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Reconstructing Modi: Selfie to biopic

The movie on the PM has signalled his transition from index to icon, from news to myth, while his audience transformed from the fluidity of network to a more permanent community of fans14 Apr 2019 | 7:20 AM[ + read story ]

Shiv Visvanathan

Narendra Modi is a political leader who is perpetually centre stage. He is gossip, news, history, rumour, a creation and construct of the media industry. As a symbolic construct, he is effective. But even symbols have to follow the logic of mediums, obeying the laws of grammar. Media creates policy like second skin.

When Modi rose to power, he had to be created layer by layer. In the initial years, he was a mask, a hoarding, a hologram till he became the darling of social media. For a party that was immersed in 19th century, one needed some representation of modernity. The BJP needed someone who sounded contemporary, who could identify with the youth, be treated as part of latest fashion. To use the dominant idiom, one needed a politician who was constantly trending. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was there but he was more of a classic figure, a poet who belonged to the oral tradition. The poetics of Vajpayee did not quite suit Modi. He could not be portrayed as a classic. He could not be yesterday’s newspaper like LK Advani. He had to be instant news. Only the technology of social media fitted him. He could be as narcissistic as the latest selfie and be the latest darling. The tactic was clear. He had to be news and he had to be renewed as news every few hours. A selfie, which is out of date, is an oxymoron. Only social media could create an icon who could be erased and reinvented every day. The instability and fluidity suited the protean native of the politics between 2002 and 2010. Modi, like social media, had to be invented every minute. Like social media, Modi had to be renewed every minute between malleability, erasure, and the cosmetic of continuous make up a star was born, a star who thrived on news. 

Making of a legend

Rahul, Manmohan or Sonia look like chapters out of a dull Victorian novel while confronting the protean nature of the man. An aspirational man needs the carnivorousness of an aspirational media to become a leader. But once a leader arrives, he needs a different stability, a stature, a different sense of permanence. He has to have the fixity of a statue, a sense of both history and news. Social media, with its carnivorous hunger, does not fit the bill. One needs a different milieu for the man. There is also the possibility that social media could also unmake him. One needed a different sense of permanence. As Modi moves like a juggernaut to his second term, he needed to redo his self-portrait. He needed a self that was different. He required a distancing from the instantaneity of the selfie. 

Men in search of remakes either hit a cosmetic salon or appeal to Bollywood or cinema in general. Politics and cinema have reciprocity of a powerful kind. The DMK and other parties in the South created Jayalalithaa, MGR, NTR, out of the flesh of film. Films allowed you to combine history and myth, renew the symbolism of the man and his politics. Modi always had a touch of the filmi in him. He was both nautanki and filmi, to use local idioms. Modi’s theatrics was wasted on oral media. It needed to be recorded and relived. He had to transcend the ephemerality of news. He needed a touch of myth and history. He had to become folklore, not mere mass entertainment. The idea of making a film was strategically correct. Modi was not just being transformed into a biopic. He was signalling a transition in status from index to icon, from news to myth, while his audience  transformed from the fluidity of network to a more permanent community of fans. He moved from social media to recapture the public space of history, the permanence of a political statesman. As the movie itself announced, it was a “story of a billion people”. Bollywood is right. He wins because he is now a legend. The biopic claimed to be a “story of a legend”. 

Crisis of Bollywood

One must introduce a small caveat here. The crisis is not on Modi’s side. The crisis is on the side of Bollywood. The biopic is one genre Bollywood has not quite mastered. Bollywood transformed biographies into hagiography, into myth. History as fact, as a modest empiricism eludes Bollywood. It is at home in melodrama. Hagiography is second skin. 

A biopic is a mixed genre, it combines history and biography. It has a touch of fact, empiricism. A biopic allows for imaginative reconstruction but it is anchored in fact. A biopic can create a legend but without the nuts and bolts of biography. Facticity haunts a biopic as it strains to become legend. 

The sad fact is that biopics were never Bollywood’s forte. If you want to turn Modi, the patriarch, into an equivalent of Mother India, you cannot do it around facts. Facts are demanding. They restrict the imagination. Bollywood is good at making myths look like facts, not vice versa. The biopic is one genre Bollywood is atrocious at. The recent film on Savitri might be one of the exceptions. May be Farhan Akhtar’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag also makes the grade. One can possibly add Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s portrayal of Bal Thackeray. Otherwise biopics are quite inane. They provide neither credibility nor do they leap into the melodramatically incredulous. 

There is another problem. This is the idiot idea of casting Vivek Oberoi as Modi. Oberoi, in recent interviews, has complained that Bollywood has not rallied around the movie but this is because of his sense of misplaced controversy. Oberoi thinks the debate was about freedom of expression. He needs to look into the mirror. He is too weak-kneed to play Modi. No cosmetics of the world can turn Vivek into Narendra Modi. In the trailer, he mourns his beloved Gujarat burning as if he has failed a cookery class. Melodrama becomes spoof. Even Bollywood understands that Oberoi is a wrong choice. Bollywood’s sense of his limits might be the one bit of empiricism about the movie. 

A place in history

But a bad choice should not mislead us from sociological trends. Cinema and TV make more sense in the long run capturing fact and folklore than social media. Social media is devoted to the ephemerality of rumor. At best it can graduate to the permanence of gossip. The informational energy required to sustain social media is stupendous. There is ephemerality about each event. As a media, it does not quite suit the requirements of a man seeking the symbols of permanence and a place in history. 

TV and cinema can, however, create and sustain a Modi in power. A long ranging serial on Modi from ‘Pracharak’ and ‘Shakha’ days to CM and PM would have been perfect. TV would have made him an icon and cinema could have turned him into myth. The sociological choices would be correct. But there is a kind of poetic justice, an irony that the idea of biopic dawned on the weak-chinned Oberoi. He mutters his lines unconvincingly. What history took decades to create, he will destroy, in fact emasculate, in two hours. 

But the trends are clear. Modi has to appear as a double-edged figure, as myth and fantasy and as fact and history. One needs an adept symbolism for it. The cinema of the South understood this. MGR could play the rustic and proletarian and have the masses identify with him. NTR could play mythological with equal effect. Both their attempts had symbolic efficacy. Modi, when he began, was mask and hologram with stunning effect. He could have become a Bollywood classic. His filminess is genetic. He had to be made a myth, recounted as folklore. Sadly, at that moment, he is being presented as bad history. The RSS should hope these are rectifiable sins and wait for a new cultural construction of Modi like a graphic novel, a cartoon strip or a more believable movie. This will happen but in the meanwhile celebrating the slip between the cup and lip, one can share a laugh, a sense of irony as one watched a biopic that should not have been made. It shows history has its own way of tricking its heroes with a last laugh. 

Reconstructing Modi: Selfie to biopic
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