‘Election Propaganda’

Pro-Modi Films Flood Market

Hannah Ellis-Petersen

They are films that claim to tell the “real story” of India’s history, taking aim at the evils of “leftists” and “intellectuals” and even the freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi.

As Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seek a third term in April-May elections, a feverish pro-government momentum has gripped ‘Bollywood’, blurring the lines between entertainment and political campaigning in India’s largest film industry.

Almost a dozen new films promoting the prime minister and his government’s Hindu nationalist policies and ideology have been released or will come out at cinemas in coming days and weeks. The election, which will determine the direction of the country for the next five years, begins on 19 April and will run for six weeks.

Film critics and analysts have accused several titles of pushing Islamophobic narratives and debunked anti-Muslim conspiracies, and targeting “urban naxals”–a derogatory term some Hindu right-wingers use to describe leftwing activists and intellectuals. Some in the industry have raised concerns that these films will be used to further divide India along religious lines.

One film produced by a BJP MP is so incendiary in its portrayal of Muslims that it has faced court action to try to prevent its release.

The flurry of pro-government films is reminiscent of the build-up to the 2019 election, when a biopic of Modi was deemed to be so positive about the prime minister that the election commission halted its release before the polls.

Sayandeb Chowdhury, a professor of literature at Chennai’s Krea University who has written on Indian cinema, described the films as “brazen propaganda which are deliberately creating wounds and fault lines to serve the government’s political agenda”.

He pointed out that Modi and other government officials had directly referenced many of the films in their speeches. “Cinema has become a form of political mobilisation” he said.

One of the prominent titles about to hit Indian cinemas is a biopic of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a divisive Hindu nationalist leader and activist Modi has lauded and who fought against British rule. His writings, however, promote violence against Muslims and express sympathy for the Nazis and Italian fascists.

Article 370, released last month, is an unabashed celebration of Modi’s decision to strip Kashmir, of its statehood, portraying him as a decisive figure saving India from violence and corruption. Modi praised the film while critics called it “factually incorrect”.

Another film takes aim at Jawaharlal Nehru University, an institution known as a hub of leftwing thought and activism. The film, Jahangir National University, which comes out in April, tells the story of a campus where “leftists waging love jihad”–a debunked conspiracy against Muslims–and “urban naxals are trying to divide the country”.

Chowdhury said the releases spoke to a larger trend in Bollywood in which the film industry had been aggressively co-opted over the decade of Modi’s rule, , despite historically remaining apolitical.

He lamented that Bollywood, which had long united people across India’s vast religious and cultural differences, was being weaponised to sow discord, to great effect. “If cinema itself becomes a tool of division, one of India’s more cherished unifying symbols is in danger of being lost forever,” he said.

While films propagating the BJP’s narrative are being released with increasing regularity, streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon have faced legal threats and had series and films removed for being seen to be critical of the government.

Chowdhury said the turning point had been the 2022 release of The Kashmir Files, which claimed it would tell the real story of the expulsion of Hindus from the region. Despite its negative portrayal of Muslims and accusations that it was a polarising distortion of history, it was the biggest blockbuster hit of the year.

It has prompted a number of similar films claiming to portray history, largely involving the demonisation of Muslims, which have been seen as part of a wider BJP project to rewrite the narrative of India’s past.

The most recent release is Razakar: Silent Genocide of Hyderabad, which was accused in a court filing of being Islamophobic for its distorted portrayal of a Muslim leader. Similar to the Kashmir Files, the producer has claimed the film is “100% accurate” with no commercial embellishments.

Raja Sen, a film critic and Bollywood screenwriter, told the Associated Press that many filmmakers were jumping on the bandwagon, realising the potential for major box office success of polarising films that generate public discussion.

“The scary part is that these films are being accepted now”, Sen said. “It is truly frightening”.

[Courtesy: The Guardian]

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Vol 56, No. 42, Apr 14 - 20, 2024