Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi, who plays the incumbent Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his new film, seems to have taken a leaf from the subject that inspired his hagiographic biopic.
Just like how India’s most powerful and polarising leader declined questions at a historic news conference by journalists and passed the onus to his party president Amit Shah to field them, Oberoi did the same when Gulf News tabloid! posed this question: What was Oberoi thinking when he re-tweeted a sexist meme that drew parallels between the vagaries of exit polls and the men in his former girlfriend Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s personal life?
To put it in context, during the time of this telephone interview (9pm, UAE time on May 20 evening) Oberoi was yet to delete the problematic re-tweet of the meme or apologise for his offensive social media conduct that triggered a barrage of online criticism against the actor.
Our question was met with radio silence, and an unidentified voice plaintively protesting: “We are talking about the film only. Can you stick to that? … From morning, it’s unwanted things.” After probing whose voice it was on the other end, we realised it was the film’s publicist who was trying hard to orchestrate the interview.
Oberoi — who is known for his massive beef with Bollywood actor Salman Khan — seems to have copped out churlishly, but he seems to have transferred the burden to clean up his mess to his film’s publicist. Ironically, the actor was talking up freedom of expression and sharing his disappointment that there were forces at work to reduce his film as propaganda drivel, before being hit with this question.
“We have already spoken to ANI [press agency] and I will send you the link... From morning, it’s unwanted things. It is 11pm [9.30pm UAE time] and we are only talking about this since morning. Unwanted things, ho gaya [happened] and it’s done. What can you do now?” interjected the voice.
In an interview with ANI on the morning of May 20, Oberoi had defiantly justified the tweet saying if it had harmed anyone, the concerned party would have spoken up. He also took a swipe at Bollywood star Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, who had called him “disgusting and classless”, over his meme re-tweet. He hit back asking Kapoor Ahuja to “overact” less in her movies and on social media.
After lashing out with the media of his choice ANI, he apologised and deleted the objectionable post more than 12 hours after this fateful telephone interview.
“Even if one woman is offended by my reply to the meme, it calls for remedial action. Apologies. Tweet deleted,” posted Oberoi on Twitter.
While he ducked sticky questions about the controversial meme, Oberoi was game to answer questions pertaining to his film, out in the UAE on May 23.
The release of ‘PM Narendra Modi’, directed by Omung Kumar, was stalled in April when India’s Election Commission deemed that the biopic on an incumbent PM violated the Model Code of Conduct during Lok Sabha elections.
Excerpts from our interview with the fading actor, who is trying hard to resurrect his diminishing career in Bollywood, with this politically-charged biopic...
I have worked very hard for the transformation. When the project was announced, everybody said there’s no likeness between Vivek and Modiji. On my insistence, the prosthetics were made in India and we had multiple sessions. It was a challenging journey. I had to start shoot at 7am, but I had to wake up at midnight to start my make-up. It took more than six hours and I had to shoot all day.
Q: After a series of birthing troubles, are you happy that PM Narendra Modi is finally up for release?
A: Yes, finally it’s going to release after all the things we had to go through with the Election Commission. The funniest thing is that we shot the film in record time in 38 days. We were effective and efficient at shooting the film in record speed, but the Election Commission delayed the film by 40 days. The release took longer than the making of the film.
Q: When you signed up for a film like this, you must have known that the resistance is going to be strong. But did you expect people to call for its ban?
A: I expected to run into people who have their own perspectives. But I didn’t realise or expect that just like Modiji — who has a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) against him — there would be a mahagathbandhan against our film. We had people from every single political party and from the opposition party ranging from West Bengal to Tamil Nadu attacking our film and wanting to shut it down. Why are they against freedom of speech? It made me wonder what is their serious issue with snuffing our film? What were they scared of?
Q: Many fear that such a biopic during the Lok Sabha elections will be a propaganda film aimed to sway opinion and alter political leanings?
A: There’s a dialogue in our film which goes: ‘jis log ko brasht hai, un logon ko hi Modiji se kasht hai’ [Those who are corrupt alone have an issue with Modiji]. That’s what is happening today and everyone is scared of chowkidar ka danda [security guard’s wooden stick]. That’s our current scenario. But anyway, for all those who accuse us of being a propaganda film, it’s them who have a propaganda and they are ones who are trying cook up stories. But it all failed. None of it is true. Ours is an inspirational film.
If you are magically transported in a time machine taking you to the 1960s in a sleepy little station called Vadnagar where a small boy is serving chai [tea] in a small mitti ki kulhad [clay tumbler]. Imagine you are drinking that steaming chai and it hits you that this kid will one day become the prime minister of your country, rubbing shoulders with world leaders like the American president or the leader of Japan. This kid would be the one to stand up to China and Pakistan, and who smashes up terror attack... It’s an inspiring story of how a small boy from a tiny village made all of that happen. What amazes me is his incredible journey of this child selling tea in a railway station to becoming a Prime Minister, who’s a globally respected leader.
Q: Clearly, you are a big fan of Modi and you have always made clear your political leanings. Is that why you signed up for this film?
A: Most people accuse me of being a fan of Modiji. I am not a fan of Modiji, but I am a fan of his work since he was the chief minister of Gujarat. Back in the day when nobody knew about the benefits of solar energy, he was already doing it. Even when people warned him about the feasibility and cost, he said — trust me, it will be a fraction of the cost in future. That thought of clean energy was progressive.
Remember, he isn’t a man who studied in MIT or IIT or had a formal education in Cambridge or Harvard. He sold tea and he was so progressive. This is what I mean when I say I am a fan of his work. In 2014, everyone said there’s no Modi wave and in 2019 too, they are saying there’s a big anti-incumbency, anti-Modi wave too. But in my opinion, if 2014 was an election of anticipation, 2019 has been an election of appreciation. Our people have seen his work and it has touched huge swathes of really poor people in India. It has improved their lives in a huge way and the exit polls are projecting that.
Q: Biopics in Bollywood are often dismissed for glorying its subject. Has your biopic touched on dark chapters like the Godhra carnage [communal riots in Gujarat during Modi’s chief ministership] or the perceived fear felt by minorities?
A: It’s an interesting question. For me, a film is an emotional experience. You pick the narrative and the perspective of that narrative. Ours was very clear: it was going to be an inspirational story. It’s a story about the kid reaching the high office of a prime minister and what was his journey like? How did he get there? How did he get to a point that when he visits the UK or the US and large crowds chant his name. How did he create that? How did he become that person is what the film will dwell into.
When you talk about a person, you talk about the person and the struggles that they went through and how they have risen above those challenges. His critics and his enemies have been represented in this film, but the film is an inspirational film. Many accuse our film of being a white washed hagiography, but just google the reviews of Gandhi and it says it’s the greatest biopic by [Richard] Attenborough. Even then, some people accused him of deifying him and not talking about what kind of a father he was. At that time Attenborough responded: ‘you saw a bad father, I saw the father of the nation’ and that’s the difference.
Q: So are you saying that you are OK if your film is looked at as a fan boy tribute?
A: It’s not a fan boy tribute. It’s an inspirational story. A story that almost endorses that sometimes ‘fact is stranger than fiction’. If you see the journey of that kid and how far he has reached, why he took sanyas [self-exile] or joined RSS or what did RSS mean to him? What was he doing as a Sardar when emergency was declared in India? These are the interesting aspects that we have explored.
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‘PM Narendra Modi’ is out in the UAE on May 23.