NEW DELHI - A biopic on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi by a Bollywood filmmaker that was due to hit the screens on Friday has been postponed as it lands in the midst of a raging political controversy.
Furious opposition parties have slammed the film, which critics say portrays the Indian leader in a larger-than-life, flattering light, as blatant propaganda and questioned why it was planned to be released days before India begins choosing a new government.
Bollywood’s brush with Indian politics is not new – every election season witnesses a sprinkling of star power as a handful of actors either join politics or use their appeal on the campaign trail. But this is the first time that a film produced by the industry that has an outsized influence on Indian masses, is under the scanner.
From tea seller to PM
Tracing the Indian leader’s journey from a humble tea seller to the country’s top post, one of the most dramatic scenes in the trailer of “PM Narendra Modi” shows him waving a giant Indian flag yelling that “India will not fear terror, terror will fear India.”
These are themes that Modi has been reinforcing on the campaign trail: in the aftermath of recent hostilities with Pakistan he has projected himself as a leader who took a tougher stand on terrorism compared to previous governments and could protect the country.
Denouncing the biopic as a political venture and not an artistic one, the main opposition Congress party said it was meant to get some “extra mileage” in the elections. Although the Election Commission failed to intervene after the opposition said that its release should be deferred, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the plea of a Congress Party leader next week.
As the controversy swirled, news of the delay came in a tweet from the film’s producer, Sandip Singh. “This is to confirm that our film 'PM Narendra Modi' is not releasing on 5th April. Will update soon." The filmmakers gave no reason for its postponement but apparently the Censor Board has still to certify it for release.
No political agenda
Singh has denied any political agenda in making the film saying he only wanted to relate an inspirational story. He has also dismissed allegations that it was timed to coincide with elections saying that filmmakers, as businessmen, have the right to choose a suitable date.
Critics however point out that Vivek Oberoi, the actor who portrays Modi is his strong supporter and campaigned for him in 2014.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has told the Election Commission it played no role in the production of the film. “Independent artists, influenced by the lifestyle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, created the film.” It says that banning the film will infringe on the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.
Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley told reporters last week "when articles, writings, TV channels can influence voters, why can't celluloid? I would like to understand the self-limitation created on free speech today."
Film critics say it does appear to project Modi in a very favorable light. “By all that one gets to see in the trailer, obviously it is like a hagiography of sorts. You are not going to get like fine analysis of the politics over the years and the controversies that have surrounded the man,” says Namrata Joshi, a film critic with the Hindu newspaper. “And what really riles is the time it is coming. One feels that things are suspect.”
Political observers point to one scene in the trailer in which Modi looks disturbed and despondent in the midst of deadly anti-Muslim riots that gripped his home state Gujarat in 2002 when he was chief minister. Although he has been cleared of any involvement in the riots, critics have accused his administration of not doing enough to stop the violence.
This is not the only film to raise a firestorm. In January a movie about Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh raised another outcry as critics said it portrayed him in an unflattering light. The lead role was played by an actor who is a supporter of Modi.
Even as controversy dogs Modi’s biopic, the first half of a 10-episode web series based on him released this month on a video streaming platform without much fanfare.
And Congress Party leader, Rahul Gandhi, seen as Modi’s main opponent, is not being left behind -- a biopic on him, “My Name is Raga” plans to show his “inner life.” Its director, Rupesh Paul, said the movie has no intentions to glorify him but is “the story of a coming back of a human being who had been ridiculously attacked.” The biopic however is unlikely to face a challenge as it may not be ready until the polls close in India’s mammoth elections.
The polls open April 11 and continue through May 23.