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‘Madam Chief Minister’: A Formulaic Attempt to Show a Dalit Woman’s Rise to Power

‘Madam Chief Minister’: A Formulaic Attempt to Show a Dalit Woman’s Rise to Power

  • Subhash Kapoor’s film, starring Richa Chadha, takes a cynical, cliche-ridden view of the importance of electoral victory in changing a downtrodden community’s fortunes.

“Madam Chief Minister” by writer-director Subhash Kapoor (if the name doesn’t ring a bell, he made the little seen cricket film “Say Salaam India” in 2007) is a fictional account of the ups and downs in the life of a powerful Dalit leader, who goes on to become the first woman chief minister of India’s most populous and politically charged state — Uttar Pradesh.

Richa Chadha plays Tara, a Dalit politician from Uttar Pradesh, replete with short hair and a purposeful stride. Any similarity between Tara and the other short-haired Bahujan Samaj Party leader, who made ground-breaking strides in Dalit politics in the 1990s is purely coincidental…wink, wink. As the film says at the start — any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.

“Madam Chief Minister” takes a cynical, cliche-ridden view of the importance of electoral victory in changing a downtrodden community’s fortunes. Dalit assertion and empowerment are footnotes in what is actually a formulaic conspiracy thriller revolving around murder – good old fashioned badla (revenge).

The movie begins with a poor Dalit man Roop Ram being gunned down by who else but an upper-class Thakur, the very night his daughter is born. The girl – fourth in a row of girls – is rescued from infanticide by her mother, who accepts her as the will of God. Unfortunately, her other three siblings were not as lucky. With this starting scene the movie makes an immediate connection with the rampant casteism in 1982 Uttar Pradesh.

Aptly named Tara (star…since her star does rise) she exhibits a rebellious streak from the start — cropped hair, androgynous clothes, a sharp tongue, and an unwieldy bullet (bike). She is feisty, fiery, loud-mouthed, arrogant, and confident, someone who doesn’t hesitate to call out people. When her clandestine relationship with an emerging student leader Indramani Tripathi (Akshay Oberoi), from a prominent upper class political family, ends when he refuses to marry her because of her caste, a heartbroken and pregnant Tara rebels and speaks out at the injustice of it all, only to be brutally attacked by Indu’s goons. Needless to say, the fetus doesn’t survive.

Tara becomes an acolyte of Parivartan Party leader “Masterji” Surajbhan (Saurabh Shukla), who rescues her after the public thrashing and nurses her back to health – all the while sparking her interest in politics. Here, Tara trains in Marx and the godfather of the downtrodden, Dr. Ambedkar. Masterji’s political party is dedicated towards the upliftment of the backwardclass, and Tara finds herself more and more dedicated to aid him in this goal.It’s also here that the film stops beating around the bush, confirming the Mayawati parallel with the arrival of Masterji, a Kanshi Ram-like figure who rescues Tara and makes her his protégé. Tara goes from serving tea to Surajbhan’s (whom she lovingly calls daddu) guests to being touted as the most serious contender for Uttar Pradesh’s chief ministership.

When Masterji baulks at forming a coalition government with the vile, but persuasive Arvind Singh (Shubrajyoti Bharat), it’s Tara who convinces him to take the leap. Soon, she’s winning polls and being tipped as the new chief minister. 

Seemingly overnight, Tara becomes the disruptor of her rivals’ plans. Her rise sets off alarm bells, best captured by the reaction of Tripathi’s father to the news that Tara is threatening his career prospects – “why can’t we just shoot her like we used to in the past?” the bewildered patriarch wonders. Of course, Tara doesn’t have it easy even after becoming chief minister. If one set of men was responsible for her ascent, another bunch of men ensures that her fate hangs in the balance. Rivals within the uneasy coalition that brought Tara to power keep her busy, while Indramani Tripathi resurfaces as a prickly reminder of the past.

But with the support of her aide, the suave and politically savvy Danish Khan (Manav Kaul), Tara channels her inner rowdy to vanquish her rivals, even picking up a gun and getting her hands bloody when required. How does that saying go –absolute power corrupts absolutely!If one remembers, Mayawati’s reign was also defined by the Bahujan movements in the north, but there were also scandals and corruption under her charge.

But will Tara be able to grapple the incessant betrayals, treacheries and disloyalties in every path of her political career? Guess one will have to just watch to find out.

Chadha is noteworthy in her effortless performance as Tara. Her portrayal of the naïve woman turned shrewd politician makes her appear raw, real and impeccably powerful at the same time. Be it her endearing scenes with Shukla’s character or her giving it back to her arch-rivals with nicely timed one-liners, Chadha sinks her teeth into her character in the most convincing manner. 

Shukla as Masterji is the most amiable to look at. The interplay between him and Chadha’s character is one of the high points of “Madam Chief Minister”. However, it is Subhrajyoti Barat and Oberoi who look menacing and intense in their small but crucial roles. Kaul has delivered better performances, but nevertheless gets a passable grade despite being the weakest character in the film. He has been sadly under-utilized.

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However, despite committed performances by the cast, the 124-minute movie struggles to be taken seriously. “Madam Chief Minister” is about as unsophisticated as a political drama can get. The complexity of identity politics is reduced to mere palace intrigue. The monumentality of Tara’s achievement – a “neechi jaat aurat” (woman belonging to a lower caste) in a ruthless man’s world trying to navigate the power structure—these are almost treated like tiny hurdles she simply has to tiptoe around. The subtext getting buried below the corpses that she helps pile up.“Madam Chief Minister” does however deserve applause for highlighting some of India’s biggest flaws — from casteism to female infanticide — in the first 20 minutes. 

The political intrigue has been handled adequately with enough twists and turns to keep the audience marginally interested. Though some of the twists are predictable and conveniently deduced, it maintains the intrigue factor in most parts, especially with the twist at the end.

The motive of the film is to show how Tara, a woman from a backward caste background, claims the top position in a state. But in a bid to show the many struggles in her political journey, not much attention is paid to the person who becomes a politician, especially when she never had any political ambition to begin with.

A few hastily done scenes of Tara breaking a few social barriers and doing community udharan (social service) are jammed in to make the case. All in all, “Madam Chief Minister” is a sincere attempt to show a woman’s rise to power, but falls short of being a rousing political drama. Sadly, it ends up being strictly passable.

The film is streaming on Netflix.

Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters andPhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at OakGrove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.

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