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Jha’s choice: Delhi or Rajneeti II

Prakash Jha campaigns in Bettiah; (Top) Prakash Jha and Amitabh Bachchan at a promotional for Satyagraha in New Delhi last August. (Pictures by Sankarshan Thakur and Fotocorp)

The surreal thought must strike him that his life is imitating his art, and not doing a terribly good job of it.

He stands on the open back of a custom-built pick-up, a mound of marigold garlands piled on the hardtop, sunshades clipped into his salt-and-pepper mop, waving benignly at whoever is ready to catch his eye. Once every while, he digs into the garlands and fluidly flings one across, then folds his hands or waves.

It cannot be he is not subconsciously re-enacting a protagonist from the many political potboilers he has recently directed — Rajneeti, Aarakshan, Chakravyooh. Is he? Does Prakash Jha feel like a real-life doppelgänger of his cinematic creatures?

He baulks at the question, looks far into the setting sun and returns to his polished act of wooing. “Vote hamara ke pari naa?” he asks of a clutch of elders, stooping low to meet their eye. (You will vote me, won’t you?)

We’ve passed by the time they had a chance to reply; we are lurching along a treacherous mud track, the pick-up cannot afford to halt and lose its groaning momentum. Prakash Jha is still mulling that question on the possibility of kinship between what he does in Bombay and what he does in Bettiah.

The former calling he has fancifully effected, become a movie director of more and repute. The latter he has failed to get off the ground. Twice before he has come home to West Champaran and bid to be sent to Parliament.

Twice he has been sent back to Bombay, not New Delhi. This is his third investment of faith in the rejections of Bettiah. It must hurt to return home again and again and be denied.

“It does, but I haven’t stopped trying to earn their endorsement, because I want to do something others have not done. Bettiah has sent 16 members to the Lok Sabha, not one has built a wall for the people, look at this mess, just look at how different this could be if anybody tried.”

Ahead of us rolled the unrelieved misery of rural Champaran — unpaved lanes, unlit homes, pestilence swirling about on dung heaps, everywhere the truancy of political promise.

Jha on his campaign trail

Naked children crawled about in the roadside slush, their elders watched another bandwagon pass by, eyes liquid in deference to what the leaders might yet provide — a road, a nearby school, a hospital, electricity, clean water. None of that has come yet to this outback in Chanpatiya.

Ei baar kachhu hoi ki na?” one of them asks Prakash Jha. (Will something happen this time?) “Sab hoi, jitwaiba tab nu,” the candidate retorts, almost offended of tone. (Everything will happen, but only if you make me win.)

Is he angry, I have to ask, that home has only humbled him. “Not angry, no that’s not the word. But they don’t understand what they are losing by not electing me. I am not your typical politician, I have new ideas about what to do, and the resources. Between 2004 and 2009 (his first and second loss from Bettiah) I did nothing but think out what to do here. I made no films, I got a sugar mill, a hospital ward, employment with my teams. But after losing the second time in 2009, I went back and made five films in five years.”

So why has Prakash Jha come back to Bettiah? “Because I want to do something here, sincerely, not like your other politicians. I think I am doing it right this time, I have learnt my lessons.”

What lessons, he does not elaborate, but the one thing he is not doing, unlike in 2009, is a Bombay-style campaign, employing call centre and digital techniques. He is more down on ground, more looped into the local political architecture.

By him, through his road shows, are not fancy management gurus imported from the film industry but district and block heads of Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), Jha’s chosen party this time. (In 2004, he contested as an Independent, and as a Lalu-Ram Vilas Paswan nominee in 2009.)

The JD(U) isn’t an easy ticket to ride; Nitish Kumar is clearly on the down, and he has formidable adversaries —a belligerent BJP charged up on Narendra Modi, and a resurgent Lalu Prasad.

In Bettiah, Prakash Jha’s challenge is nothing to slight: Sanjay Jaiswal, the sitting BJP MP, and the wily veteran of many Bihar battles, Raghunath Jha of the RJD. Jaiswal is sitting on a winner base boosted by the energy around Modi. Raghunath Jha will grab substantive sections of the Lalu vote; most critically, he could run away with portions of the 20 per cent Muslim vote that the JD(U) is banking on.

Could it be that Prakash Jha is riding the wrong horse yet again? “I do not bother too much about what my opponents do, I do my thing and this time the response has been much better.”

He won’t be drawn into a discourse on what caste will vote which way; that’s a low discourse for Prakash Jha, although in Bihar it may be the most pertinent one. “All sections are coming to me, why should I say I am relying on this caste or that?”

The road show entered a Yadav pocket; clusters of men and women had come out to the megaphone call of the advance party.

Bambai ke naami-girami filmkaar aur JDU pratyashi Prakash Jha aaye hain! Prakash Jha! Prakash Jha!! Aaiye, Prakash Jha ko bhaari maton se vijayi banaaiye!!!! Prakash Jha, Prakash Jha!!”

The smile on Prakash Jha’s lips widened to see the Yadavs turn out. “Look at them, see them, they are all for me.”

He threw away a few more garlands, bent low to greet them. “Look at them looking at me.”

They may have just come out of curiosity, to amuse themselves watching another bandwagon pass, their free entertainment for the day.

But they had left Prakash Jha elated. Quite suddenly he recalled that first question on the possibility of osmosis between his art and his life. “You may be right,” he turned to me and said, “this may be the making of Rajneeti II.”

West Champaran votes on May 12


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