History will be kinder to me than the media, Dr Manmohan Singh had said towards the end of his decade-long stint as Prime Minister of India. Months later, as his party was comprehensively voted out of power, his prediction could not have sounded more like a prayer. Luckily for Dr Singh, by 2019, 'history' has already arrived in the shape of The Accidental Prime Minister - a film with almost unrivalled potential for being politicised seeing as how it gives no quarter when it comes to depicting the netas we all now know like the back of our hands. Because of this, the biggest question you're asking yourself as it begins rolling is 'What is this really and how many grains of salt do I take it with?' Let's find out.
We've heard this story. The Congress has come up trumps in the 2004 elections - people think Sonia Gandhi will become Prime Minister. The scenes of jubilation (Congress workers) are from real-life footage. It's immediately familiar and then suddenly, as we transition to the make-believe, there's a positive explosion of guesswork! 'That's Chidambaram... That's Pranab Mukherjee... Is that Ghulam Nabi Azad?', are some of the things you are likely to think and hear from the seats around you. It's a super-charged start, powered by Sonia Gandhi's flawless accent. Rahul Gandhi is there as well, seemingly winging it even as his sister Priyanka delivers more measured responses as their mother decides Manmohan Singh will be PM. And then the term begins...
Perhaps because we've seen so much of Anupam Kher as Manmohan Singh in the pre-release promotional material it's possible to immediately move beyond the superficial look-and-feel and peer into the qualities of the character he's portraying, as well as his surroundings. Whether or not Manmohan Singh was an 'accidental' Prime Minister, what's clear is that he's got a whiff of confidence about him - it comes from having served and delivered in key roles across the executive branch of the government, which the film depicts via a walk down the memory lane that is South Block. His office is perhaps a little too gilded and ornate but it's pleasing on the eye - as are sets through the film.
Things really begin to take off when Sanjaya Baru (Akshaye Khanna) and Ahmed Patel (Vipin Sharma) arrive and the politicking begins. As it turns out, it wasn't the Opposition parties on which the then PM was forced to keep an eye on, as much as it was his own party-members, alliance partners and PMO bureaucrats. The turf war explainers are done by liberally breaking the fourth wall - essentially making Akshaye Khanna's character the real lynchpin of the film. He's the PM's man, whereas Ahmed Patel, who is just a touch more 'politician' than other politicians is there to uphold the primacy of the party and Sonia Gandhi. Their exchanges remain a frequent motif.
Given that the story spans about a decade, pacing was always going to be key, and that's where The Accidental Prime Minister first stumbles. Across the first two jumps - to the 100-day mark of the UPA-1 government and then to 2007 - there's little effort made to explain what exactly is going on. Politics may be intrinsically deft and the source material backed by real history, but it's too much to ask the audience to by themselves grasp the significance of some letter leak or the criticality of the nuclear deal they keep harping on about. Sometimes, you just want someone to raise a dramatic cry of 'Mandir Wahin Banega', or something else that strikes an emotional chord. All this makes the absence of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack (apart from a fleeting and nebulous mention) a glaring miss.
From the bright and promising start, one can't help but feel let down when the film devolves into a tale of the PM and his media advisor's relationship. Admittedly, these are some of the best scenes in the piece - mostly due to Dr Manmohan Singh's highly underrated comedic chops - but Akshaye Khanna strutting around with a confident grin is overkill, and as the second half moseys along, you're left wondering what the peg of the story is, even though in truth you know exactly what's going to happen.
The Accidental Prime Minister is not a political thriller or a propaganda film. It's actually an honest (and kind, to fulfill Dr Manmohan Singh's prophecy) attempt to depict the Prime Minister-ship of what is made out to be a very likeable man who hides a steely resolve beneath a wispy exterior. While the acting is superlative and some of the exchanges - between Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, with his wife Gursharan Kaur, involving Rahul Gandhi, between Sanjaya Baru and Ahmed Patel, are delightful, something keeps it from all coming together cohesively.
What works: The actors who play some of the politicians are fantastic, the montages of historical footage give it a political pulse, the background score - essentially one which makes matters light and palatable and another which is for more sombre occasions.
What doesn't: Ultimately, the makers are unable to decide whether to make the second half about the relationship or the outcome. In years to come, as the events of Dr Manmohan Singh's tenure cease to be so top-of-mind, they may also rue not adding more detail to the narrative.