At one point in The Accidental Prime Minister, media advisor Sanjaya Baru (Akshaye Khanna) says to his boss, the mild-mannered economist-turned-PM, Dr Manmohan Singh (Anupam Kher), “Lies should be countered within the first 24 hours or they go on to become the truth.”
Based on the 2014 memoir of the same name by Baru, The Accidental Prime Minister has already drawn its fair share of controversy. The book was released ahead of the 2014 general election and the film releases today (10th January 2019), on the eve of Rahul Gandhi’s public rally in Dubai and is widely seen as election propaganda by the BJP in the run up to the 2019 general election.
The Accidental Prime Minister opens in 2004 with documentary footage of Congress workers setting off fireworks in the street to celebrate their victory under the leadership of the Italy-born Sonia Gandhi in the general elections. When the world’s largest democracy goes to vote, it is a rambunctious, intense affair. There are more fireworks behind closed doors: the opposition is slamming her ethnicity, and her advisors want Gandhi (Suzanne Bernet) to assume office as PM. Gandhi’s son Rahul (Arjun Mathur) asks them if they can guarantee she won’t end up assassinated like his grandmother and father. In a surprise move, Sonia decides to step aside, choosing instead the brilliant Oxford-educated economist Dr Manmohan Singh to lead a coalition cobbled together from various parties, each with their own agendas and differing ideologies.
When Kher, transformed with prosthetic make up, walks in to take the oath as India’s 13th Prime Minister, we are reminded it caps a decades-long career in public service. Kher nails Singh’s mannerisms: the shuffling gait, deep Namastes and whispery speech. We are then introduced to Sanjaya Baru (Akshaye Khanna), the wry, battle hardened editor of Financial Express, trying to sniff out the new PM’s ministerial choices at a party and discovering that he is more or less a puppet of the Gandhi family.
Baru agrees to be Singh’s media advisor, on condition that he only reports to the PM and no one else. We are introduced to a motley cast of bureaucrats and politicians who run the PMO, and through it, “a country of a billion of people”, as Baru puts it. In this first hour, it feels like the film is going to play out as a light-hearted look at what goes on in the corridors of power, an Indian version of Yes, Prime Minister.
However, the narrative rapidly starts sinking under the weight of trying to chronicle 10 years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s failings, and the power tussles that derailed it.
Post interval, we are given an insight into party politics. How Singh was made the fall guy for the scams that plagued his second term in office and resulted in the Congress being voted out in 2014. We are also treated to more documentary footage of Modi’s election rallies, denouncing the “ma-beta sarkar” and Baru calling a sitting PM spineless (which has been muted out but can be read in the subtitles). References to the Mahabharat are hammered in at regular intervals; Singh likened to the patriarch Bhishma who sides with evil as a mark of loyalty.
Yet, according to the makers this is not a propaganda film.
Baru breaking the fourth wall to talk to the audience feels novel in a Hindi film, but Akshaye Khanna’s one-note performance and the constant smirk wears thin after a while. Kher is in fine form and does a great job of bringing his character to life; unfortunately, he is let down by a script driven by a political agenda and selective retelling of events.
Frustrated with the interference from the Gandhis and the apparent unwillingness of Manmohan Singh to set the record straight, Baru resigns and writes his memoir, The Accidental Prime Minister (accidental as Singh never contested an election but was a Rajya Sabha member). Sales are sluggish, until the PMO denounces the book: at which point, it becomes a bestseller. Gutte should hope his film meets with the same good fortune.