Among Suchitra Sen’s memorable roles, her Indira Gandhi-esque mannerisms in Aandhi — placing one hand on her sari pleats and waving at the people with the other — plus the streak of silver in the hair stirred a row, leading to a temporary ban on the film.
Directed by Gulzar, Aandhi (1975) was reportedly based on Indira Gandhi’s life, although the director denied it till the then Prime Minister was voted out of power in 1977. Only after that did Gulzar admit to the magazine, Illustrated Weekly: “Yes, the film was made with Indira Gandhi in mind.” Sanjeev Kumar, who played the male lead, too said his character was based on that of Feroze Gandhi.
Aandhi was cleared by the censor board in January 1975, but it was banned by the Vidya Charan Shukla-headed I&B ministry just before its scheduled July release that year. The reason given was that the film sought to bring the system of elections by adult franchise into disrepute.
Producer J. Om Prakash called on Shukla claiming he would suffer a loss of Rs 40 lakh if the film was banned. He then offered to “restructure” the story and Shukla approved the idea.
Scenes suggesting that Suchitra’s Aarti Devi smoked and drank a little were re-shot. One scene — of politician Aarti Devi looking at a framed picture of Indira Gandhi and telling her screen father that she wanted to serve the country like Mrs Gandhi — was inserted. This was done to imply that the film did not depict Indira Gandhi’s life.
However, after Indira Gandhi lost power in 1977, the new I&B minister L.K. Advani, himself a film enthusiast, got Aandhi premiered on Doordarshan.
Gulzar was in Moscow when the film was banned. “I received orders that the film should not be shown at the Moscow film festival. We were also told that all posters and publicity material must be removed. The front page of The New York Times carried the news that the film has been banned because it was said to be based on Indira’s biography,” Gulzar is quoted as saying in his biography.
According to former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit, Indira Gandhi had not watched Aandhi. But when Dixit told her the movie was not “negative” towards her, she asked about the storyline and Suchitra’s acting calibre.
Dixit told Indira Gandhi that Suchitra’s hair had a streak of silver and she walked briskly but gracefully, coming across as an indomitable woman. The similarities with Indira Gandhi were hard to miss. Indira Gandhi subsequently saw the movie on video and appreciated Suchitra’s performance.
Aandhi had generated lot of interest. In South Delhi, a poster was spotted in 1975 that read: “See your Prime Minister on screen”.
According to actress Vyjayanthimala, Gulzar had first approached her to play Aarti Devi. “I admired Indiraji (Gandhi) so much that I got cold feet when the role was offered to me,” she said, terming it one of the three regrets of her life. The other two were her inability to act in Bimal Roy’s Bandini and to work with Guru Dutt.
According to Gulzar, producer J. Om Prakash played a big role in his signing Suchitra. It was he who persuaded Gulzar to meet her. She readily agreed as the movie revolved around a woman politician who fights many powerful men to take on bigger challenges. Suchitra generously credited Gulzar for his skilful handling of Aarti Devi.