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What Bollywood Can Teach PM Modi: No More ‘Mr Chaiwallah’

Audiences don’t like to be taken for granted, Mr Prime Minister. Your ‘chaiwallah’ image needs an overhaul!

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Audiences don’t like to be taken for granted, Mr Prime Minister. Your ‘chaiwallah’ image needs an overhaul!

Director Ramesh Sippy released Shaan, five years after breaking box office records with Sholay (1975). The two films had much in common. High production standards, top marquee names, crackling dialogue and, notably, a solid storyline.

Not only did both films feature ‘cute’, small-time crooks teaming up to take on an uber-cool villain, they also gave a fair amount of screentime to a tragic father figure, a steely widow and a disabled battler. But Shaan tanked, with Ramgarh’s dustbowl setting proving to be a better setting for Sippy’s formula than metropolitan Bombay.

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Sippy bounced back with the intense father-son conflict drama Shakti (1982), but unlike him, several Bollywood luminaries have persisted with the tried-and-tested, to the detriment of their careers.

Manmohan Desai’s lost-and-found tales didn’t quite click after Amar Akbar Anthony, Ram Gopal Verma’s explorations of the political underbelly and the underworld have become tiresome with time, and David Dhawan lost his funny bone a long time ago.

Actors from the great Dev Anand to Bollywood’s first superstar, Rajesh Khanna, to Mithun Chakraborty, flogged their screen personae and mannerisms till they were reduced to disappointing caricatures of themselves.

Clearly, no public pitch, however successful, remains fresh and winsome forever; and, in replaying it time and again, its peddlers risk coming across as repetitive and over-reaching – even dishonest.

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No More ‘Chaiwallah’

Given the sharply different enthusiasm levels and results that his campaigns in 2014 and 2017 Gujarat have evoked, it is a lesson Prime Minister Narendra Modi would do well to imbibe.

Cheerleaders may lead us to believe otherwise, but the fact of the matter is that Modi’s Gujarat campaign did not give his party the expected boost, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s tally remained pretty much in the zone most polls had predicted before Modi’s final push.

Presenting himself as a humble chaiwallah worked for Modi in 2014, when public anger had peaked against a government perceived to be steered by the entitled and out of touch with ground realities. In 2017, with the chaiwallah speaking from the prime ministerial perch, while tales of his imperial streak swirl below, it did not carry the same resonance.

When Modi spoke of vikas and external security threats in 2014, it was as a man of action bearing the promise of acche din and a muscular assertion of nationalism. In Gujarat, his reflections on vikas and security issues centered around how the Congress had forever sabotaged Gujarat’s development and was now joining hands with Pakistan to deny the BJP an election win in the state.

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Context Matters, Mr Modi

The action hero still spoke in thunderous tones. However, in painting himself as a conspiracy victim, he came across as calculated – reminiscent of romantic heroes who overdid the head tilt and crinkle-eyed smile.

In 2014, the holograms and chai pe charchas, besides being innovative campaign tactics, signaled a leader open to embracing new ideas. It was an important signal in a contest, where Modi and the BJP were supposed to be challenging status-quoists.

The context has changed since, with the BJP showing remarkable tolerance for all sorts of regressive positions and the Modi sarkar’s most ambitious policy initiatives turning out to be ill-conceived. The result? The PM’s seaplane ride in Gujarat smacked of gimmickry – the equivalent of shoring a soulless superhero film with special effects.

In the overall scheme of things, Modi appears to be making the same mistake as Sippy did with Shaan – assuming that throwing a previously tested set of ingredients into the mix – in Modi’s case, the chaiwallah background, nationalist credentials and trenchant language against the Congress – can capture the essential spirit of a winning narrative.

The realisation that context matters, tastes change, and audiences do not like being taken for granted has not sunk in.

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Modi’s ‘Shakti’ Test

In 2014, Modi spoke from an anti-establishment pulpit and had an unpopular dispensation at his crosshairs. This gave his utterances a certain heft and allowed him to get away with several tall claims and coarse remarks. In Gujarat, when his shrill speeches from the top of the establishment came amid little evidence of acche din on ground, he opened himself to charges of manipulative intent and conduct unbecoming of the office he holds.

Luckily for Modi, audience fatigue with bombastic film dialogue has not spilled into the political domain. Yet.

The BJP’s entrenchment in Gujarat and generally well-oiled election machinery, together with whatever Modi had left in the tank in his home state, have seen the party through in Gujarat. However, that may just be the flicker of a candle in a safe sanctuary while a wind gathers momentum outside the citadel walls – unless Modi junks a strategy of diminishing returns and re-engages India differently and honestly. Call it his Shakti test if you will.

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(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer and can be contacted @ManishDubey1972. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Ramesh Sippy   Sholay   PM Narendra Modi 

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