May 19, 2024

Mumbai, India – A grimacing police official, staring into the camera, declares her intent to publicly shoot dead “leftists” while attacking “left-liberal, pseudo-intellectuals” as well as students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a left-leaning university space in the cross-hairs of the Modi government.

Men in skull caps, the visuals intercut with bloody violence, declare that Rohingya Muslims will soon displace Hindus and make for half of India’s population, while a harrowed Hindu woman fighting against these men says she wants to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A biopic on the early 20th century Hindu nationalist ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar has a voiceover that insists that India would have freed itself of British colonial rule over three decades before it did, if not for Mahatma Gandhi.

These are scenes from upcoming Hindi films slated for release over the next few weeks.

As India’s nearly one billion voters get ready to pick their national government in general elections between March and May, Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are receiving campaign support from an atypical ally: cinema.

A slew of new films, timed with the elections and often helmed by major production houses, are relying on storylines that overtly either promote Modi and his government’s policies or target rival politicians. Not even national icons like Gandhi or top universities like JNU are spared – the institution has long been a left-leaning bastion of liberal education, often antagonistic to the BJP’s Hindu majoritarianism.

Many of these stories peddle Islamophobic conspiracies commonly circulated among Hindu right-wing networks that are aligned with the BJP’s political agenda. At least 10 such films have either been released recently or are poised to hit theatres and television in this election season

“This is part of a larger attempt to ‘take over’ the Hindi film industry, just as other forms of popular culture have been infiltrated,” said Ira Bhaskar, a retired professor of cinema studies at JNU who also served as a member of the country’s censor board until 2015. Bhaskar was referring to the growing Hindu nationalist narratives found in pop culture forms like music, poetry and books.

The latest films include biopics that glorify the controversial legacies of Hindu majoritarian heroes and BJP leaders. Savarkar, a controversial anti-colonial Hindu nationalist, advocated rape against Muslim women as a form of retribution for historical wrongs.

Two of the upcoming films, Accident or Conspiracy: Godhra, and The Sabarmati Report, claim to “reveal” the “real story” behind the Godhra train burning of 2002 where 59 Hindu pilgrims died in a fire that was the spark for anti-Muslim riots orchestrated by Hindu right-wing groups that claimed over 1,000 lives, mostly Muslims. The riots happened when Modi was the state’s chief minister.

Another film, Aakhir Palaayan Kab Tak? (Until when will we need to flee?), shows a Hindu “exodus” purportedly due to Muslims. Then there’s Razakar, a multilingual release on what it calls the “silent genocide” of Hindus in Hyderabad by Razakars, a paramilitary volunteer force that inflicted mass violence before and after India’s independence in 1947. The film has been produced by a BJP leader.

In late February, Modi himself praised Article 370, a newly released film that lauds his government’s contentious decision to strip Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and statehood while placing hundreds under house arrests and imposing lockdowns in the region. Film reviewers have called the movie a “puff piece” and a “thinly veiled propaganda film” in favour of the Modi government while treating its critics and opposition leaders with “derision”.

Bhaskar said the new films were “clear propaganda, no doubt about it”.

A growing trend

The surge in such movies builds on a pattern also seen before the 2019 elections when Modi returned to power for a second time. On the eve of that vote, a clutch of films tried to bolster the BJP’s popularity.

Some tried to take down the ruling party’s critics, like the Accidental Prime Minister (PM), a searing take on Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh. Others stoked jingoism, like Uri: The Surgical Strike, which recreated the military strikes that Indian forces made inside Pakistan-controlled Kashmir in retaliation against a terror attack on an Indian military camp in Kashmir’s Uri region in September 2016. The film ended with a scene of a pleased-looking Modi-resembling prime minister. Both films were released in the same week, days before the elections.

But Bhaskar said that while the trend isn’t new, it has grown since 2014, when Modi came to power, starting off with the changed way that the Indian film industry dealt with historical representations.

“Over the last few years, we have seen a shift in the representation of Muslim rulers who are all, now, portrayed as barbarians and temple-destroyers,” Bhaskar said. “This was also propaganda, though in a not-so-direct way, where the message was: Muslims don’t belong to India, they were invaders.”

These positions align with the Hindu right-wing ecosystem’s publicly-stated aims of purging Mughal history from public consciousness.

Such films, in the past, have faced allegations of amplifying social divisions and hate speech. Screenings of films like The Kashmir Files, depicting the Kashmiri Pandit exodus of the 1990s, often saw audiences, at the end of the film, rising up and calling for violence against Muslims and advocating their boycott.

Another film, The Kerala Story, panned widely for inaccuracies in depicting an alleged ISIL/ISIS conspiracy to lure Christian and Hindu girls to join the group, played a part in igniting societal tensions among communities, leading to violence in the western Indian region of Akola in Maharashtra.

Fear and opportunism

Film industry insiders attribute this new genre of films to a mix of unease, opportunism and a helpful nudge from the establishment.

A number of industry insiders this writer contacted refused to speak on record, for fear of retribution.

Bollywood, in the recent few years, has frequently been a victim of high-decibel campaigns, often endorsed by BJP leaders – from boycotting films to calling for bans on them. Hindu right-wing groups have often targeted films and shows for broadcasting “anti-Hindu” content.

In 2021, BJP leaders had called for the arrest of the director and officials of the Amazon Prime streaming service over a web show Tandav because it had scenes that protesters allege were defamatory towards Hindu gods. Police complaints, calling for their arrest, were filed in six different cities before the country’s top court stayed them.

Many insiders said these instances had produced a “chilling effect” on other creators. “Often, ideas get nixed or get altered at the pre-production stage itself, because makers are now constantly censoring themselves and anticipating the trouble that the content might court in the current political climate,” said a film producer, requesting anonymity.

Others, however, believe that these films are not just a result of such fear but also a tinge of opportunism. A Mumbai-based director, who had been approached to make a film that aligned with a pro-Hindu majoritarian agenda, said makers often get enticed to “cash in” on the current political atmosphere. “With the success of a few such films in the past, many filmmakers are now tempted to try and appease the ruling ideology in the hope that they also find commercial success,” the director said.

Others echoed this sentiment. Speaking to Al Jazeera, a popular Hindi film actor revealed how a streaming service drastically altered a show he was part of, based on the life of a historical character, to portray the character to be a Hindu legend taking on Muslim invaders. “The streaming service thought that such ‘repositioning’ of the character would make it a good sell,” the actor said. The show, the actor said, did “decently well” among rural audiences.

And when movies pander to the ruling party’s ideology, they often receive a leg up from the government. In the past, contentious films like The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story have been rewarded by BJP governments – taxes were waived off. BJP units also organised free screenings of these films, helping them get wider audiences. Modi has publicly praised both these films, thereby granting them greater legitimacy and insisted that films should be made on the state of emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 – during which several fundamental rights were suspended – as well as on the Partition of India in 1947.

Al Jazeera sought comments from Sudipto Sen, the director of The Kerala Story. Sen said he would respond but had not done so by the time of publication.

Others, like National Award-winning filmmaker R Balakrishnan, however, believe that the rise of such films reflects a demand for such content from the audience. “Suddenly, people are interested in incidents that they don’t know about. There is an interest in political films and historical films based on incidents,” he said.

The danger, he added, was that this curiosity was being “subverted” since filmmakers were not researching their subjects adequately. “When you make a political film on an event or incident, the onus lies on the filmmaker to do the research and make it accurate. If you use films to subvert the truth and use it for other purposes, then you are depriving people of knowledge of what really happened there,” he said.

Here to stay?

Balakrishnan, the director, said that such “weak films” would stay limited to a few filmmakers. “Some are trying to ride a wave, but this won’t become a mainstream phenomenon. After all, the audience does not want to watch political films every day.”

Others, however, point to a newer trend – that of mainstream films, starring A-listers, also serving propaganda purposes. Fighter, a film released in January, with top actors Hrithik Roshan and Deepika Padukone starring in it, had a character playing PM Modi mouthing bombastic lines, insisting that it was time to show Pakistan who the “boss” was, before deciding to launch air strikes against the neighbour in 2019.

Bhaskar, the retired JNU professor, said this was a sign that the trend was only going to deepen.  “This is no longer episodic, or tied to any events like the polls any more,” Bhaskar said. If anything, she added, the scale of such films is now going to grow. “You will now see big-banner, big-budget films being made to serve propaganda purposes.”

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