Of all the things wrong about Madhur Bhandarkar’s vapid movie Indu Sarkar, two things stand out the most — the unbearably forced writing and the intolerable rigidity of its characters.
We’re told there is good and there is bad — the sarkar (government) is bad and those fighting against it are good. It can’t be ignored that the Congress government in 1975 did many gruesome things, the best known of which is, 42 years later, the Emergency and Sanjay Gandhi’s forced mass-sterilisation campaign.
But Indu Sarkar’s almost definitive portrayal of everyone in the government as evil and the rest of the world as innocuous makes you feel like you are watching a cartoon: Despicable Me: The Emergency Edition. (With apologies to Despicable Me which is rather great at exploring villainy) Political nuances be damned. Acuity in narrative be damned even more. Because, it isn’t about getting a nuance right as much as it is about having any nuance at all. (Bhandarkar fails to highlight why Emergency came about or the economic crisis in India during Emergency, thanks to the 1971 war with Pakistan. Everything is equally sketchy. Bhandarkar fleetingly mentions Jayaprakash Narayan with no context whatsoever.)
All this to say that in Indu Sarkar, Bhandarkar relapses in his addiction for black and white characters. Plus a sepia filter.
The protagonist Indu (played by Kirti Kulhari), is a woman who only wants to be an “acchi biwi” (good wife). Except, the acchi biwi goes on to become an acchi krantikari (good activist) during the Emergency of 1975. Indu fights the Emergency against another Indu — Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (played by Supriya Vinod). ‘While one daughter of the nation is destroying it, another one can redeem it’ is the central idea. It’s good Indu v/s bad Indu. Good Indu empowered, and no cookies for bad Indu.
Good Indu protects children who lost their homes and stands up to her government-employed husband, Naveen Sarkar. Bad Indu is razing down homes and stifling voices. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, makes a short but significant appearance. Even in the limited screen time provided to her, she is forced into the bad-girl stereotype by providing shots of her looking haughty and throwing in a sinister smile. Bhandarkar even tries to portray the 90s TV serial antagonist metaphor of ‘only villainous women wear sunglasses’ in a scene where Gandhi puts on her sunglasses while driving away to a rally.
“I am the flag-bearer of women-centric empowerment,” filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar has. But his movies usually focus on one type of woman — the seemingly strong innocent waiting to be misled and led astray. In Indu Sarkar too, his protagonist goes through a struggle of being misled by her husband before she finds her voice.
Bhandarkar’s female antagonists who actually do have power are also cruel and heartless. Like Kitu Gidwani’s character Anisha Roy, who runs a large modelling firm, in his largely successful if much giggled about film Fashion (2008). He failed to highlight any of Roy’s struggles or achievements, but what he did highlight was her outright selfishness and cruelty. Not that powerful women can’t be selfish or cruel. But are they only those? The only trope Bhandarkar uses to present his female antagonists (oh, and they’re almost always female) is evil with a side-dose of eyerolling and manic laughter.
This can be observed in Page 3 (2005) as well. Konkana Sen Sharma’s journalist character is the epitome of morality in a dark world, while the women she mingles with at parties are terrible. They walk through the disco-dimmed world of celebrities with ‘shadeless morals’ (to quote Atul Kulkarni in Page 3) and no colour, but that of well, evil. A la Cruel Intentions but with less sexual frisson.
I really hoped he’d abandon this unrealistic masala in his ‘realistic’ films with Heroine (2012). Just for a change, you know. Just for fashion. Because Heroine did have a protagonist with a little bit grey. Mahi (played by Kareena Kapoor) was headstrong, fierce and above all, ambitious to the point of madness. She would do anything to achieve her dreams and had no damns to give about the damage she caused on the way.
But what does Bhandarkar make her do in the end? Abandon her ambitions. Because even driven, headstrong and ambitious women at the end of the day, are still women — which means they can’t be trusted because they’ll do anything to win. If a woman seeks power, it comes across as disgusting and contemptuous. It’s Hillary Clinton all over again.
Bhandarkar seems to have a formula-generator for most of his films: Put a good-lead-woman and a bad-antagonist-woman, add some misconstrued representation and a sprinkling of chemical sex.
Although he’s skipped the misrepresented gay man out of Indu Sarkar (unlike his other movies — the male sex worker in Traffic Signal, the gay fashion designer in Fashion, or Konkona Sen Sharma’s friend, a make-up artist, in Page 3), he has plenty of other stereotypes to reinforce in this movie.
There’s the power-hungry government officer, Naveen, who overlooks ethics in pursuit of his dreams, and commits suicide when he realises his folly (perhaps for the first time, Bhandarkar shows that bad, ambitious men give up too). Another staple ingredient of the Bhandarkar stereotype is the constant and unnatural use of the term ‘activist log’ to describe activists fighting the Emergency. The usage is so forced, it almost incites a collective groan from the audience.
There’s also Farhana, a ‘bitchy’ political confidante of Chief AKA Sanjay Gandhi, played by Neil Nitin Mukesh. Of course, in the Bhandarkar world, any woman who is a political aspirant has to be portrayed with shades of cruelty? Not that she’s spared from some mockery herself. Chief remarks how she knows his government’s policies better than a Member of Parliament, ‘in spite of being a woman’. Eh?
Indu Sarkar, like many movies in Bhandarkar’s past, is trying to empower ladies log, using the ‘Madhur Bhandarkar Beti Bachao’ formula.
Except, only the goody-two-shoes protagonist qualifies for empowerment, the antagonists and secondary characters be damned. If his idea of ‘realistic’ is restrictive to an inflexible portrayal of women’s characters, then he is in need of a reality check.
As Bhandarkar abandons hopes for ladies log (again!) I’ve abandoned hope for him. Again.