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Why a Modi bhakt decided to play Manmohan Singh

Last updated on: December 19, 2018 08:53 IST

'People have a certain perception about my political leanings -- and rightly so.'
'But I am an actor first, and then an activist.'
'And I am not an accidental actor.'
'There was no way I was going to be dishonest with my acting,' Anupam Kher tells Veenu Sandhu.

Anupam Kher plays Dr Manmohan Singh while Divya Seth Shah plays Dr Singh's wife Gursharan Kaur in The Accidental Prime Minister.

IMAGE: Anupam Kher plays Dr Manmohan Singh while Divya Seth Shah plays Dr Singh's wife Gursharan Kaur in The Accidental Prime Minister. Photographs: Kind courtesy Anupam Kher/Instagram

It feels like a repeat of 2014. Back then, just as the country went into its longest-ever general election, a book was released that sent the prime minister's office into a tizzy and gave the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party another weapon to attack the ruling Congress and the prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh.

While sympathetic to Singh, the book, The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, spoke about interference from Congress chief Sonia Gandhi in the affairs of the PMO, attempts to give credit to Rahul Gandhi for key decisions taken by Dr Singh and his team, and Dr Singh's own resignation to the idea of who the real boss was.

The contents of the book, which was written by Dr Sanjaya Baru, DR Singh's former media adviser, were damning.

The Accidental Prime Minister

IMAGE: Important members of The Accidental Prime Minister cast.

Five years later, just as the country readies for another Lok Sabha election, a film based on the book is ready and is expected to hit theatres soon.

The Accidental Prime Minister has Anupam Kher playing Dr Singh and Akshaye Khanna as Dr Baru.

When news broke three years ago that Sunil Bohra, the co-producer of the critically acclaimed Gangs of Wasseypur, had bought rights for a film and that Kher would portray Dr Singh on screen, all manner of questions came to mind:

Would this be a propaganda movie?

Would the BJP fund it?

And why Kher, who had made his anti-Congress and pro-Narendra Damodardas Modi leanings amply clear?

Kher, Bohra and Vijay Ratnakar Gutte, the film's director, are at pains to put these speculations to rest.

"I have barely read two or three books in my life, but when I saw the cover of The Accidental Prime Minister at an airport, I was drawn to it," says Bohra.

 

After reading it, he was convinced it called for a movie. But none of the directors or the studios he approached was willing to touch it with a bargepole.

Anupam Kher with Director Vijay Ratnakar Gutte

IMAGE: Anupam Kher with Director Vijay Ratnakar Gutte.

Finally, Gutte, a first-time director and Bohra's friend, came on board. The project, he felt, was tricky and challenging, but also exciting.

The first critical step was to find an actor who would convincingly essay Dr Singh's role -- without caricaturising him.

Kher became the top choice when the 'Manmohan Singh look' they gave to the pictures they had pulled off the Internet threw up an uncanny resemblance.

His facial features, smile and build all fit the image of the man. "Kher had done over 500 films in versatile roles, so his acting credentials were also rock solid," says Gutte.

Armed with Baru's book, the film's first-look poster and Kher's 'Manmohan Singh' pictures, they approached the actor.

"He was shocked," recalls Gutte. "His was a very public Modi bhakt image and he felt the whole thing would be seen in that light."

German actress Suzanne Bernert plays Sonia Gandhi

IMAGE: German actress Suzanne Bernert plays Sonia Gandhi.

Speaking from the US, Kher agrees: "I thought I'd be getting into the same political chakkar." Besides, this role wasn't just difficult; it risked being a colossal failure.

Kher has done some tricky roles, in Khosla Ka Ghosla, A Wednesday!, Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (where he plays a man stricken with Alzheimer's), but those were all unknown characters.

"Singh is a very visible political leader. His contemporariness ensures that he is in everybody's psyche. There was no space for even a trace of me as an actor to appear here," he says.

But then if he agreed, this would also be his biggest role since Saaransh, his second film, which released 34 years ago and which is still hailed as his finest performance.

'Give me an exceptional script and I will consider it,' Kher told the director.

Arjun Mathur and Aahana Kumra play the Gandhi siblings, Rahul and Priyanka

IMAGE: Arjun Mathur and Aahana Kumra play the Gandhi siblings, Rahul and Priyanka.

Adapting the complex and long book for film was, however, no cakewalk. Mayank Tewari, who co-wrote Newton, India's entry to the Oscars last year, came on board.

He got down to crunching the book and building a narrative that would give a voice to Dr Singh. Baru's character, the narrator, occupied important space.

But while Tewari retained his narration, he left out the opinion. This might have been a wise thing to do because, back in 2014, the PMO, while countering portions of the book, had also said that 'the commentary smacks of fiction and coloured views of a former adviser'.

"The effort has been to stay close to the spirit of the book," says Tewari, a former journalist. He equates Dr Singh with the Mahabharata's Bhishma Pitamah -- a figure who symbolised truth, devotion and sacrifice and who willingly embraced a life of loneliness for duty's sake.

When the book was released, Dr Singh's stock was already rock bottom. "That has changed," says Tewari. "The film will humanise him; it will rehabilitate him in the minds and hearts of people."

Tewari has chosen the pragmatic route. He has retained key events that can be adapted to screen, such as Dr Singh's resilience on the nuclear deal with the US, the office politics and dealings with Pakistan. And he has left out chapters like 'Manmohan's Camelot', which deal with the intellectual engagements Dr Singh enjoyed.

Ram Avatar Bhardawaj plays Atal Bihari Vajpayee

IMAGE: Ram Avatar Bhardawaj plays Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The idea of playing Dr Singh, meanwhile, kept preying on Kher.

"One day, I watched Singh's oath-taking ceremony on YouTube. And then as an exercise, I tried to walk like him. I was miles off the mark," he says.

If he were to pull this off with any dignity, 90 per cent would have to be about being the person and the remaining 10 per cent would rest on his acting skills.

Six months went into this preparation.

"I had to psych myself up. And then I meditated just to get his voice right."

He watched footage after footage of Dr Singh. "He doesn't express much and yet he has these many expressions -- happy, angry, sad, disappointed, lonely -- all within a small range," says Kher.

"Sometimes it's like looking at a picture and saying now it is happy, now sad or now triumphant."

There is a scene in the film where you see Dr Singh walking down a long corridor, alone, his head tilted to one side and as though with a lifetime of experience resting on his slightly bent shoulders.

"And you see the loneliness of the man," says Kher. "A key part of the role was to project not just his life, but also his philosophy."

That's the magic of cinema, which a book might not be able to capture, he adds.

Avtar Sahni, left, plays Lal Kishenchand Advani, then the BJP leader

IMAGE: Avtar Sahni, left, plays Lal Kishenchand Advani, then the BJP leader.

Gutte spent seven days with Dr Baru in Delhi in January last year to understand what the PMO looks like, how it functions, what 7 Race Course Road (the prime minister's residence, which has since been renamed 7 Lok Kalyan Marg) is like, the protocol followed when the prime minister travels, how he engages with his daughters or his wife, Gursharan Kaur (played by Divya Seth Shah).

Casting the film's 163 characters took nine months. Teams were sent out across the country -- Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Chandigarh -- to scout for people who could both look and act like these very public figures.

The one who finally made the cut to play Atal Bihari Vajpayee runs a tea stall; the one who plays Amar Singh comes from the same town as the former Samajwadi Party leader.

But the one who plays Sonia Gandhi -- German-born actor Suzanne Bernert -- practically barged into the film, laughs Gutte.

The team had nearly signed on another actress for the role when Bernert learnt of the character. "She was in Germany and she bombarded us with messages, asking to be cast in the role," says Gutte. Her recorded audition sealed the deal.

Akshaye Khanna plays Dr Sanjaya Baru

IMAGE: Akshaye Khanna plays Dr Sanjaya Baru.

Then came recreating the PMO, the Lok Sabha and Rashtrapati Bhavan, all of which have a distinctive Lutyens's touch.

An ancient estate on the outskirts of London designed by Edwin Lutyens was chosen for the PMO. "We could cheat neither with the characters nor with the places -- that's how familiar they all are," says Gutte.

Apart from the initial meetings with Gutte, Dr Baru says he has not been involved in the making of the film -- "an adaptation" based on the book and to be simultaneously released in Hindi, English, Tamil and Telugu.

"The book was written for an English language-book-reading audience while the film may be made for a larger cinema-viewing audience. So, some changes are inevitable," he says, adding that he has no idea what those changes might be.

One deviation is that the film has Priyanka Gandhi (played by Aahana Kumra) in it, while the book doesn't.

"It is impossible to tell this story without her," says Gutte. "The book sets the context for the Gandhi family in a big way and we researched thoroughly and came up with material that is dramatic and truthful."

Ajit Satbhaj plays P V Narasimha Rao, the former prime minister in whose Cabinet Dr Singh served as finance minister

IMAGE: Ajit Satbhaj plays P V Narasimha Rao, the former prime minister in whose Cabinet Dr Singh served as finance minister.

The book also talks about how Singh's principal secretary Pulok Chatterjee would seek 'instructions' from Sonia Gandhi on important PMO decisions. Some construed it as Chatterjee carrying files from the top office to Gandhi, which the PMO fiercely denied.

In his interviews Baru has also said he meant Chatterjee briefed Gandhi and not that he carried PMO files to her. It will be interesting to see how the film depicts this.

Meanwhile, the timing of the film does raise questions. Pankaj Pachauri, who was Singh's communications adviser when the book hit the stands, says back then the motive was financial gains, and this time too, it is the same. He calls the book a 'fictional account'.

While one cannot grudge the attempt to time a movie so that it is most profitable, The Accidental Prime Minister is a film about important personalities who are still in public life.

It is not a biopic, the film's team clarifies. Khanna says this is a light, enjoyable film that the audience will relate to.

"We are the world's largest democracy. It's a shame we don't make authentic political drama," he says. "The Accidental Prime Minister attempts to change that. Finger-pointing and controversy before its release are inevitable," he says, "but the film takes no sides."

The Accidental Prime Minister

Film-maker Shyam Benegal, who headed the committee to recommend guidelines for certification of films, says ideally one should get permission from people whose lives are being portrayed, especially in a country where libel laws are strong.

"The rest depends on the discretion of the Central Board of Film Certification."

Gutte says that, having applied for certification, he will openly answer whatever questions the CBFC might have.

Returning to Kher: Is it possible for an actor to put aside his politics while acting?

"People have a certain perception about my political leanings -- and rightly so. I have been very vocal in my criticism of Singh and the Congress and also in my appreciation of Prime Minister Modi," says Kher.

"But I am an actor first, and then an activist. And I am not an accidental actor. There was no way I was going to be dishonest with my acting."

Kher describes the film as his best gift to his acting school, An Actor Prepares, and as a tribute to Dr Singh.

How the Congress will view it could be another story.

Veenu Sandhu
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