As one of the most popular forms of mass entertainment, India’s film industry has become a vehicle of right-wing propaganda. Mahima Kaur on how PM Modi’s BJP conquered Bollywood.
A saree-clad old woman with disheveled hair hand pulling a plough, anxiety and agony written all over her face. A familiar sight for all Indians, the face of the 1957 epic drama film, Mother India, a movie that came to be recognized as a metaphor for the country, igniting patriotism or rather a sense of nationalistic pride in the citizens after the Independence. Though Indian audiences see the country symbolized in the figure of the toiling woman (an equivalent of goddess), the film was in fact a counter attack to Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book by the same name. The American historian’s polemical work that criticized India’s treatment of women, untouchables and the whole independence movement sparked an outrage in the country that resulted in her burnt effigies, counter-attack books, controversial interviews and the 1957 movie – an unabashed move to reclaim the phrase in all glory and goodness. And it succeeded.
In an article for the London School of Economics’s US Phelan Centre, the political scientist Michelle C Pautz correctly concludes that films are one of the main factors that ‘contribute to the political socialization of citizens’. Historically, throughout the last century, movies have been a preferred tool of authoritarian governments to influence and control human minds due to their mass-psychological appeal, entertainment factor and propaganda value. Totalitarian regimes, such as the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union and North Korea have used movies to control the minds of their populations and manipulate their beliefs. Yet, as the German film critic and sociologist Siegfried Kracauer argued in his masterwork From Caligari To Hitler, even in democratic societies films can reflect the hidden desires for authoritarian strongman-rule and nationalist aggression that circulate in a society. India, the most populous nominal democracy on earth, is a prime example for this thesis.
In a country of more than one billion people, Bollywood – the Indian Hindi language film industry, is one medium that is somehow able to reach almost every corner of the country, finding entry into every household in one way or the other. Bollywood and the people associated with the industry, primarily actors, have a God-like stature in the minds and lives of India’s popular masses. Movie fans across the country, quite literally, worship filmmakers and often do rituals for their good health, while adoring crowds form outside of actors’ houses in Mumbai before dawn in the hope of catching a glimpse of popular idols.People in power understand and see this. And they are not afraid to realize Bollywood’s political potential.
Bollywood like any other film industry in the world, in the past has produced countless movies that have dealt with many of India’s deep-rooted structural problems, such as castes, xenophobia and economic inequality. From Mother India to Roja, Nayak to Sarkar, Rang de Basanti to Raajneeti, the rough-and-tumble world of Indian politics has also been the subject of several blockbuster which have thematized a range of topics, from the struggle of independence to high-profile assassinations. The ideological messaging in Bollywood movies, has however, undergone a revolution which has not been altogether positive.Just like the country that is now being associated with a steadily weakening democracy, fading human rights, raging nationalism, increased intolerance and a public discourse fueled by xenophobic hatred, the movies and the whole industry has remarkably shifted its whole course to support and endorse the far-right wing narrative of the government in power. And the people involved have done their bit too.
The cinematic world and its increasingly radical political messaging have mirrored the BJP’s rise to power and their nationalistic, outrightly Hindutva-centered narrative. While the political movies of the past have picked issues and movements with a mostly balanced outlook, the recent past has witnessed a dramatic shift in the narratives created by Bollywood. The movies have not only been jingoistic in their portrayal of the current political climate in the country but have succeeded in mocking the opposition and demonizing minorities. In an industry where movies like Chaudvin ka Chand (1961) and Umrao Jaan (1981) not only succeeded, but attained a revered status with a poetic portrayal of the Muslim community, recent movies like Tanhaji-The Unsung Warrior have successfully demonized Muslims, by portraying them as barbaric beings with overflowing animalistic instincts and sexually perverted impulses. The narrative structure of these movies is marked by is a repeated emphasis on the vilification of usually Muslim minorities and the simultaneous glorification of the Hindu majority. Such plot-lines mirror the government’s current political strategy of dividing the body politics along ethnic and religious lines in an attempt to build a homogenous Hindu national state.
The past few years have seen the like of the movies Uri: The Surgical Strike, The Tashkent Files, The Accidental Prime Minister and PM Narendra Modi, all of which not only propagate and laud the ruling BJP party in thinly-veiled ways, but seek to undermine and subvert the opposition and the alleged ‘enemies of the people’. The box-office hit and military action-drama film Uri, not only extolls a surgical strike ordered by the PM against a Pakistani terrorist group, but also disseminates the famous and oft-quoted line ‘How’s the josh?’, a line that was brazenly used by politicians and in one instance the Prime Minister himself in speeches, public addresses and social media platforms. The movie The Accidental Prime Minister, on the other hand, shows the preceding Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh in a negative light, characterizing him as a weakling and a pawn in the hands of his party, while the biopic PM Narendra Modi delivers the opposite message and depicts the current PM as a god-like, omniscient father of the nation who rising from the humblest of origins comes to occupy the highest office in the land – a populist, rags-to-riches mythology that is also being peddled in a popular TV series entitled Modi: Journey of a Common Man which hails the prime minister as a man ‘of the people, for the people, by the people.’ In the same genre, The Tashkent Files is a movie that ‘documents’ the death of a former Prime Minister, Dr Lal Bahadur Shastri and which some of the top critics of the country refused to review because of its heavy-handed Hindutva undertones.
The impact of and on movies does not end with the mere usage of film as a tool to exalt the government and the prime minister; it is also used to undermine anything or anyone, fictional or non-fictional that has any potential to challenge the government or kindle a critical conversation. Objections are raised at the portrayal of a Hindu God or Goddess by a Muslim actor and over storylines that may even slightly offend the chauvinism of a betel leaf-chewing, middle-aged politician which is a popular stereotype that sadly still exists in flesh and blood. Almost every production house now has a team of lawyers who vet a script before it goes into production to find any possible offensive material that has the potential to hurt the increasingly ‘intolerant’ sentiment of the public. To say that the people involved in the Indian movie-industry are just cautious would be an understatement. Not only are the members of the film industry increasingly compliant with the perceptible changes in the social structure and discriminatory hierarchies in India, but they are active campaigners of the same development. In a country where fandom has acquired religious dimensions, the political stance, statements and unreserved support towards the ruling party by Bollywood actors not only enable a considerable mass following. The silence of these people and others on atrocities in their own country like lynching, protests and unlawful practices is a biting one, especially when the same actors and directors were among the first ones to express their horror on social medias at similarly violent incidents in other countries.
In one such case, celebrities from across different industries and fields, including entertainment, politics and sport posted similarly worded Tweets expressing their support for the Modi-government. The incident in question was the nationwide farmer protests, where farmers camped for more than one-year enduring biting cold, scorching summers and a plague, to protest against new farm laws. Greta Thunberg expressed her support for the farmers as did some of the top activists and people around the world including famous singers and celebrities. A simple tweet by a young, Swedish activist caused an uproar in the ruling BJP party and their supporters who not only vilified and filed a police complaint against Thunberg in the capital of the country, accusing her of sharing and promoting ‘toolkits’ for spreading ‘misinformation’ on social media but managed a coordinated series of tweets by the celebrities expressing their dissatisfaction at ‘an outsider’s intrusion’ in the country’s matters. The tweets were accompanied by hashtags like #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda.
Bollywood and Indian politics have been in a close embrace for decades now. There are a number of actors who have joined political parties in the latter stages of their careers like Hema Malini (Seeta Aur Geeta, Sholay), Jaya Bachchan (Abhimaan, Silsila) and Shatrugan Sinha (Kranti, Gambler) among others. India’s major political parties, aware of the social influence and national reach of these actors, frequently employ them in election campaigns. Meanwhile, celebrities who stood against the government, during the farmers protests, for free and independent journalism and basic human rights include Richa Chadha (Masaan, Fukrey), Swara Bhaskar (Raanjhanaa, Tanu weds Manu), Siddharth (Rang de Basanti), Tapsee Pannu (Pink, Badla), as well as Prakash Raj (Singham, Bombay). These celebrities have been brave and patient enough to endure the ire of angry mobs and Hindutva Twitter trolls. Police complaints, rape threats and threats of boycott have become a part of their daily lives. In the case of the actor Siddharth, his family had to undergo serious rape threats, while the actress Swara Bhaskar has suffered similarly harrowing assaults on social media. Veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah (Masoom, Maqbool) has been brave enough to criticize the government and its divisive policies and actions on multiple occasions, all of which resulted in him being brutally trolled and attacked and called an ‘anti-national’, a far-right smear word that has come to be synonymized with anyone and everyone who demonstrates an inkling of discontent with the government and its policies.
In the past, the Indian film industry could claim a certain degree of secularist diversity through Muslim film stars, such as Shah Rukh Khan (Swades, Dil Se) who has been the target of BJP attacks in the past. This toleration of other faiths and nationalities in the cinema has been increasingly countered by the Modi-government and its sympathizers in the film industry who do not fail to use the power of Bollywood to spread Hindutva messages across the nation’s movie-screens. Some recent examples include the naming and shaming of actors like Swara Bhaskar and Taapsee Pannu, who expressed their concern at growing intolerance in the country by calling them (again) ‘anti-national’ and the extremely publicized jailing of a top actor’s son on suspicions of being involved in a ‘drug-racket’. Such ‘drug-racket’ controversies have become a favourite distraction of a country that chooses to focus on celebrities and their personal lives than political lynching, muffled human rights and the stifling of independent journalism and free speech. For a nominally democratic and secular country, India has much to explain on a global level when videos of public speeches of calls for genocides surface everyday only to be answered with hollowed speeches by the government who fail to act against or even take note of the seething fear in the minority communities.
Mahima Kaur is a freelance-journalist and author who lives and works in London.