Going by the rulebook

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

FS Aijazuddin

Take the British Royal Family. Until the 1950s, Lord Chamberlain’s Office prohibited the portrayal of any monarch on stage or on screen, unless 50 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 This stricture continued until Lord Chamberlain’s role as censor was withdrawn in 1968.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. NT Rama Rao became so indistinguishable from Lord Vishnu, Rama and Krishna that some devotees might have been forgiven for regarding him as the 11th 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 Asoka and Deepika Padukone’s Padmaavat have been confronted by mini-armies of critics. 

Interestingly, political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Pt 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 MA Jinnah. Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah (1998) unconsciously followed Lord Chamberlain’s rule and appeared 50 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, an ungenerous account of Dr Manmohan Singh’s years as India’s 13th Prime Minister. Audiences have paid good money to see the film. However, one can be sure if Dr Manmohan Singh is paid to see the film, 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.

Writer-director Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) was loosely based on Indira Gandhi’s life. He may have called his heroine Suchitra Sen ‘Aarti Devi’ but the white-streaked coiffure, the bordered white sarees, and her mannerisms were a piercing parallel, blunted by Gulzar’s discreet treatment of Mrs Gandhi’s vulnerable femininity. Aandhi, understandably, found no favour with Mrs Gandhi’s Congress. It needed a Janata Party government to permit its release.

For the 2019 elections, the 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 grandmother, she will follow her political script and style as well. Is it an admission that Rahul Gandhi cannot combat PM Modi on his own? We will know only when the closing credits scroll. 

— The writer is a Pakistan-based historian

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