One of two recent contributions to the Narendra Modi personality cult missed its appointment with his devotees this week. The other one sneaked in without much fanfare.
On Thursday, the producers of the PM Narendra Modi announced that the release of the biopic has been postponed. Opposition parties said that the film would serve as a political informercial ahead of the general elections, violating the election code of conduct. But the day before, the first five episodes of the 10-part web series Modi Journey of a Common Man were quietly released by the Eros Now streaming platform.
It’s a canny act of ambush marketing, and, given the ground covered, nudges the Modi biopic towards redundancy. Directed by Umesh Shukla and written by Mihir Bhuta and Radhika Anand, the web series salutes Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. The episodes that are out examine Modi’s childhood, his formative years as an RSS member, and his involvement with the protests against the Emergency imposed by Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi between 1975 and ’77.
The first batch of episodes, each averaging 40 minutes, concludes with the lifting of the Emergency in ’77, with hints of major things to come.
The web series is an adaptation of Kishore Makwana’s 2015 hagiography Common Man’s PM – Narendra Modi. Despite attempts to project itself as a thoughtful and unbiased examination of Modi’s rise, the series paints a flattering portrait that doesn’t veer from the official record: the tea seller from a humble background who turned his back on family and marriage to selflessly serve the RSS, Gujarat and India. Although there is talk of Modi’s marriage, there is no sign just yet of his wife, Jashodaben.
The tone isn’t shrill, the performances are competent, and the tackiness minimal. The messaging is far more subtle than threatened by the trailer of the Modi biopic, but the aim is the same: to bolster Modi’s image as a colossus and ensure his place in history textbooks as the man who transformed India.
The propaganda extends beyond Modi to the Hindu right-wing organisation that has influenced his thinking and politics. The series emphasises that Modi’s feats, real or imagined, are grounded in RSS teachings. Modi is played by three actors at different stages in his life. Two feature in the first set of episodes. Faisal Khan plays the teenager who is seized by spiritual and nationalistic thoughts while running around in shorts. The shorts shrink in length and assume the distinctive cut and colour of the ones worn by RSS members as part of their uniform until recently.
The mainstreaming of the RSS extend to the deployment of its Sanskrit prayer Namaste Sada Vatsale in the background. RSS Gujarat leader Laxman Inamdar (Makarand Deshpande), one of Modi’s earliest champions, emerges as a surrogate father, providing the young man with direction when he appears to waver.
Not that Modi needs much outside help. The qualities attributed to Modi by his admirers – dynamism, street-smart intelligence, personal magnetism, service towards humanity, love for the armed forces, and ability to churn out aphorisms and slogans – are already on display when we meet him as a 25-year-old RSS member. As he participates in the underground protests against the Emergency, Modi (played by Ashish Sharma) lectures George Fernandes and Subramanian Swamy about the futility of violence (“Revolution is terrorism!”). He disguises himself as a Sikh and ferries out important papers from an RSS member in prison.
Modi’s talents are on display in a variety of situations. He holds his own when a sadhu tests him on his knowledge of Hinduism, and even finds a moral science lesson in an acquaintance’s dislike of popular Hindi film music (“Change is necessary – it is important to preserve the old and welcome the new.”)
Narendra, stop chewing my brains, says his exasperated elder brother (Jimit Trivedi) after receiving yet another sermon.
As Modi tirelessly, and, it sometimes appears, single-handedly, works to defeat the Emergency, the sloganeering gets more frequent and unironic. Declarations made within the realm of fiction and in the 1970s leach into reality and the present. These include, in no particular order: If we don’t protest, the government will oppress us. It is when the times are tense that you can gather your thoughts. Beware of people who sell you schemes and projects. For ideas to be converted into actions, people need symbols. Indira Gandhi cares about foreign opinion, and it is vital that news about the Emergency travels outside the country. Nobody should ever try to become a dictator again and act against the will of the people.
The impulse to release the first set of episodes merely days before the Lok Sabha polls might be short-term electoral gains, but the series has more a long-term goal in mind: the normalisation of the RSS, especially by citing its resistance to the Emergency, and the use of dramatic devices to soft-pedal Hindutva ideology and gloss over the organisation’s extremist views on minorities and India’s secular foundation. The viewpoint of the series is from the inside of an RSS shakha, where lies the solution to India’s problems, and Modi is depicted as one of its finest students.
The rest of the episodes, going by the trailer, are expected to cover Modi’s entry into the Bharatiya Janata Party, his stint as Gujarat chief minister, his controversial handling of the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, and his elevation as prime minister. “If we don’t choose Modi as our leader, the country will be angry,” a BJP politician says.
Timing has played a crucial role in Modi’s ascent. When will the rest of the series be released, we wonder?