The smartest thing about Madhur Bhandarkar’s new film is its title. Subtlety has never one of his strengths, but Indu Sarkar is a nice play on words. It is both the name of the film’s protagonist, and also, as you may have guessed, refers to late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s ruling government.
Set during the Emergency ordered by Mrs Gandhi in 1975, the film is committed to raking up the atrocities and the violations of freedom inflicted on the people of India during this 21-month period. Yet the film never identifies Mrs Gandhi by name, or her younger son Sanjay Gandhi, widely believed to be the architect of many bad decisions of the time. This is odd because the actors playing these parts are dead ringers for the real people, particularly Neil Nitin Mukesh sporting a receding hairline and thick-rimmed spectacles in the role of Sanjay.
But you know how it is. Making political films is tricky business in India. Parties and their people are invariably offended, the censors inevitably rob the film of its bite, and legal troubles threaten to swallow you whole. Given that reality of the landscape, you might say it’s a minor victory that Indu Sarkar still made it to the screen. Or am I just being too naïve?
Whatever the case, Bhandarkar tries to hide his agendas, if any, behind the appearance of a humanist plot. His protagonist is an orphan named Indu whom we watch being rejected repeatedly because of her stutter as a child by potential parents doing the rounds of the adoption home, and later as a young woman by potential grooms and their dismissive mothers.
When Indu (Kirti Kulhari) is married to an ambitious civil servant in the Congress administration (Tota Roy Chowdhury), her sudden exposure to the horrors of the Emergency leads to her social and political awakening. It begins with her refusal to abandon two little children orphaned in a slum demolition drive, and leads to her taking up full-fledged activism at the cost of her marriage.
But to be honest, there is very little in this film that anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Indian history might be unfamiliar with. From the mass sterilization campaign implemented at the time, to the Turkman Gate massacre, down to the muzzling of the press, everything has been extensively documented over the years. Which is not to say that Bhandarkar shouldn’t make a film about the Emergency. The problem is, the film’s uneven tone makes it hard to take any of it too seriously. The caricaturish portrayal of key figures, especially Neil Nitin Mukesh’s all-out-villain approach to playing Sanjay Gandhi makes this feel like an old-school Bollywood movie instead of a sharp political drama. Doesn’t help that he’s made to deliver punchlines instead of dialogue. “Sarkaren challenge se nahin, chabuk se chalti hain.” Cringe.