PM Narendra Modi was supposed to release on 11 April. At the last minute, the Election Commission decided that a partisan film on a prime ministerial candidate playing in theatres while polls were on might have some influence in a country where WhatsApp forwards are considered a legitimate source of news. The film opens on the first Friday after the election, a day after the BJP won in a landslide, giving Modi a second term as PM. What was probably intended as an advertisement for the candidate now becomes part of the victory lap.
When they really like a film, critics sometimes worry about being able to transmute the experience into words. Omung Kumar’s Narendra Modi leaves me with a similar predicament: I don’t know if it’s possible to adequately convey how utterly devoid of merit it is. To say this is the worst film of the year (and it’s been quite a year already) is almost kind. What it is, really, is a debasement of cinema and the best instincts of art.
It's also quite a trip, almost as if a film on Modi and a parody of that film were existing in the same frame. The goal is to present him as some kind of exemplar saint, and the makers don't seem to care how stupid they look doing it, which results in scene after scene of simplistic hero worship. A few of my favourites:
Young Narendra, whom we’ve already seen saluting the flag, serves tea to a mother bidding farewell to her soldier son. He refuses to take money from them, saluting the soldier instead and getting a salute in return.
Narendra, now grown up and played by Vivek Oberoi, is acting in a stage production. He won’t say the lines given to him, and starts lecturing the other characters on stage about the ills of dowry. The audience applauds.
Later, as a rising party member of the BJP, Modi organises an "ekta yatra". On a bridge in Srinagar, they come under fire from terrorists, but Modi won’t duck or lower the flag he’s holding.
An armed, angry mob passes in front a television set. They pause as Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, gives a speech about religious violence. The swords drop from their hands. Riot cancelled.
Much later, this gem: “Hinduism isn’t a religion, it’s a way of thinking. It’s what makes this country secular”.
Finally: “Modi isn’t a human being, he’s a way of thinking.”
And on and on. There have been films about literal gods more critical of their subject than this one. This lack of balance unites the film with two other nationalistic tracts released this year, Manikarnika and Thackeray, neither of which allow for a single flaw in their central characters. Kumar and Oberoi's Modi is without blemish: he respects women, works hard without complaining, loves his country and idolises the soldiers that defend it. He digs canals himself instead of asking for votes. He can’t stand corruption. Even when he’s the chief minister, he washes the dishes himself when he goes to meet his mother. He has a 56-inch chest, which thankfully remains covered at all times.
Narendra Modi might stick to broad historical events but the narrative it builds is a convenient and often specious one. The Ekta Yatra, for instance, is presented as a march for togetherness where it was really a show of right wing strength. The Congress high command is shown panicking before the 2014 general election because Modi has “changed the formula from divide-and-rule to unite-and-rule”. This isn’t true today, and it certainly wasn’t true in 2014.
For a lay viewer, the primary (perhaps only) point of interest is the film's treatment of the 2002 Godhra train massacre, in which 58 Hindus were killed, and the riots that followed in Gujarat, in which over a thousand people, a majority of them Muslim, were killed. Allegations that the state government under Modi abetted, or did little to quell, the rioters persist till this day, even as a Special Investigation Team later absolved the chief minister of any direct involvement. In the film, Modi is shown to be empathetic (embracing a Muslim father who’s lost his child) and capable (he brings the situation under control even though neighbouring states won’t help out). When a police officer tells him the number of Hindu and Muslim dead, Modi scolds him, saying “Aur kitna baantenge inhe (how much more will you divide them)?” This is disingenuous to say the least, given the real Modi’s penchant for divisive rhetoric.
Though the film closes in 2014, we get references to contemporary Modi-isms: he calls himself “chowkidaar” and tells a solider in Kashmir, apropos Pakistan, “ghar mein ghus kar maarenge (we’ll enter their houses and kill them)” – a line from Uri, a film released earlier this year in which Modi, unnamed but unmistakable, was played by Rajit Kapur. There’s the usual Congress-bashing, which has become so common in recent Hindi films that it’s stopped being surprising. The media, which Modi has barely engaged with in the last five years, is accused of working for the opposition and fanning religious tensions.
Vivek Oberoi has the unenviable task of playing a sitting prime minister, and a much better actor. He can barely do the accent, but it doesn’t matter – there’s too much wrong with the film anyway. In other nations, and in parts of this one, they’re making films that come from a place of courage and inquiry, sometimes at great risk to self. The makers of PM Narendra Modi, on the other hand, do little but sing praise to power.