Suchitra Sen Played A Complex Politician Before It Was En Vogue 

Before The Accidental Prime Minister caused an outrage, it was the 1975 film ‘Aandhi’ that ticked off the Congress.

4 min read
Aandhi (1975) poster used for representational purposes.

By ignoring The Accidental Prime Minister, the spokespersons and senior members of the Congress have attempted to expiate some part of the grand old party’s share of the sin of throttling free speech.

Suchitra Sen’s portrayal of a formidable woman politician in ‘Aandhi’ (1975) had after all, gotten the Congress rank and file twisted in an outrage-flavoured pretzel.

The film was banned after running successfully for around 20 weeks, since the protagonist Aarti Devi’s persona – with her crisp cotton sarees and streaks of silver – was too similar to Indira Gandhi for comfort. That Aarti Devi’s marital boat had been rocked by the choppy waters of realpolitik was, then, something of an anathema, to the morality of the Congress supporters.

Suchitra Sen’s Double Whammy As Indira Gandhi And Tarkeshwari Sinha

Audiences were too eager to find commonalities between the foreign-educated, fire-brand daughter of an influential businessman, wanting to make it big in politics, and the then prime minister Indira Gandhi. The maker of Aandhi, Gulzar, however, clarified later that the character of Aarti Devi was more inspired by Tarkeshwari Sinha.

Sinha was a Congress MP from Bihar, who Indira Gandhi is said to have deeply disliked. A young minister in Nehru’s cabinet, Sinha often engaged in friendly banter with Feroze Gandhi, and this was allegedly unacceptable to Indira.

Sinha worked as Morarji Desai’s deputy in the finance ministry, and the two shared a great personal rapport. The succession chaos that followed Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death saw Sinha siding with Desai, and quitting the Congress. Indira, it is said, never forgave her for the same, and ensured that Sinha never resurrected her political stature.

Aarti Devi of Aandhi, therefore, can now be retrospectively seen as a blend of Indira, and the woman she perhaps felt personally, if not politically, threatened by. A perfect case for psycho-analysis, Suchitra Sen’s true-to-the-core portrayal of Aarti Devi is a curious mix of single-minded resolve and acute vulnerability.

Suchitra Sen’s Spot-On Woman Politician Avatar

In this virtuoso performance, Suchitra Sen captured the binary of grit and nebulosity in a woman politician’s life. One scene that stands out in the film is when Aarti Devi spots her old caretaker Binda Kaka in the hotel she’s staying at. The pain of loss of a simple life, which was beautiful and unsatisfactory at the same time, is captured in Suchitra’s face. The same caretaker later tells her to not bother about domestic chores like tempering the dal, since the canvas of her duties has grown much bigger.

Suchitra’s portrayal of a conflicted-wife who loves her husband deeply and, in equal measure, agonises over his sometimes patriarchal, sometimes puerile ways, is as convincing as her shrewd politician avatar.

The Congress activists were irked by Suchitra’s competent emulation of Indira Gandhi’s measured gait and sartorial style. It was their fear that the portrayal of marital discord in Aandhi would tarnish the devi image of the prime minister. A woman politician can afford to unleash an era of suspension of civil liberties, can undermine all democratic institutions, but boy… dare she have an imperfect marriage!

Aarti Devi is accosted by voters during her election campaign and gets physically hurt when the mob gets violent. She’s unfazed. What she cannot deal with, however, is being seen in public with her lawfully-wedded husband. In the pre-internet era it was much easier to keep personal relationships out of the public eye. However, the struggles of an estranged wife, and a politician at that, go beyond the ordinary. An allegation of a stain on her veil can cost not only peace of mind, but also an election.

Suchitra, like Aarti Devi, was a woman in a man’s world. She knew the struggles.

Unlike Aarti Devi, however, she received whole-hearted support from her husband Dibanath Sen. Little is known about the Sens’ private world, but it is noteworthy that Dibanath passed away just before work on Aandhi began. The lament on Aarti Devi’s face owing to the loss of everyday joys of matrimony, could very well belong to Suchitra.

‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ Is Clearer in Intent Than ‘Aandhi’

Aandhi was marketed, with titillating posters and captions, as a peek into Indira Gandhi’s life – appealing to the voyeuristic tendencies of the Indian film-goers. The Accidental Prime Minister is clearer in its intent. Both, however, rested on the premise of determination of guilt. Laura Mulvey suggests in ‘Visual and Other Pleasures’, “Voyeurism has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt, asserting control and subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness.”

Voters and voyeurs, both like to punish. They can, however, be won over, during the climax.

Suchitra Sen’s ‘Aarti Devi’ emerges victorious in Aandhi but Indira Gandhi lost badly, though only to come back with a triumph after three years. Will the political fate of Manmohan Singh and the Congress, as depicted at the end of The Accidental Prime Minister, be similarly reversed in real life now?

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