The author is a senior journalist of more than 30 years of experience. He has worked for The Telegraph and The Sunday Indian and other news organisations. He specialises in sports and film journalism
On both sides of the Atlantic, filmmakers have long seen politics as a fair game. American and European screenwriters/directors frequently probe the lives and times of politicians, monarchs and revolutionaries – real and fictional, contemporary and historical – with varying degrees of critical success. From Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) to Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) to Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) to Justin Chadwick’s Mandela – Long Walk to Freedom (2013), Western cinema has over the decades produced many iconic films about political legends and historical watersheds.
In contrast, filmmakers in India are, as a rule, exceedingly cautious when it comes to dealing with historically influential personages and events. While the likes of Shyam Benegal (The Making of the Mahatma, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero), Jabbar Patel (Ambedkar) and Ketan Mehta (Sardar) have had decent cracks at historical biopics, Hindi film directors of the more escapist kind prefer to steer clear of stories of venerated leaders of the freedom struggle, a fact that leaves Indian cinema that much the poorer.
That apart, mainstream Mumbai filmmakers tend to shy away from touchy contemporary political themes, except in cases where a celebratory mode takes the place of candid, dispassionate exploration or ground realities or where broad sweeps of the brush are cavalierly employed to temper any suggestion of intense scrutiny – a clear fallout of the wobbly nature of the subcontinent’s censorship processes.
Queens and Kings
But the United Kingdom is another world.Royalty has forever provided narrative grist to British directors, with both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II figuring in a host of celebrated films. Dame Judi Dench has been a big-screen Queen Victoria on numerous occasions, most notably in Mrs Brown (1997), for which she received an Oscar nomination, and the more recent and less acclaimed Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears. Twenty years later, for her role as Elizabeth I in John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), Dench won an Oscar in the Supporting Actress category.
The redoubtable Helen Mirren took home an Academy Award for her performance in Stephen Frears’ The Queen (2006), a fictional film that delved into the conflicted responses of the royal family and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen) to the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris on August 31, 1997. In 2013, the Princess of Wales got a film of her own. Titled Diana and directed by German filmmaker Oliver Hirschbiegel, it focused on the last two years of her life. Diana was played by Anglo-Australian actress Naomi Watts.
Versatile Australian actress Cate Blanchett, too, stamped her undeniable class on Shekhar Kapur’s lively period epic Elizabeth (1998). Her stunning performance in the critically lauded blockbuster fetched her a richly deserved Oscar nomination.
In Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave, two of the UK’s greatest-ever screen performers, played Elizabeth I and the titular character respectively and, in a fictional narrative, met each other although historically they never had a face-t0-face encounter.
Liberties with history are par for the course for such films as are unfettered inquisitions into the personal aspects of rarefied royal lives. Filmmakers are allowed the leeway in the West to tell the stories they want to and in the manner they deem fit.
It is not as if the male monarchs of England have got the short shrift from filmmakers. Henry VIII was at the heart of Fred Zinneman’s widely acclaimed A Man for All Seasons (1966), Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Charles Jarrott’s Anne of a Thousand Days (1969). It fell upon the gifted Colin Firth to bring George VI alive in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010), about a would-be monarch with a speech impairment, while Nigel Hawthorne made for a wonderful King George III in The Madness of King George (1994). The list of ‘royal’ films is endless and full of cinematic riches and top-draw performances. But they certainly aren’t all there is to the cinema about history and politics.
Away from the pomp and pageantry of royalty, as recently as this year, director Joe Wright made Darkest Hour, a superbly crafted film in which Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in the early years of his premiership as Adolf Hitler closes in on Britain during World War II.
In fact, 2017 has been a rather productive year for ‘political’ films in the UK and elsewhere. Scottish director Armando Iannucci recently made The Death of Stalin, a French-British production that takes a satirical look at the power struggles that the demise of the Russian dictator in 1953 triggered among his closest aides. The film is based on the French graphic novel, La Mort de Staline.
Another of 2017’s well-received political dramas is Haitian director Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx, which depicts the friendship between Marx and Friedrich Engels and how it influenced the writing of The Communist Manifesto. The film has German star August Diehl in the role of Karl Marx.
Also right up there among the best as a scrupulously crafted piece of history is John Curran’s Chappaquiddick, a reenactment of the 1969 car accident that claimed the life of a young campaign strategist and derailed the life and political career of Ted Kennedy. The American film premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
American cinema is replete with accounts of fictional and real-life political creatures negotiating the demands of statecraft. Who else but the combative Oliver Stone who would be in the forefront of such films? The maker of the battle drama Platoon, the biopic Born on the Fourth of July and the Salvadoran Civil War-centric Salvador has to his credit the contentious American Presidency trilogy – JFK (1991), Nixon (1995) and W (2008), on the life of George W Bush. Stone routinely turns the spotlight on political issues of the day – as he did in his last film Snowden (2016) – and often provokes and unsettles fans and sceptics alike.
One of the earliest Hollywood films to hinge on the ramifications of the ruthless pursuit of power was Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane, but the first all-out political drama was the humour-laced Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a Frank Capra-directed film about a newly elected US Senator who finds himself up against a corrupt system.
In 1949, Robert Rossen made the very fine All the King’s Men, an adaptation of Arthur Penn Warren’s novel of the same name, about an ambitious politician Willie Stark, who thinks nothing of resorting to questionable methods to get his way. He rises from a rural county seat to the office of the governor of the state. Broderick Crawford won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Willie Stark. The story was inspired by the career of Louisiana governor Huey Long.
In 1962, Otto Preminger directed Advise & Consent, a neo-noir film adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Senate investigation into the appointment of the Secretary of State, which threatens to unravel all the secrets from the past and ruin the candidate’s chance of continuation in the covetted office.
In 1964 came John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, in which a military cabal plots the overthrow of the US President in response to the latter’s negotiations for a nuclear disarmament agreement. Based on a novel of the same title, the film starred Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Ava Gardner. Fredric March was cast as a fictional US President.
The same year, Franklin J. Schaffner directed The Best Man, from Gore Vidal’s screen adaptation of his own play. Starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson, the film told the story of two frontrunners for their party’s presidential nomination who vie for the endorsement of the former President.
Hollywood has since continued to churn out political dramas and satires, most of them couched in fictional constructs. Among these films is Mike Nichols’ 1998 drama Primary Colors, which presents a fictionalised take on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992. John Travolta played governor of Arkansas and later President of the US Jack Stanton. Emma Thompson essayed the role of the FLOTUS.
At one end of this Hollywood spectrum are films such as The Distinguished Gentleman, starring Eddie Murphy who exploits the similarity of his name with that of a recently deceased longtime Congressman to make a bid for a Congress seat, and Alexander Payne’s Election (1999), a black comedy that satirizes an election in a school. At the other end are George Clooney’s The Ides of March (2011), Rod Lurie’s The Contender (2000) and Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1972), among many other titles.
On the continent, too, especially in Italy and France, filmmakers have often conjured up lively, intriguing tales centred on the wayward ways of contemporary politicians. Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino is currently working on a film titled Loro, about the controversial media tycoon-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi. The role of the former premier is played by Toni Sorvillo, who also portrayed the post-war, seven-time Italian PM Giulio Andreotti in Sorrentino’s highly entertaining Il Divo (2008).
In 2oo6, another Italian director Nanni Moretti, also a well-known actor, made The Caiman, a stinging satire in which a washed-up low-grade director is recruited to make a film on Berlusconi. The Caiman, which tore into the behavioural inconsistencies of the then Italian premier, was released just ahead of the 2006 election, which Berlusconi lost. Moretti himself played Berlusconi in the film.
French filmmakers, too, have had their brushes with politicos on the big screen. Most notable among them is Xavier Durringer, director of the 2011 Nicolas Sarkozy biopic La Conqete (The Conquest), which followed the rise to power of right-leaning politician over a six-year period. This was, of course, the first-ever film made in France about a sitting president.
Veteran Gallic director Bertrand Tavernier ventured into the political sphere with The French Minister (2013), which takes a comedic look at the foreign ministry in Paris under Dominique de Villepin and then assumes more serious overtones as France, supported by Germany, opposes the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Last Mitterrand (2005), directed by Robert Guediguian, depicts the final period in the life of a President who remains unnamed although the English title of the film made it obvious who the film was about. The Last Mitterrand was based on a 1997 book by a journalist who had frequently accompanied the French leader during the last 1,000 days of his presidency but the account was disowned by the politician’s family and even the owner of the small magazine where the scribe worked.
Arguably the most ambitious and precise biopic ever made, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a class apart. A captivating take on the last four months of the tenure of America’s 16th and most hallowed President, the film yields storytelling at its finest.
Lincoln, scripted by playwright Tony Kushner, is a complex, austere tale drawn from the pages of American history, but it is crafted in a manner that is deeply affecting and highly entertaining. It is a lively story crammed with finely-etched characters, enlivened with doses of humour and tension, and informed with dignity and restraint.
The film is an adaptation of a single chapter in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s monumental tome, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”. It is an engrossing political drama that centres on the passing of the 13th Amendment and the consequent end of the Civil War.
Lincoln is an outstanding film because it takes the generalities of history and turns them into elements of a compelling story. The experiment works primarily because what it results in remains accessible all the way through.
So what we get is an impressive screen character, a real man of extraordinary acumen and foresight, an exceptional individual capable of seeing the interests of the nation and its people with absolute clarity and acting upon the need of the hour.
In Spielberg’s vision, Lincoln is a heroic figure all right, but he is always demonstrably human. Daniel Day-Lewis, in the role of Abraham Lincoln, never ceases to be breathtaking such is the control and power of his performance. He does not merely play Lincoln. He is Lincoln.
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