Main Atal Hoon almost turns Indira Gandhi into a soap opera-style villain at one point and that’s the most uncomfortable part to sit through.
Pankaj Tripathi in Main Atal Hoon
Tracing the life of India’s sixth Prime Minister and one of the founding members of the Bhartiya Janta Party, late Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Main Atal Hoon explores his life through his childhood, youth, and as the man on the second most prestigious chair of the nation. The film is a walk through history and some very iconic milestones from it.
How difficult is it to make a biopic? Is it easy to look at a person in the center of your story and not give a side eye to the greys in and around him? Do films in India manage to do that? No, at least 90 percent of the time. Atal Bihari Vajpayee is one of the most revered Prime Ministers this country has seen. His politics was not religion-based even when he was surrounded by folks who knew nothing else. A figure who at one point was even a misfit in his clan because he was not just progressive but even diverse in his head. When one chooses to tell his story, do they mind shedding light on what was behind him? Well, not much.
Main Atal Hoon, written by Ravi Jadhav and Rishi Virmani, with no source material mentioned, is about a figure that was so intricately placed in the fabric of Indian politics that one cannot understand the nature of the world around him in one go. The movie chooses to build a hero over a human in the first scene itself. He is righteous, always the bright-eyed boy with all the attention, and he grows up into a visionary at a very young age, there is so much still to achieve but he is also extraordinary. Just like many other biopics, even here there is no room for us to meet the man behind the image. Even with a 2.5-hour runtime, he is still a personality and not a human brought alive.
So after the Babri Masjid demolition, when he is heartbroken because it is not the outcome he wanted, you meet him in a vulnerable moment and that stays with you because that is the only time you see the beating heart. After all, the rest is a prototype created by writers and directed by a person in a way. However, what the movie succeeds in, and thankfully so, is not making him the God and placing him amongst the living till the very end. There is also a random love story thrown at us with no detailing and brought back in the most fictional way only to lead to a confusing dynamic.
The fact that we have seen a living Prime Minister witness his half-baked biopic claiming things with no substantial evidence and creating a God out of himself makes Main Atal Hoon feel like some redemption. First, because the adorable and charismatic man Vajpayee ji was, and his absence, helps you connect more to this movie. From a wide angle, Main Atal Hoon works because he was probably the first and last BJP leader to talk of diversity and probably stand firmly on it. There is so much to see in his journey and understand. Even with the safe play, we can see how there were times he as a visionary was ahead of the people around him who were more interested in religious politics.
Talking of playing safe, Main Atal Hoon has it written all over it. The movie never wants to get into the parts that are controversial in this story. It shows a hint at how RSS was at the helm of controlling the Hindu-Muslim riots, how the Babri Demolition row broke, and what happened during the Emergency, but never really explores any one topic in detail. It never zooms into the situation to see the grey that also lies on their hands, rather it pushes everything bad on the opposition like in real life. At no point in the entire cinematic journey of our former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was she reduced to a villain with few words and a dead gaze as much as Main Atal Hoon.
The film almost turns Indira Gandhi into a soap opera-style villain at one point, and that’s the most uncomfortable part to sit through. Whether there are cinematic liberties or not is a conversation one can have with historians and the makers, but this liberty is visible even to the uninitiated. Pankaj Tripathi puts his heart and soul into the film and brings out the performance from his core. You can see an actor breaking his real self completely to create a character. But there is also overindulgence when it comes to enacting Vajpayee ji. Yes, the man in real used his hands a lot in his speeches and addresses, but he was also someone who had moments where he didn’t. Ravi Jadhav forgets to tell Pankaj to balance the hand gestures. Every single word has a hand movement like they are co-stars.
Add to that every single character that is based on real people feels caricatured at several points. Like they never turn into something big to be by the side of the central man. Rather they are at his service and that is their only existence. Ravi Jadhav as a director is content with surface-level drama, and depth and nuances are not something he is interested in. It shows.
Even with four music composers, Salim Sulaiman, Amit Raj, Payal Dev, and Kailash Kher on board, nothing about this music album is even close to era-appropriate barring a track sung by Piyush Mishra that comes early on in the movie. The choice of having voices like Jubin Nautiyal singing songs where their voices don’t suit the time the songs are set in is a bad decision, even when they are great singers. One of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s favorite musicians, Monty Sharma, does the background score and does it pretty well.
The release window of Main Atal Hoon does raise many questions that will give it a label it doesn’t want. Two days before the Ram Mandir Consecration, a week before Republic Day, and in the year that will witness Lok Sabha elections. Many will question this coincidence, and they deserve answers.
Main Atal Hoon is decent when it comes to just being a film, but it is not just a film, but a story of one of the most iconic visionaries this country saw, and that too in a setup so sensitive and politically charged.