Sunday, December 24, 2017

Indu Sarkar: Review

Madhur Bhandarkar’s new film, set during The Emergency of 1975-77, is called Indu Sarkar – a mocking reference, one would assume, to Indira Gandhi’s government of the time. This is the intention, of course, but Indu Sarkar is also the name of the film’s protagonist. Naming your lead Indu and her husband Sarkar just so you can have a mildly clever title for your film – evidence, if any were needed, of how far Indians will go to land a pun.

Indu (Kirti Kulhari), like the rest of India, has chosen Sarkar (in her case, Navin Sarkar, an ambitious mid-level government servant), and is now regretting it. It’s not that the restrictions of the Emergency affect her personally – Navin is a favourite of a minister who’s close to “Chief” (a stand-in for Sanjay Gandhi) – but she’s empathetic to the suffering of those around her, unlike Sarkar and sarkar. She gets caught in the chaos of the forced clearance of the slums near Turkman Gate in Delhi by the authorities; that episode ends with her bringing back two stranded children to her house (Navin, not one for subtlety, asks if her own orphan status has something to do with her bringing destitute kids in).

The film shows us how the official machinery, mostly acting on the orders of Sanjay Gandhi, carried out mass sterilization, razed neighbourhoods, suppressed the media and persecuted its opponents. None of this is untrue, and yet it’s still difficult to take Indu Sarkar seriously. Though the villain in the film is clearly the Congress Party of that era (which is why this film is releasing now, with the BJP in power and one of its vocal supporters heading the Central Board of Film Certification), the language used in the film reflects current biases – “anti-nationals”, “Naxalites” and “activists” are used as if they mean roughly the same thing. And though it’s a shade better than his last, the laughable Calendar Girls, it’s still a Bhandarkar film. It hardly matters that he’s swapped salacious expose for historical statement: the sledgehammer obviousness, the inability to show something without explaining it (walking through flaming debris, one character tells another: “They were going to remove poverty, but here they’re just moving the poor”) is intact.

It’s not like we’re left with much choice in the matter (what kind of monster hates a stuttering orphan patriot?), but Kulhari’s portrayal of Indu is quite affecting; her character’s journey from shrinking housewife to anti-Emergency activist is schematic but believable. The only other performance of note – I wouldn’t go so far as to call it good – is Neil Nitin Mukesh’s Sanjay Gandhi impression. There are some nice touches from cinematographer Keiko Nakahara – a frenetic dash from a press conference, a walk-and-talk with Indu and resistance leader Nanaji (Anupam Kher). But it’s difficult to keep from wondering, even as the film unfolds, what a less sensationalist director might have done with similar material. If the current political climate is to give rise to more films about the Emergency – and we could do with several, just as we could films about other tumultuous periods in our history – one would hope they’re better art.

This review appeared in Mint. 

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