The characters in Indu Sarkar are either all good or all bad; there is no middle-ground here.
Madhur Bhandarkar has a no-frills approach to naming his films. Barring a few exceptions, his films’ titles follow a fixed pattern. Consider some of them. A drama set in the world of industrialists: Corporate. A film about the fashion industry: Fashion. A film about an actress (and ultimately Bollywood): Heroine. There are more: Jail, Traffic Signal, Calendar Girls. His latest, however, steps out of that mould. A political drama set in the 1970s during the time of an Emergency rule, this film, quite surprisingly, isn’t called Emergency or, well, ‘Politics’. It’s called Indu Sarkar. But anyone with a cursory knowledge or interest in Indian politics would know what the title is referring to. Sarkar is government and Indu was the pet name of a former Indian prime minister. Combine the two and you have a roundabout way of saying “Emergency”.
It’s easy to empathise with Bhandarkar here, for he’s playing safe. Bollywood’s not known for making political films and when it does, they court controversies. So it’s not surprising that Bollywood filmmakers shy away from politics. But Bhandarkar wants to change that. Although his latest begins with a customary disclaimer, “All characters and incidents portrayed in the film are fictional”, the imprints of Indira Gandhi’s 21-month Emergency rule are all over the film. After the disclaimer gets over, the title on the screen reads “1975: Emergency”, followed by a shot of the famous blank editorial in the Indian Express. Indu Sarkar’s antagonist, Chief (Neil Nitin Mukesh), a hotheaded dictatorial man running the country from his home, is clearly based on Sanjay Gandhi. The film references his “five-point programme”. There are scenes on forced sterilisation and the demolition at Turkman Gate. There’s a mention of “MISA” (Maintenance of Internal Security Act). India’s prime minister in the film (Supriya Vinod) is modelled on Indira. Although no real names are taken, Bhandarkar’s intentions are clear.
And these intentions, right at the outset, are fine: to examine a particularly dark period in the world’s biggest democracy, where the country wasn’t run as much as it was ruled. A period that saw tyranny, censorship and suspension of civil rights. It’s not difficult to see a director getting interested in such a story. But the problem with Indu Sarkar is not the subject; it’s the filmmaker. In fact, going by his filmography, the word “voyeur” befits Bhandarkar better than “director”. Because Bhandkarkar doesn’t make films as much as he enters a milieu (for instance, the world of journalists, models or actors) and distorts it completely, robbing it of complexities, reducing its people to caricatures, presenting a simplistic version of their lives. Bhandarkar’s films blur the lines between newspaper headlines and screenplays. Dealing in stereotypes and crass generalisations, his films do more harm than good – more so because they’re presented as ‘real’. And an unsuspecting audience member – as much a voyeur as the filmmaker himself – comes out of the film convinced that she’s seen something important. Indu Sarkar suffers from the same problem.
The film’s protagonist, Indu Sarkar (Kirti Kulhari; fine performance), is a young woman interested in poetry. Indu, however, also stammers and is an orphan. And given that this is a Bhandarkar film, there are no middle grounds here. There are only camps, which divide people into two groups: good and bad. Indu grew up in an orphanage, and her stammering denied her foster parents. Whenever she spoke, or halted during her speech, the couple interested in adopting her got disinterested and left. Later, as an adult, she is similarly and summarily rejected by men for the same reason. These scenes are so heavy-handed and simplistic (depicting everyone other than Indu as ‘Evil’) that they elicit not pathos but laughter. Indu Sarkar starts losing the plot and continues in the same vein, even before the politics has kicked in.
Indu eventually gets married to Navin Sarkar (Tota Roy Chowdhury), who works for the Union minister, who works for Chief. It’s not difficult to connect the dots. If you’ve seen a few Bhandarkar films, you’ll know what direction the screenplay will take. Navin is ambitious (Bollywood’s shorthand for corrupt); Indu is simple (Bollywood’s shorthand for noble). So it’s only a matter of time before they separate. They of course do, but through a subplot, involving two kids in the Turkman Gate demolition, that is so single-mindedly manipulative that it tunes you out of the film. In several scenes involving the kids and Indu, the sound of a flute swells in the background, nudging you hard to care about the pathos on screen. It doesn’t work. Elsewhere too, Indu Sarkar unfolds less like a film and more like a bullet-point essay on the perils of Emergency. There’re random characters, popping up in scenes, talking about how the government has censored the press, curbed civil rights, even banned Kishore Kumar from the All India Radio. Evil elements in the film, according to Chief’s cohorts, are called “Naxalites”, “anti-nationals”, “activists” – these empty labels, adding nothing to our understanding of Emergency, litter Indu Sarkar.
Good films make you want to root for the protagonist; shoddy films make you feel bad for her. Bhandarkar is so fixated on depicting Indu as the embodiment of everything good and oppressed that it borders on the ludicrous. Indu stammers; her husband is sexist and callous; she gets beaten up in lock-up; she only wants to “search for the kids’ parents”. At some point, Bhandarkar even tries to make this a feminist drama, and this note too, like everything else in the film, rings disingenuous and hollow. It’s a little too much, even by Bhandarkar’s standards.
Indu Sarkar has such shoddy filmmaking and writing that you can almost imagine Bhandarkar checking off a list as the film goes on, introducing characters, setting up conflicts. This film is so one-dimensional, mirthless and lacking in nuance that it’s difficult to seriously engage with it. Storytelling, in essence, is an act of responsibility, for it helps plug the gaps in our understanding of people, milieus, events. But Bhandarkar, who fundamentally fails to understand human beings and relationships, is oblivious to it. Indu Sarkar tells us less about the Emergency and more about a grown man’s boyish insecurity and superiority. It’s unfortunate that those tendencies, in this film, are not its villain’s but Bhandarkar’s.