Main Atal Hoon Review: Single Note-Biography Salvaged A Touch By Pankaj Tripathi's Performance

Pankaj Tripathi in Main Atal Hoon. (courtesy: YouTube)

The Mumbai movie industry rarely, if ever, does justice to biopics, be they of personalities of contemporary relevance or of figures of historical significance. Main Atal Hoon, helmed and co-written by the National Award-winning director Ravi Jadhav (Natarang, Balgandharva, Balak Palak), does little to change that widely held belief.

If not a botched effort without any redeeming features, Main Atal Hoon carries creases that could have been avoided had the film not been such a rushed exercise. The hurry to wrap it up in time has clearly had a bearing both on the writing and the making. Jadhav is known to be a director with an eye for detail. That trait is conspicuous by its absence in Main Atal Hoon.

More hagiography than homage, Main Atal Hoon employs a from-the-cradle-to-the-grave approach to tell the story of the life of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Bharatiya Janata Party luminary and India’s tenth Prime Minister. That is not to say that the patchy film straddles the entire spectrum of the rightwing leader’s boyhood years and eventful political career.

It presents a bit of this and a bit of that as it flits from one high point to another in crafting a picture designed to evoke awe and reverence. The strategy works neither as drama nor as cinema because whatever conflict there is in the tale is studiously underplayed in order to emphasize how undeterred and unbudging (the accent being on the leader’s given name, ‘Atal’) Vajpayee was.

Main Atal Hoon brings to the fore aspects of Vajpayee’s life and times that serve the demands of the prevalent political climate but it is unable to put together a truly dramatic portrait of a statesman and an orator who encountered many ups and downs and ebbs and tides in the course of a long journey through the tumult of the freedom struggle, the vicissitudes of nation-building and the challenges of party work.

Main Atal Hoon is a single-note biography salvaged a touch – only a touch – by Pankaj Tripathi’s central performance. The actor spares no effort to get into the skin of Vajpayee and imitating his body language and speaking style.

Tripathi’s efforts do not bear the expected fruit because the screenplay on which the performance stands is hobbled by a lack of imagination and true insight. The blend of humanity and political expediency, political acumen and communication skills would have yielded much greater dividends had Jadhav and co-writer Rishi Virmani focused more on the questions that Vajpayee faced than on the answers that he found and delivered.

Main Atal Hoon meanders from one thing to another, intent solely on talking up the deeds that the real-life protagonist performed as a politician and Prime Minister. The complexities of subcontinental politics and the intricacies of ideological warfare in Parliament and outside of it are well beyond this film’s limited purview.

It settles for simplistic and reductionist methods that take all the sharp edges away. Vajpayee’s initiative to foster friendship between India and Pakistan and his journey on the Delhi-Lahore bus to attend a summit finds space in the narrative. However, his peacenik persona is allowed to be a mere footnote in a film that has been made to propagate a particular set of beliefs.

The allusion to the Kargil victory – it in now celebrated as Kargil Vijay Diwas – would have translated into something more substantial than it does in this film had it also factored in, if only in passing, the intelligence failure that led to the border conflict and its human cost.

The casting of Pankaj Tripathi as the politician is anything but perfect in terms of physical verisimilitude, but the actor manages to tide over the question of authenticity with a turn that comes pretty close to being perfect within the limitations imposed by the way the role has been conceived by the writers.

Inspired by a Marathi book, Sarang Darshane’s Atalji: Kavihridayache Rashtranetyachi Charitkahani (The Story of a Poet-Leader), Main Atal Hoon is a literal depiction of Vajpayee as a poet and a politician endowed with outstanding oratorial flair. It is the latter persona that the lead actor brings out particularly well.

Would Main Atal Hoon been a markedly different film had the makers not been slavishly led by the book’s title and dared to draw on the idea that a politician with a poet’s temperament, a man who grew up with a love for the Hindi language and attained mastery over it, is a rarity in politics? No question about it – that would have led to a more rewarding film. But, then, it would not have served the avowed purpose of the project.

Delivered mostly with broad strokes that dwell on Vajpayee’s personal associations and political affiliations, the film skims over many significant details and nuances that might have added up to an infinitely more rounded, analytical and dispassionate portrait rather than the unalloyed paean that it has turned out to be.

There are elements in the film that had tremendous potential – Vajpayee’s relationship with his father (played by Piyush Mishra) and his lasting friendship with Rajkumari Kaul (Ekta Kaul) are cases in point – but the script deigns to treat them the way it treats everything else at its disposal, as just a piece to fit into the larger picture.

In a purely cinematic sense, it is impossible to be enthused over what Main Atal Hoon has to offer. But in the context of the film’s undisguised raison d’etre, it may not be a total washout. It might find takers beyond the folds of those who demand greater critical depth and range in Bollywood biopics only to be disappointed time after time.


Pankaj Tripathi, Piyush Mishra, Ekta Kaul


Ravi Jadhav


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