Madhur Bhandarkar’s latest film Indu Sarkar is making the headlines. The Emergency-era drama has proved to be controversial for what the Congress is calling a sponsored effort about one of the darkest chapters of the party’s and the country’s history. Congress leader Jagdish Tytler has threatened the Page 3 and Fashion filmmaker with legal action for a character that appears to be based on him. Indu Sarkar, starring Kirti Kulhari, Supriya Vinod, Neil Nitin Mukesh and Anupam Kher, will be released on July 28.

Bhandarkar is unfazed by the controversy. He isn’t a “fly-by-night filmmaker”, here to make a movie at the bidding of a political party. “I was laughing when I read the news,” the 48-year-old filmmaker told “If it was a sponsored film, I would have had a big budget and a cast of big stars. I would have released the film before the 2019 elections or even before the recent elections in five states. Why would I release it now?”

Bhandarkar claims that he did not set out to make a “political” film. He describes Indu Sarkar as a “human story about a woman who stands up for her rights, against the backdrop of the Emergency”. He was keen to move away from his previous works, which are mostly social critiques of the media and the glamour industry, and are often described, as he points out, as “hard-hitting and realistic”.

The major driving force behind Indu Sarkar was Bhandarkar’s devotion to the 1970s. Growing up in that decade, the filmmaker was enamoured by the films of Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desai and the music of Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi. He was also drawn to the sartorial style of the decade, from groovy bell-bottoms to stylish side-locks.

However, the desire to educate audiences hasn’t left the filmmaker. If his previous films, including Page 3 (2005), Corporate (2006), and Fashion (2005) shone a light on the sordid happenings in the world of media and finance, Indu Sarkar is Bhandarkar’s attempt to help young India learn about an aspect of the country’s history that he said they know little about.

Indu Sarkar.

Indu Sarkar continues Bhandarkar’s tendency to tell a story through a female protagonist, this time Kriti Kulhari’s stammering poet Indu, who becomes involved with an underground movement against the Indira Gandhi regime and is mentored by a character played by Anupam Kher. The desire to highlight the woman’s point of view isn’t intentional, Bhandarkar said, but it is something he feels is his “comfort zone”.

Propelled by the desire to recreate the mood and tone of his favourite decade, Bhandarkar had initially wanted to shoot on location in Delhi. But after multiple visits to the capital, he realised that there had been too many changes to make a convincing version of ’70s Delhi. The movie that Bhandarkar describes as “30% real and 70% fictional” was ultimately shot on sets that recreated Chandni Chowk and Connaught Place, among other iconic Delhi locations.

The film was completed over a 42-day schedule, and research took around six months. Bhandarkar spent time at the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Library trying to gather information about the period and interviewed those who had experienced the horrors of the Emergency, such as forced sterilisation.

“It was like going back to the classroom,” Bhandarkar said. “It was lovely to relive the ’70s era.”

Indu Sarkar. Image credit: Bhandarkar Entertainment.

Bhandarkar has been vocal about where his political sympathies lie, but he denies that his rightwing leanings affect the stories he wants to tell. The individual is above politics, he said.

“I have friends in every political party,” Bhandarkar said. “Even though I may not agree with their ideology, I may like the person. My films have been liked by people of every political party and I have been invited to events by the Congress, BJP and even the Communist Party.”

The director disagrees that his new movie was a result of the critical and commercial failure of Calendar Girls (2015). Failure at the box office stopped affecting him after his first film, Trishakti (1999), bombed. The hardest part of his career came in the intervening year-and-a-half between his debut and Chandni Bar (2001), which was filled with struggle, he said.

Bhandarkar’s films have often ended up being moral science lectures rather than entertainers. The filmmaker demurs. “My films are not judgemental,” he said. “I show a mirror to society. I don’t offer solutions. I try to show the real, not the reel.”

Madhur Bhandarkar. Image credit: Twitter.