'Main Atal Hoon' Movie Review: Main bored hoon

20 January,2024 08:14 PM IST |  Mumbai  |  Mayank Shekhar

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a tall leader. This has, by and large, been established. Why else would there be his biopic. The question is if the story on the late poet Prime Minister’s life (1924-2018) delves into anything deeper

`Main Atal Hoon` Movie Review

Movie: Main Atal Hoon
Director: Ravi Jadhav
Actors: Pankaj Tripathi, Piyush Mishra
Rating: 2/5

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a tall leader. This has, by and large, been established. Why else would there be his biopic. The question is if the story on the late poet Prime Minister's life (1924-2018) delves into anything deeper. If it doesn't, why else should we care to watch it.

Frankly, this film doesn't - besides stringing together milestones and anecdotes that is kinda impossible that you haven't read about, already.

Whether it's Vajpayee getting the portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru reinstalled at South Block, once he became the external affairs minister. Or Nehru himself once prophesying that Vajpayee would some day become India's PM.

Which speaks highly of how India's political culture was, when partisan divides got dealt with maturity, rather than mortal enmity. Especially during such polarising times, when you find families and friends fighting over who you vote for. As if that matters to anyone, but the politicians.

Vajpayee, an eternal emissary of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), came to be recognised later as the more liberal face of Hindutva, or political Hinduism.

Even among those who may not believe in mixing religion with politics/state. The sense you get from those who love Vajpayee, while they didn't agree with his worldview, is that he came across as ideologically accommodative, or flexible.

He left the more religiously hardline, public positions for his partner, Lal Krishna Advani, to pursue. Propelling his political opponents to label him as the right man in the wrong party. In turn, several of his party supporters found him to be too soft on matters of overt populism. This could be a fine mental conflict to explore.

What you watch in the film is Vajpayee carrying along a peace contingent to Pakistan as India's PM, which immediately precedes the Kargil War. The goings-on in the Prime Minister's Office during the Vajpayee years could be illuminating too. There is none of it here.

Main Atal Hoon is a propaganda film. And I don't mean this as a pejorative - simply as a description of it. Propaganda is, after all, a legit genre, whether in literature, journalism, indeed in films.

And that we merely define as "ideas, facts, allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause, or damage an opposing cause," to quote the Webster dictionary.

The purpose of propaganda is also to consciously select which events to highlight, and which to altogether omit. Hence, in this movie, you observe Advani's Rath Yatra and the Bharatiya Janta Party taking up the Ram Janmabhoomi issue - something that eventually brought the newly minted outfit to power.

But you see none of the 1992 communal riots that the issue ignited, down to Godhra arson and 2002 Gujarat riots, during the Vajpayee years. Entering his dilemmas/views on the same could be worth a biopic's remit.

The Congress party is positively the only villain in this film, by way of a conflict - if there is any, through the entirety of Vajpayee's own life, at all.

There is random repartee for how a poet would build a bomb, or why an artiste must be a national leader. "Loktantra ka cheer-haran Congress ki purani aadat," Vajpayee says. An issue that bothers him in early political life is the incursion from China, and later, the rising price of petrol.

At the centre of this piece is Pankaj Tripathi playing Vajpayee with the level of effortless charm, exuding supreme empathy, that comes so naturally to him as an actor.

Leads in biopics inevitably draw the widest praise from audiences - they're inevitably the Oscar favourites, for instance. Simply because the viewers have a mental image of the character already.

They can instantly tell how great a performance is, since they have something to compare it against. The film gives Tripathi enough to prepare for - unlike, say, his last release, Kadak Singh (2023), where he could even phone in his performance.

The ensemble cast in this pic is, likewise, picked to perfection, with actors and mannerisms to match - from Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Deendayal Upadhyay, down to Pramod Mahajan, or Sushma Swaraj.

The director, Ravi Jadhav (Natarang, Taali), in terms of ensuring craft - lighting, framing, production design, etc - is competent enough. You should expect no less from a film fit for theatrical release.

But the script itself is essentially a series of events, culled from Google/YouTube, for research. It could work just as well for a Films Division showreel.

While by all accounts, lifelong bachelor Vajpayee was a far more intriguing/interesting personality. The couple of times the movie lights up is when it shines a torch on the relationship with his father (Piyush Mishra) - both read law in college together. Or his friend-cum-fan from college, Rajkumari Kaul (1928-2014), whose family he adopted, at some point. You wish to dive deeper.

Frankly, I read about politics for pleasure. What to do, when you follow movies for a living!

May I, hence, guide you to Vinay Sitapati's entertaining, insightful book, Jugalbandi, on Vajpayee, Advani. Have been meaning to lay my hands on Abhishek Choudhary's biography, Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right (1924-77) as well.

This didn't feel like mixing work with pleasure at all.

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