Early in Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975), politician Aarti Devi (Suchitra Sen), faces the ire of the people:
Written by the director himself, composed by R D Burman, and sung by Mohammed Rafi, Amit Kumar, and Bhupinder, this is a qawwali with a political twist. On her way to a political meeting, Aarti finds that blockades have been set up in the road her cavalcade is supposed to take. Undeterred, she starts out on foot, accompanied by her party men. The montage of shots establishes that the area through which is walking is a working-class district of the town. A troupe of singers start following her, singing “Salaam kijiyealijanabaayehain/ yeh paanchsaalo ka deneyhisabaayehain. (Please salute big people are here / they have come to give an account of five years.) As the song comes to an end, things take a more violent turn, with stone-pelting on Aarti’s entourage, in which she is injured.
In their recent book, The Verdict: Decoding India’s Elections, senior journalist Prannoy Roy and pollster Dorab Sopariwala argue that the “first 25 years after India’s first election [in 1952]… can be best described as a period of… ‘pro-incumbency’.” They describe this period as the "honeymoon" phase, when most incumbents were likely to be re-elected by voters, optimistic about the future of a newly-independent nation. Thus, most politicians had no incentive to deliver on their election promises and would go “missing” from their constituencies for the five years till they sought re-election. This is what the song refers to in “paanchsaalo ka… hisab”. Though Aandhiwas released in this so-called “honeymoon” period, it still embodied the growing disillusionment of the voters that the Emergency (1975-1977) would aggravate.
The film’s history is also closely related to the Emergency. After being initially cleared by the government and released in February 1975, the film ran into trouble because of the similarities between Aarti Devi and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Promotional material for the film also courted controversy. Ziya Us Salam writes in The Hindu: “A poster in South India declared: ‘See your Prime Minister on screen’.” He adds that the similarities between Sen’s character and Gandhi were uncanny. “Suchitra Sen… wore saris in the manner which reminded people of the PM. Her hair had a streak of silver… Aarti… came across as an indomitable woman.”
In a recent interview with Saba Mahmood Bashir, Gulzar has denied that Gandhi was anything more than a reference for the character: “at the time it was not Indira Gandhi’s life story. But even today, there is no one like her, so she was the best persona to keep in mind. Accordingly, that was the reference one could offer to any actor — the way she used to walk, the way she used to descend a flight of stairs, the way she would come out of a helicopter.”
After running for more than 20 weeks in cinemas, the film was banned. Gulzar acknowledges that a scene involving Aarti drinking and smoking — used by Opposition leaders against Gandhi — was edited out. Another scene where Aarti looks at a picture of Gandhi and acknowledges her as an “ideal” was added. “They made us add that bit. They insisted,” he tells Bashir.
Both Gulzar and Salam acknowledge the indomitable, domineering character of Indira Gandhi. Over a few years, Gandhi went from being the goongigudiya(dumb doll) — the pejorative sobriquet was a gift from Opposition leader Ram Manohar Lohiya — to being in the only man in her Cabinet. One of her closest associates, Sharada Prasad described her in a letter as: “that unfathomable person we worked for”. On her way to the pinnacle of power, she outmanoeuvred the ambitious Morarji Desai, and took on the powerful Congress Syndicate, comprising then Congress President K Kamraj, Atulya Ghosh of West Bengal, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy of Andhra Pradesh, S Nijalingappa of Madras, S K Patil of Maharashtra, and Biju Patnaik of Orissa.
In Aandhi, Aarti is also the only woman in a world of men; in fact, she is the only female character in the film, surrounded by her father (Rehman), her husband (Sanjeev Kumar), the family loyal (Binda), the Opposition leader (Om Shivpuri), and members of her own party led by campaign manager Lallu Lal (Om Prakash). They all want to curtail her ambition or mould it to suit their purposes. Her father, industrialist-politician K Bose wants her to enter politics, not to serve the country, but to assist in his business. Her husband, hotel manager JK, once a “revolutionary”, does not want her to pursue a career in politics. “You are my wife, be my wife. Don’t try to be my husband,” he warns her. Even Binda advises her to curtail her wishes to suit her husband’s.
Lallu Lal has no scruples or principles; the ends justify the means for him. When the film starts, the audience is told that the Opposition has vandalised Aarti’s party offices. Lallu tells a colleague that he would not hesitate to respond in kind if it were not for Aarti’s Gandhian ethics. When she is injured in the stone-pelting, he waits for journalists to arrive before calling the doctors. In fact, one suspects that he might have orchestrated the troubles. (The Opposition leader Chandrasen denies having anything to do with it.) Later in the film, he provokes a riot at another politician’s rally by bribing the spectators.
He is also the first to detect that the relationship between JK and Aarti is more than one between a hotel manager and a special guest. Lal tells a party colleague that if the Opposition gets a whiff of this, there will a storm. While watching this film to write this column, I was reminded of another woman claiming to be a storm, a hurricane:
In Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) threatens to unleash such a storm that it will drown the Spanish Armada, gathering off the coast of England for an invasion. A powerful woman in the world of men is indeed like a hurricane, challenging the status quo.