If you were ever to look up the most famous propaganda films in history — please don’t — you’d come across prolific German film director Leni Riefenstahl. Her 1935 film Triumph de Willens is known both, to have directly or indirectly made a case for the then Nazi party leader, Adolf Hitler, and for the downfall of her career as a filmmaker. Eighty-four years have since passed and nothing seems to have changed. From Clint Eastwood’s xenophobic biographical drama American Sniper to the sly telegraphing of military recruitment in major American sci-fi blockbuster films, we’re in the thick of it. The Indian Hindi film industry, of course, is not far behind, with such gems as Vijay Krishna Acharya’s Thugs of Hindostan, Aditya Dhar’s Uri and Omung Kumar’s PM Narendra Modi, a controversial biopic that hit cinemas this weekend.
Starring Vivek Anand Oberoi (Krrish 3, 2013) as the eponymous real-life figure, the movie traces the many episodes of the newly re-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who shook up the political spectrum in 2014 when he won with a huge margin. Like with most biopics that are instead hagiographies, director Omung Kumar (Bhoomi, 2017) and his team of writers — there are three — deify the central protagonist more than any director could ever have done for Rajinikanth’s star power. Oberoi, who delivers ably and with grace and respectfulness as Modi, seems to have bagged the role of a lifetime. His performance alone, however, can’t really shoulder the burden of a horribly written drama, chockfull of expository dialogue and terrible edit decisions. A stronger narrative with a relatively competent director would have made for a more engaging watch of a film. Neeraj Pandey’s MS Dhoni: The Untold Story did something similar, only to come out with a stronger film that focused more on storytelling and filmmaking technique than fan-service and mindless rhetoric.
Among the film’s cast is a stellar lineup of actors — Zarina Wahab (My Name is Khan, 2010), Yatin Karyekar (Munnabhai MBBS, 2003), Rajendra Gupta (Bobby Jaasoos); you name them, they have them —but literally nobody seems to have hogged their due runtime and are severely underutilized. Then again, the film is overstuffed with so many arcs that it’s difficult to do them, or the actors that are a part of them, any due justice. Then again, it’s quite apparent the film’s primary aim was to telegraph the political alliance of Modi as a flock of kindhearted angels and their opponents as silly mustache-twirling, snarling villains straight out of a ‘90s Disney animate film. Any and everything else a movie is supposed to do to qualify as half-decent is chucked out of the window for a message so obvious you’d be able to spot it with your eyes closed, five miles away from the cinema screen.
That won’t matter, however. Kumar’s movie releases at a perfect time — Narendra Modi’s ruling party BJP has once again witnessed a landslide victory at the elections today, which brings in a rather brilliant PR opportunity for the film — the underdogs-to-victors kind. The people who still absolutely adore him will pay to watch, and absolutely love, this film; it’s how blind fandom works. It’s just that the movie is terrible, made without any respect for the craft of filmmaking, or knowledge of the art of subtlety. Then again, we’re in a timeline where subtlety and empathy are thrown out of the window for loud, sensationalist rhetoric like “Make America Great Again,” so expecting anything qualitatively solid out of a movie as loud and juvenilely told as PM Narendra Modi would be pointless.