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Playing the part of a historical figure is like acting in a corset; the actor is bound by constricting limitations.

Take the British Royal Family.  Until the 1950s, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office prohibited the portrayal of any monarch on stage or on screen, unless fifty years had lapsed since his or her death. That explains why Queen Victoria first appeared on screen in 1951, portrayed by Irene Dunne in the film The Mudlark. A few years later, in 1957, Marilyn Monroe in Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl could be shown shaking the hand of an off-screen Queen Mary (who had died only a few years earlier).  This stricture continued until the Lord Chamberlain’s role as censor was withdrawn in 1968. Since then, it has been open season with the Royal Family being depicted in all sorts of imitations, even with Prince Philip in the nude in the television serial The Crown.  

Prophets have fared better. Moses, Noah and Solomon have been converted into bearded stereotypes, while Muslims have skirted the injunction by portraying the Holy Prophet not as the actor but as the invisible observer. In the film The Message, for example, the audience sees the dramatic action through his eyes.

Actors portraying Hindu deities enjoy free rein. N T Rama Rao became so indistinguishable from Lord Vishnu, Rama and Krishna that some devotees might have been forgiven for regarding him as an eleventh avatar.  Historical figures have elicited mixed responses. While Prithiviraj Kapoor’s Akbar and  Dilip Kumar’s Salim were accepted at face value, Hema Malni’s  imitation of Razia Sultan raised plucked eyebrows.  Shahrukh Khan’s Ashoka  and Deepika Padukone’s Padmavati have been confronted by mini-armies of critics.

Interestingly, political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru have been spared a tell-tale ​exposure on screen or on stage. Film directors have been kind to them. Anyone who has seen Mark Robson’s Nine Hours to Rama (1963) or Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) or more recently Gurinder Chadha’s The Viceroy’s House can appreciate the reverential treatment of Indian leaders. The Ravana figure in such films is usually allotted to M. A. Jinnah.  Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah (1998) unconsciously followed the Lord Chamberlain’s rule and appeared fifty years after the Quaid’s death. Like the Quaid himself, the film about him had a painful ending.  

The latest offering of contemporary bio-epics is Vijay Gutte’s The Accidental Prime Minister, a​n ungenerous account of Dr Manmohan Singh’s years as India’s 13th prime minister. Audiences have paid good money to see the film.  One can be sure that even if Dr Manmohan Singh.is paid to, he will never see it. It is bad enough to have a scissors and paste job done on your achievements. It is cruelty itself for a Congress PM to be caricatured so mercilessly by Anupam Kher, a BJP sympathiser.  

The writer-director Gulzar used Mrs Indira Gandhi as the mannequin for his film Aandhi (1975). He gave his heroine Suchitra Sen the pseudonym ‘Aaarti Devi’ but the white-streak​ed coiffure​, the bordered sari, the mannerisms were a piercing parallel, blunted by Gulzar’s discreet treatment of Mrs Gandhi’s vulnerable femininity.  The film Aandhi found no favour with Mrs Gandhi’s Congress. It needed a Janata government to permit its release.

For the 2019 elections, Congress is taking no chances. It has chosen Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to play the part of Mrs Indira Gandhi. Not only does she look like her grandmothe​​r, she will ​follow her political ​script and ​style. ​​Is it an admission that Rahul Gandhi cannot ​on his own ​combat​ PM Modi​? We will know​ ​only when the closing credits scroll.




[The Chandigarh Tribune, under the title ‘Going by the Rulebook’, 3 Feb. 2019]


03 February 2019
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