India's Iron Lady to hit the big screen

by AFP/Jay Deshmukh, Nov 27, 2002 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

India's most loved and despised leader, Indira Gandhi, is making her way onto the silver screen with one of Bollywood's most controversial figures taking the lead in the biopic.

Gandhi, who ruled India for some 15 years before her 1984 assassination, still elicits passions. A magazine poll last year ranked her as India's most popular prime minister, but she is loathed in some quarters for imposing emergency rule and other iron-fisted measures.

"Her life was more dramatic than many commercial Hindi films," said Nitin Keni, the producer of the 150-million-rupee (three-million-dollar) movie.

The film, due out next year, is entitled "Indira Gandhi: A Tryst with Destiny," an allusion to the speech her father, India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, delivered at independence from Britain in 1947.

Chosen to play India's most controversial woman is Bollywood starlet Manisha Koirala, who herself is no stranger to controversy or political power. Koirala raised a storm earlier this year when she demanded one of her films be banned because of nude scenes with her character shot with a double. And she is the granddaughter of B.P. Koirala, neighbouring Nepal's first democratically elected premier and a contemporary of Nehru.

Keni said Koirala was chosen after computerised tests were conducted of leading Indian actresses juxtaposed with Gandhi's image. "The similarity between Koirala and Indira Gandhi was striking," Keni told AFP.

Gandhi made enemies in 1975 when she declared an emergency, arresting opposition leaders as part of a campaign she said would root out corruption and other ills plaguing India. She also came under fire for a massive sterilisation programme to trim population growth. Gandhi was booted out of power in 1977 but returned in 1980. She was assassinated four years later by her Sikh bodyguards after she ordered a raid on separatist militants holed up in the religion's holiest temple.

Despite the controversies surrounding Gandhi, Keni said "A Tryst with Destiny," directed by the well-known N. Chandra, would have a "strong emphasis on objectivity." He said the movie would also try to show the more human dramas of Gandhi, including her strained relationships with her famous father and her husband Feroz.

"The movie will not only be about Gandhi's political life, but will portray how a once shy girl was transformed into one of India's most powerful and controversial leaders," said Keni.

"Almost 20 years have passed since her assassination. The unnatural deaths not only of Gandhi but also both her sons and the aura that surrounded her political life make her an enigmatic figure and an excellent subject for a feature film," he said.

Gandhi's son Sanjay died in 1980 at age 34 in a plane accident. Her other son, Rajiv, went on to become prime minister -- and died in 1991 in a suicide bombing by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels. Rajiv's Italian-born widow, Sonia, now leads Gandhi's Congress party, which is currently in opposition.

Keni made clear that Gandhi's life would be a "serious mainstream film" and not a collection of song-and-dance numbers that are favoured by India's Bollywood film industry.

"It is not a regular Bollywood potboiler," Keni said. Instead, he said his model would be Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning 1982 epic of India's pacifist independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, who was not related to Indira. "We are leaving no stone unturned and the research for our film will be just like what Attenborough must have done for his Gandhi," Keni said.

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