“Indu Sarkar”… A surprisingly decent Bhandarkar drama, rooted in the politics (and cinema) of the 1970s

Posted on July 30, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

Here’s what a Madhur Bhandarkar “touch” looks like. It’s the Emergency era, and Indu (Kirti Kulhari) has brought home two children whose parents are missing. (Their slum was razed down to make way for a five-star hotel.) Indu’s husband Navin (an excellent Tota Roy Chowdhury), a mid-level government official who prioritises his needs over those of the nation at large, doesn’t want the children to stay. They argue in the kitchen, and the argument is framed through a glass double door, whose centre casing becomes a vertical divider between Indu and Navin. The glass on her side is spotless. The glass on his side is speckled with grime. We know who’s right.

Here’s another Bhandarkar touch. The era is evoked through films (Sholay, Kalicharan) and music (how prescient Mehangai maar gayi from Roti Kapda Aur Makaan sounds today), and also actors. “Do you want a Helen cut or Sadhana cut?” the hairdresser asks Indu. And at a party, someone exclaims, “Rajesh Khanna jaisa dikh raha hai na? Aradhana wala?” (Doesn’t he look just like Rajesh Khanna, the chap from Aradhana?”) This is the mid-1970s. Is there anyone that needs to be told that Hindi cinema’s first superstar is the “chap from Aradhana?” But that’s Bhandarkar. Emphasis is his middle name.

It’s become something of an annual ritual to mock the Madhur Bhandarkar movie, but after watching Indu Sarkar, I wonder if his problem isn’t that he’d rather be making movies like we used to in the 1970s. Indu Sarkar – beautifully shot in browns by Keiko Nakahara (who also shot Mary Kom) – is essentially an Angry Young Woman movie, a masala version of something like Aandhi, which wasn’t so much a “political drama” as a drama that used politics as the backdrop for a personal story. It’s Indu vs the System, and instead of the textural complexities of Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, which was also set in this period, we get a simple Davida vs Goliath narrative. We get the noble Sardar. We get the qawwali with flying handkerchieves. We get Sanjay Gandhi (Neil Nitin Mukesh) as the equivalent of Teja.

Bhandarkar has made many movies with female protagonists, but Indu Sarkar may be the first one where the heroine is a metaphor. Her name, Indu, points to the Prime Minister – and she’s married to Navin Sarkar, “new government.” But eventually, she opts for a divorce – from her husband, from this new government. Indu stammers – and this may be a stand-in for a nation whose speech was curtailed. Like a classic hero, Indu is first a zero – reticent, lacking confidence. But when those two children come into her life, she transforms into Mother India, rising against the people who have her in chains. It’s another war for Independence.

The Sanjay Gandhi character is as lip-smacking a masala-movie villain as we’ve seen. He orders vasectomies. His cronies clamp down on the press. He keeps the nation in a constant state of fear. Neil Nitin Mukesh plays the character smoothly, delivering his lines with pauses where he’s presumably swallowing his anger at his staff’s incompetence. And what lines they are. At one point, he punctures a minister’s (mild) rebellion by calling him a Tarzan who swings on the Prime Minister’s pallu-s. Indu is a poet, and dialogue-writer Sanjay Chhel runs with this conceit, imbuing the entire film with a now-lost theatricality.  “Haqlaate haqlaate haq maangne chali!” “Gusse mein badi taaqat hoti hai. Gussa bachake rakho.” “Jharna pahaadon se guzar ke bhi apna raasta nikaal leta hai.”

The storytelling is undeniably (and unsurprisingly) broad, but the masala treatment transforms what was simplistic and didactic in Bhandarkar’s earlier films into something touching, open-hearted, sentimental in a sweetly cornball style. I’m talking about the scene in the barbershop after we hear Kishore Kumar’s songs have been banned on the radio because the singer refused to perform at a function organised by higher-ups. An argument breaks out in the barbershop, and one man begins to sing a Kishore Kumar song, and everyone joins in. I don’t know if Bhandarkar has seen Casablanca, but the stretch is reminiscent of the La Marseillaise sequence, an impromptu marshalling of a sense of togetherness. The song is Aa chal ke tujhe, which dreams of a better place, a better tomorrow.

Kirti Kulhari is a major reason the film works to the extent it does. Her hushed performance is a tonal counterpoint to the filmmaking – even when the film is loud, she isn’t. She manages something miraculous – she almost transforms an archetype into a character. It takes a bit of extrapolation to buy into her transformation, but when an evil regime has taken away your home, the orphaned children you’ve come to look at as your own (Indu grew up an orphan too), your friend (a very moving Sheeba Chaddha), it’s not inconceivable that you rise in rebellion. It’s a shame that the score doesn’t trust her performance, nudging us constantly with cues about how to feel. The emotion on her face is all the background music we need.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi