More than a biopic, Pankaj Tripathi and director Ravi Jadhav respect the principles, the democratic values that the great man stood for in his life.
Rating: (3.5 / 5)
By Mayur Lookhar
PM, poet, statesman, gentleman. The Main Atal Hoon  trailer addressed their protagonist in this order. We felt that was incorrect. Unless you are a gentleman, you’re unlikely to be a poet. An uncouth can become a politician, but only a gentleman like Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee can be a statesman and respected Prime Minister of the country.
The late Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray was an admirer of Vajpayee, but he’d also once famously remarked that poets have soft hearts which perhaps doesn’t make them tough leaders. Hey, but it was his words that made Vajpayee such a tall and respected leader, a three-time Prime Minister of India. He fell in love with poetry at an early age and the words just didn’t stop. The long journey began in the Pre-Independence era where he first worked as editor of a humble daily, then joining the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh before taking the plunge into the messy world of Indian politics. If he had a soft heart, Vajpayee wouldn’t have graciously accepted many electoral defeats.
Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ravi Jadhav, Main Atal Hoon  isn’t really about the man, but it aims to celebrate the principles, values of patriotism, democracy that the great man stood for all his life. The film’s disclaimer, too, states that. If he was alive today, that is how the great man would have wanted any film on him. Parties, elections will come and go, but this nation should remain forever. It’s this nation-first belief that made Vajpayee a popular leader among his own, but also respected by political rivals. Jeez, here is an angry Indian PM getting a call from then Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif, who is pleading that the Kargil war is not orchestrated by him, but his Army General Pervez Musharraf. Vajpayee quickly ends the call but also wishes him to be safe. That’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee for you. There is dearth of such quality men in today’s politics.
It’s near impossible to cover a great man’s life in 139 minutes. Jadhav and his co-writer Rishi Virmani do well to present all the important political events that Vajpayee witnessed in his over five-decade long political career. Statistically speaking, there were many electoral losses, but what stands out is the humility, the grace with which Vajpayee embraced the result. Dirty games did hurt him, but Vajpayee was like a tough-boxer who took all the punches, but could never be knocked down. “Is dalon ke daldal mein, ek naya kamal khilana hai” (Gotta grow a Lotus in this bog of ugly coalition politics). This is how the man motivated himself and rallied his young troupes to form the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980.
For the first time ever, viewers get a taste of the romantic side, rather the romantic-poetic side to Vajpayee. It’s perhaps a first for Pankaj Tripathi too. Vajpayee remained a bachelor all his life, but the poet was attracted by a Rajkumari [Ekta Kaul] who was in awe of his writings. The director pays respect to this friendship.
Over the years, Bollywood has witnessed some social, political films that have been accused of pandering to a particular ideology. Personally, this reviewer has no qualms over such stories. What’s unacceptable though is hitting below the belt. A Main Atal Hoon is refreshing in this aspect. The Ravi Jadhav film stays clear of any personal attack as it merely questions the political decisions of the grand old party of India. On the day of India’s Independence, a fellow Bateshwar folk remarks how he didn’t understand Prime Minister Pandit Nehru’s speech as it was in English. Touche. They differed in ideologies, but both men respected each other. After the first meet, PM Nehru praises the rookie rival parliamentarian for his speech, and he also whispers in a colleague’s ear that one day this man would become the PM of India. When the Janata Party coalition came to power in the late 70s, Vajpayee was the foreign minister. As he headed to his office, the statesman that he was, Vajpayee expressed surprise as to why Pandit Nehru’s photo frame was taken off from the gallery wall.
You do question though as to why the film shows just Vajpayee calling for India to be a nuclear state. This was the dream of Dr. Homi Bhabha, and then unsuccessfully backed by Jawaharlal Nehru after the defeat to China in the 1962 war. Besides, if Vajpayee rightly criticized Nehru’s misplaced ‘Hindi Chini bhai bhai’ blunder, then by the same breath, the film should have acknowledged Vajpayee and his government’s misplaced faith in arch enemy Pakistan during the Lahore bus yatra of 1998, which was followed by the Kargil War in 1999.
Main Atal Hoon pays due respect to Nehru, his successor Lal Bahadur Shastri, but it is not so considerate in its criticism of Indira Gandhi’s political moves. But the same leader also once picked Vajpayee to represent India at the UN (covered in the film).
We welcome the classy representation, a far cry from the preceding political films in recent times. The opposing political parties will label Main Atal Hoon a RSS-BJP agenda, but there is no distortion/misrepresentation of political history. Jadhav braves to even show a glimpse of the Babri Masjid Demolition, and the subsequent communal riots. It is followed by a Vajpayee being crestfallen at the violence. The alleged provocative speech by good friend Lal Krishna Advani, though, is conveniently missing. We get a slight insight into the personal space of Vajpayee, first in his bonhomie with father Krishna [Piyush Mishra], then the poetic bond with collegian Rajkumari, finely played by Ekta Kaul. A great leader has his/her inspiration too. In addition to the desi idols, a Vajpayee is also shown to be a believer in Sukraat’s (Sokrates) philosophies.
Whilst there have been many who’ve mimicked Vajpayee, it is only Pankaj Tripathi who has come close to portraying the late BJP stalwart. His wife, co-producer Mridula shares her birthday with the great man. Maybe, Tripathi was destined to play A.B. Vajpayee the day he married Mridula. Tripathi is flawless in his body language, tone, facial expressions, hand gestures. The physicality is often overstated in our culture. As Tripathi himself stated after the press show, more than physical, he endeavoured to bring out the satvik roop [virtuous] of this character/person. Gentleman, poet, statesman, PM. Be it poet, statesman, or gentleman, Tripathi imbibes the Vajpayee virtuosity in his portrayal. The acclaimed actor has been in top form over the last 18 months. This Main Atal Hoon act is not just a personal best, but perhaps the finest by a desi actor in a biographical film.
Main Atal Hoon has some of Atal ji’s finest poems and speeches. The playback music too is relevant. Ravi Jadhav has largely covered the important aspects to his life and career. Was there was any frame in the film where we didn’t see Vajpayee? There was one when Shyama Prasad Mukherjee was arrested and later died in the prison. Then Vajpayee wasn’t present on the dark day of 6 December, 1992 in Ayodhya. It would be unfair to say that Tripathi is overburdened with the screentime. Vajpayee’s life cannot be summarized in 139 minutes and Jadhav couldn’t afford to lose out on the vital life/career events.
The only other actor to get decent screentime is Raja Rameshwar Sevak, who played L.K. Advani. Sevak, though, hardly convinces you. Jadhav’s choice [Salim Mulla] for A.P.J Kalam is poor too. Gauri Sukhtanker and Harshad Kumar closely resemble a young Sushma Swaraj and Pramod Mahajan, respectively, but they have little to offer.
Jadhav rightly doesn’t compromise on the language [chaste Hindi]. The playback music too is decent. Main Atal Hoon largely sticks to its protagonist whereby Pankaj Tripathi delivers a performance of a lifetime. Vajpayee is an immortal name in Indian history, and with this act, Tripathi becomes amar (immortal] in the annals of Hindi cinema.
No great leader seeks reverence. Pankaj Tripathi had stated that he has become internally democratic after this A.B. Vajpayee experience.
Main Atal Hoon reminds our current mandarins of their duty to maintain democracy in India. It’s not just for the opposition, but the same spirit ought to be imbibed by the ruling party too. So, if an opposition leader or any citizen cries foul over rising fuel, food prices, we hope the current establishment will emulate their late great leader, and not be dismissive, autocratic like their political adversaries of yore.