• The Accidental Prime Minister: Modi’s Not-So-Accidental Attempt to Sway Political Fortunes in 2019

    Mani Chander and Kaustubh Chandra

    January 8, 2019

    After watching the trailer, several questions come to mind. In today’s atmosphere of hate and fear is it ‘anti-national’ only to speak against the current PM? How long can the truth be stretched before it becomes fiction? When the fundamental principles of freedom of expression and the right to dignity are pitted against each other, who wins?

    Artistic freedom or a case for defamation?

    The right to reputation is an integral part of the dignity of an individual, guaranteed by Article 21 of the Constitution of India. At the same time, Article 19(1) provides for freedom of speech and expression. This right to free speech, however, cannot be seen as a license to produce reckless content and tarnish another citizen's honour or reputation. Under Indian law, defamation laws are harder to enforce in the case of public officials (as compared to ordinary citizens) because public personalities are held to a greater standard of accountability. Therefore, content pertaining to public officials is not considered defamatory if the information is already available in the public domain.

    Vijaya Gutte, the director of The Accidental Prime Minister claims that the film is free from legal scrutiny on the following grounds: a) since the book came out in 2014, the events on which the film is based were already in public knowledge, and b) that the film is work of fiction. The recently released trailer of the film, however, figuratively presents a case for defamation.

    The film depicts Dr Manmohan Singh’s term of ten years, when, Sanjaya Baru’s book on which the film is based can testify only to his tenure as the media advisor, which lasted four-and-a-half years. So, if Baru was not a witness to the going-ons of the PM’s office after his term ended, the veracity of the facts presented cannot be considered without a question.

    Secondly, Baru was one amongst the many bureaucrats aiding Dr Singh and served only as a media advisor. Therefore, to claim that he was privy to all internal decisions of the Congress Party is grossly presumptive. In fact, when the book was released, Dr Singh had accused Baru of misusing a privileged position for commercial gains and alleged that the commentary smacked of the “coloured views of a former adviser.”

    Even though the trailer came with a disclaimer stating the film as purely fictitious, the ruling party was suspiciously prompt to share the trailer on its official Twitter handle, thereby gleefully endorsing the content.

    In this context, consider the Kerala High Court judgment in V. Subair v P.K. Sudhakaran (1987) CriLJ 736. The Court had observed that if a description was such that a reasonable person could decipher a reference to a particular person, it would suffice – even without specific or explicit reference – to constitute defamation. Upon a single glance at the film’s trailer, it becomes obvious who the characters represent. Yet, despite multiple compelling arguments for a case of defamation, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) has given a free pass for the release of the film’s trailer.

     In 2017, former CBFC Chief Pahlaj Nihalani had asked the makers of the film to obtain No Objection Certificates (NOC) from Dr Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and all the other real-life politicians who are part of the narrative 1. This is a standard procedure for films based on real-life characters. However, when director Gutte was asked about the same in an interview recently, he carefully dodged the question.The production house will be able to say whether the film has been submitted. Nihalani had made a public statement. We have not received any official statement,” he remarked. Anupam Kher, one of the lead actors has also confidently claimed that all legal formalities have been met, however, there is still nothing on record to show whether any NOCs were signed off by Congress leaders.

    Fueling Propaganda: A well-planned marketing campaign

    Even if one is to overlook the flagrant flouting of the disclaimer this trailer begins with, the timing of the trailer (and the film) is not just convenient but immaculately contrived. Right before the general elections of 2019, when the country goes to vote, here comes a slew of politically charged films custom made to influence the masses.

    A fervent ode to the BJP is coming to theatres on the same day as The Accidental PM. Uri is a film based on ‘true events’ of the surgical strike of 2016, publicising and glorifying an otherwise secret mission, which should be privy only to a select few defence personnel.

    Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister on which Gutte’s film is based was released in the run up-to-the general elections of 2014, inciting similar conversations but was left to simmer on a back burner. The film is now being released in four major languages, across 3,000 screens, to stir up a political cauldron. In a country where Bollywood is an immensely popular phenomenon, with film stars commanding the trust of the public, one can ascertain the magnitude of the impact of a film like this.

    CBFC: a parking ground for BJP’s favourites 

    The CBFC Board’s composition 1 is a testament to a well-planned and well-executed takeover by the party in power. It was strategically reconstituted in 2015 after the resignation of former chief Leela Samson, citing "political interference" as the reason for her exit. Her successor has unequivocally declared PM Modi his "action hero". Most of the current board members today are either functionaries and representatives of the BJP and its parent body, the RSS, or individuals who campaigned for Modi in the 2014 election. Moreover, as many as 47 of the 108 advisers appointed to the Delhi regional office of the CBFC by the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry belong to the BJP. As party loyalists call the shots on censorship, it is no surprise that the film The Accidental Prime Minister has received an unequivocal go-ahead for release.

    Not the first time BJP is releasing a film for political gains

    The film Aandhi released in February 1975, amidst controversy, that it was based on the life of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Some of the film's posters also hyped the similarity with statements like "See your Prime Minister on screen". Eventually, the film was given a go-ahead. After the release, stark similarities were noted in the dress and mannerisms of the protagonist Aarti Devi, played by Suchitra Sen. The film showcased scenes where Aarti Devi was smoking and drinking. Conceivably, the film was courting controversy and was eventually banned 26 weeks after its release. Curiously, a scene with Aarti Devi looking at the framed image of Indira Gandhi telling her father that she wants to serve India like Mrs Gandhi, "Woh meri ideal thi" (She was my ideal), was later inserted to avoid further controversy. After Indira Gandhi lost the general election of 1977 and the BJP came to power, it was re-released and shown on the state-run national television. All through the controversy, director Gulzar denied any connection with Indira Gandhi, however, it was only after she lost the national 1977 elections and Janata Party came to power, did he admit that the film was made with Indira Gandhi in mind. Retrospectively, it seems that history is repeating itself.

    Alas! …but it’s defamation if it hurts the BJP

    Recently, the BJP IT-Cell chief Amit Malvia took a dig at Congress, telling them to "stand up for artistic freedom". Films that explore political or social themes have often been put through the wringer by the BJP. In the past, the Sangh Parivar has rigorously objected to movies on the Gujarat killings of 2002 like Parzania, Chaand Bujh Gaya, and Firaaq, when the party’s own reputation was called into question.

    PM Modi's ruling party also came under fire for demanding cuts to a film that allegedly showed "anti-Modi hatred". A scene in the Tamil-language film Mersal shows a character delivering a fiery monologue in which he attacks the government's failure to cater to the needs of the people despite charging a national goods and services tax (GST) of up to 28 per cent. The scene sparked an uproar among members of the ruling BJP who called for it to be deleted from the film. H Raja, BJP's national secretary, said the film showcased "Vijay's anti-Modi hatred" as he countered the claims made in the movie. More recently, the film Padmaavat stirred up controversy as many BJP leaders accused the filmmaker of "distorting" history. Senior BJP leader Raj Purohit said, “You cannot take liberty with history. The film needs to be banned.”

    Despite the many compelling reasons for a case of defamation, the Congress party has taken a strong stand for the right to freedom of artistic expression and rejected the film as pure fiction. Perhaps, the trailer has already done the political damage it set out to do.

     1. a) Producer Pahlaj Nihalani was appointed as the censor board chief in 2015. Brother-in-law of Shatrughan Sinha, Pahlaj Nihalani also composed and directed the song “Har Ghar Modi” in the run-up to the May 2014 elections. Due to mounting public pressure and a row of controversies, he was replaced by Prasoon Joshi.
    b)Prasoon Joshi’s proximity to the BJP is also no secret. He has frequently worked on their political campaigns and it was he who came up with the iconic “Acche Din” catchphrase. Coincidentally, once Modi came to power, he was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, for his “contributions in the field of arts, literature and advertising.” After his appointment, Joshi publically revealed that he did not know how the CBFC functioned and that it takes time to understand the “whole process.” Joshi’s statements make one wonder on what basis the government considers someone worthy of being appointed to such a powerful post. This ambiguity gives these officials and advisory panels arbitrary powers to block films as they please.
    c)Another CBFC member, Mihir Bhuta was reportedly assisting NRI filmmaker Mitesh Patel in making a movie about Modi's journey from a common man to the chief minister of Gujarat.
    d)Jeevitha Rajashekhar is a Telugu actress and currently the BJP spokesperson of Telangana. In November 2014, Jeevitha was sentenced to two years imprisonment in a cheque bounce case. After getting bail, the actor claimed the case against her was false. This was, in fact, the third such case against her. During the 2014 elections, Jeevitha and her husband had also unveiled a song for Modi.
    e)Ramesh Patange, a Dalit leader and editor of Marathi Weekly ‘Vivek’, is an RSS ideologue. He is a founder member of the Samajik Samarasata Manch which is a social equality forum of the RSS.
    f)Another board member Vani Tripathi Tikoo is the national secretary of the BJP.

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    Mani Chander is a lawyer by profession. She is admitted to the New York State Bar and holds a Master’s degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, United States. She has a special interest in Constitutional law, policy, and politics.  Kaustubh Chandra is a film-maker, content creator, and social media manager for various organizations. She holds a Masters in Media and Cultural Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

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