim area, he appears to be wordlessly pandering to the prevailing Hum paanch, hamare pachchees (We five, our 25)” prejudice against the Muslim community in the country.

Bhandarkar, who once made that lovely Chandni Bar (2001) with Tabu, has delivered a qualitative downslide post-Fashion in 2008. His Heroine (2012) was steeped in clichés, and 2015’s Calendar Girls was both crass and regressive. To be fair, Indu Sarkar’s writing (story and screenplay by Anil Pandey and Bhandarkar, dialogues by Sanjay Chhel) is more mature than those last two films. We are certainly spared his by-now-predictable template (such as satellite scenes in which household help and others from less advantaged economic classes discuss their bosses, a stereotypical gay supporting character, etc), which is a huge relief.

However, better does not mean good. While Indu Sarkar’s narrative is more engaging than Bhandarkar’s recent works, it is still inadequate.

At one point, an important character in Indu Sarkar reminds a lawyer that she is anti-government, not anti-national, “deshdrohi nahin, sarkar virodhi.” It is a comment perfectly suited to the Emergency, while also mirroring present-day India where anyone who questions the ruling party, the prime minister or the government is labelled “anti-national” by their supporters, and where several commentators have spoken of the country being in a state of undeclared Emergency. Imagine how beautifully that statement could have been used to remind us that humanity repeats the mistakes of the past because we ignore our history. For that to happen though, Indu Sarkar required writing of greater depth and analysis, with less political selectiveness. As things stand, it is a matter-of-fact narration of certain events, with very little layering, elevated by good acting. We know the Emergency happened. Can you provide us with insights that go beyond mere facts? And if you cannot, what is the point?

To say that Indu Sarkar is better than Heroine and Calendar Girls is hardly a compliment to the man who made Chandni Bar and Page 3.

Rating (out of five stars): **

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
139 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Sunday, July 23, 2017


Indian cinema’s fondness for post-rape revenge sprees continues with Sridevi’s Mom. But such films let “us” off lightly

By Anna MM Vetticad

(This article was published in The Hindu Businessline’s BLink on July 15, 2017.)

Most human beings have felt it at some point in their lives: an anger so overpowering that in that moment, you wanted to kill the person who had infuriated you. Few of us give in to that primal urge. Devki does.

In her new Hindi film Mom, Sridevi plays Devki, a high-school teacher who methodically executes the men involved in her daughter’s gangrape, after a court frees them. Mom’s first half is heartbreaking and credible as it establishes the mother-child relationship, portrays the rape with extreme sensitivity and shows us the family’s initial battle to retain sanity. The narrative changes track completely though when Devki sets off on her applause-inducing rampage. This is not self-defence or spur-of-the-moment violence, but carefully planned revenge. It is the Zakhmi Aurat Syndrome all over again, harking back to the 1988 Hindi film Zakhmi Aurat (Wounded Woman) in which a policewoman played by Dimple Kapadia joins forces with rape survivors like herself to bobbitise their attackers.

Like Bollywood, India’s other big film industries too have, over the years, delivered a small crop of populist films favouring vigilante justice for rape. Just last year, Nayanthara and Mammootty starred in the Malayalam film Puthiya Niyamam (New Law), which was about a woman killing her rapists with help from unexpected quarters. Another high-profile Mollywood film from the genre, 22 Female Kottayam in 2012 had Rima Kallingal’s character killing a rapist and castrating his accomplice.

Admittedly, real women rarely react in this fashion, but how can a spot of fantasy hurt, you ask? Besides, zakhmi women are still not a common occurrence whereas zakhmi men have been the bedrock of escapist Indian cinema for decades, taking the law into their hands in droves when the ‘system’ fails them.

Well, at an artistic level it is true that both are clichés, but at a sociological level, there is no equivalence between them. The unrealistically vengeful man of cinema does not carry with him the same baggage of off-screen social prejudice that the woman does. He, therefore, calls for a separate discussion.

Commercial cinema down the decades has swung wildly from the female rape victim with no agency — who weeps helplessly or commits suicide, while her male relatives or lover exact revenge for her lost ‘izzat’ (honour) — to another extreme, where she metamorphoses into a raging Goddess Durga. The latter is an extension of our national vocabulary, which perennially pedestalises the female as “mata” or “devi”, a deification that then becomes an excuse to deny women the right to be ordinary humans — flawed, fearful, normal, like men. When women deviate from these superhuman standards set by society, the penalty is harsh, whereas men — seen as hapless slaves of their hormones and feminine wiles — are casually absolved of grave crimes. While saying, “Ladke hai, galti ho jaati hai (after all they are boys, mistakes happen),” UP neta Mulayalam Singh Yadav echoed a widely held view of rapists emerging from this mindset.

The rape-victim-as-avenging-Durga cliché comes from film industries that almost never give space to stories of ordinary, believably tough women responding to sexual violence (Bollywood’s Pink in 2016 being an exception).

Vengeance is a quick route to applause. Watching a woman chop the genitals off a sexual predator can be deeply satisfying for those of us frustrated with the ‘system’, but such films do not compel us to introspect about our own part in that system and a culture that socially sanctions rape. These films point fingers at everyone but the citizenry. Why demand self-questioning, I guess, if letting viewers feel self-righteous pays off?

By cheering Devki in Mom, do we not prove that “we”, the good people watching her, are disgusted with rapists, that “we” are different from “them”? So what if at home we have conversations with our sons blaming women’s attire for rape? So what if our sons see evidence of women as lesser beings in the relationship of inequality between Mum and Dad? Stop this feminist bullshit, please! “Our” boys do not commit rape, only “they” do.

Films like Mom let “us” off lightly.

There is another point worth considering. In recent years, India has displayed a bizarre need to attribute qualities to anonymous rape victims that would give us the drive to fight for them — as if their being humans is not enough. The news media’s nicknames for these women reflect this attitude. In 2014’s Uber case she became Veera (the brave one), the toddler gangraped in a basement in 2013 became Gudiya (doll), and of course there was Nirbhaya (the fearless one) from 2012.

What if that woman was cowering in fright in that taxi? What if that child was not Barbie-like? What if that physiotherapy intern was begging for mercy? Would they then not be worthy of our empathy and support?

Rape victims and their families should not be objects of public fantasy. Like it or not, Vasuki of Puthiya Niyamam and Devki of Mom are the cinematic equivalents of our imagined Nirbhaya, The Fearless One. It is as if X, The Ordinary One — on or off screen — does not deserve us.

(This is the concluding piece of Film Fatale)

Link to the version of this column published in The Hindu Businessline:

Previous instalment of Film Fatale: “…And The Games The Thackerays Play”
(a shorter version was published in The Hindu Businessline’s BLink)

Photographs courtesy:

Zakhmi Aurat: IMDB