(Actor Vinod Khanna died on 27 April 2017 after a reported battle with cancer. This article is being reposted from The Quint’s archives as a tribute to the veteran actor’s illustrious career. Ek Thi Rani Aisi Bhi, released in April 2017, was one of Vinod Khanna’s last on-screen appearances.)
“Journey of a queen from palace to people.”
Amid a slew of political decisions, UP CM Yogi Adityanath’s cabinet meeting this week took an unconventional decision. They passed a proposal to make Hema Malini-starrer Ek Thi Rani Aisi Bhi tax-free in Uttar Pradesh. The film, that was released on 21 April, was also made tax-free before its release in Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.
The much-delayed film is a biopic on the late Jan Sangh-BJP leader and Rajmata of Gwalior, Vijayaraje Scindia. Touted as the first commercially released film on a Sangh leader, the film is based on a biography of Vijayaraje Scindia by Goa Governor Mridula Sinha. The film stars BJP MPs Vinod Khanna and Hema Malini in lead roles, while Amruta Fadnavis (wife of Maharashtra CM, Devendra Fadnavis) has been roped in as the lead playback singer.
Who Was Vijayaraje Scindia?
Filming for the Gul Bahar Singh-directorial was reportedly completed in 2008 but the release of the film was delayed. The film ostensibly deals with Vijayaraje Scindia’s role in politics after the death of her husband, Maharaja of Gwalior, and her strained relationship with son, the late Congress leader Madhavrao Scindia. The political (and personal) highs and lows of her life lend themselves well to a Bollywood potboiler.
After winning on a Congress ticket in 1957, Scindia moved to the Swatantra Party for a brief while, before playing a foundational role in the Jan Sangh. During the Emergency, she was jailed by the Indira Gandhi government – this could be considered the flashpoint of the political conflict between her and her son.
Why Indian Cinema Shies Away From Political Biopics
Ek Rani Aisi Bhi Thi is interesting because biopics of political leaders — whether airbrushed, biased or factual — are few and far between in popular Hindi cinema.
For fear of political retribution or censorship, most representations on-screen of political leaders are coated in metaphors (like the 1977-film Kissa Kursi Ka) or attributed to non-political inspiration. (For instance, Ram Gopal Varma reportedly stated that his film Sarkar was not inspired on Bal Thackeray, but was inspired by The Godfather).
Those biopics which make it on screen are either cinematic paeans to the political pleader or cautiously controversy-free – there’s rarely any space for layered, contextual representation of complex personalities.
Additionally, most political biopics are restricted to freedom fighters and their role in the Indian Independence struggle, rarely attempting to represent contemporary politicians in India.
Here’s a look at how some political leaders have been represented in popular Indian cinema.
1. Gandhi (1982)
Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) is the gold standard in political biopics, with Ben Kingsley’s nuanced depiction of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi – arguably the most influential and complex political leader in contemporary India – winning him an Oscar for Best Actor.
2. Aandhi (1975)
Aandhi is the prime example of a popular Hindi film which was a biopic-that-isn’t-really-one. Directed by Gulzar, and starring Suchitra Sen and Sanjeev Kumar, the film was allegedly based on Indira Gandhi and her relationship with estranged husband Feroze Gandhi.
Despite Gulzar insisting that the film wasn’t based on Gandhi’s life but only Sen’s look was inspired by her, the film was not allowed to see the light of day during the Emergency in 1975. When the Janata Party came back into power, it cleared the film and Aandhi premiered on state-run television.
3. Sardar (1993)
Playwright Vijay Tendulkar wrote a biopic, titled Sardar, on the life of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The film featured Paresh Rawal as India’s first Home Minister.
Focusing on Patel’s role in the Quit India Movement and the complexity of unifying princely Indian states after Independence, the film sensitively deals with Patel’s conflict with Nehru.
4. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2004)
Shyam Benegal’s film on Subhash Chandra Bose, with Sachin Khedekar essaying the titular role, was critically acclaimed worldwide. The film focuses on Bose’s experiences in Germany and extensively documents the emergence of the Azad Hind Fauj.
5. Iruvar (1997)
Cinema and politics have always had a symbiotic relationship in India, especially so in Tamil Nadu politics. Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar, featuring Mohanlal, Prakash Raj and Aishwarya Rai, attempted to examine this relationship by narrating a story based on political icons MG Ramachandran, M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa.
6. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (1999)
Funded by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and the Government of Maharashtra, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in English and helped Mammootty bag the National Award for Best Actor.