Using celluloid to manipulate public consciousness is not a novel concept. Propaganda on film has existed as long as film itself. During the World War II era, the leaders of the third Reich commissioned Leni Riefenstahl with producing moving picture propaganda in service of Nazism. ‘Triumph of the Will’ and ‘Olympia’ are still to this day, while still depicting the leaders of fascism basking in glory, lauded as artistic enterprises and for their innovations in technicalities. On the other side of the battle, the allied forces, rallying behind the US, have an even longer and deeper history of depicting propaganda on camera.
W G Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ (1915)—a three-hour epic, full of eye-popping editing and avant-garde photography—ran parallel to the film’s unapologetic plea for white supremacy, and its nostalgia about an antebellum South. The very first Academy Award for Best Picture winner, 1927’s ‘Wings’, was created with the American army’s support. In recent decades, the filmmaking industry dovetailing with the military has led to the creation of an entire military-entertainment industrial complex.
So we learn that propaganda is entrenched in entertainment. And thus we turn the looking glass back inward into domestic territory. Bollywood lacks that same sort of avant-garde prestige that is awarded to these industries making up in quantity over what it lacks in formal experimentation. The most common output from the industry has been fun rom-coms and the other being moralistic tales about culture, tradition and family. But lately, there has been an ostentatious change in output with the industry pumping out military propaganda and tales of military accomplishments, and such in numbers never before seen. Though nothing novel, I suppose there’s something much more nefarious in adulterating ‘Masala Flicks’ with these saffron ideologies. Any foray into serious academic film study will stress upon the chasm between film and movies. Film is art; movies are for the public. Bollywood is movies, talkies and flicks; not worthy of statuary. And it is probably one of the reasons why the pernicious coming to the surface politics of these films tend to not bother audiences when they do break through the domestic barrier. With the recent success of ‘RRR’, most foreign audiences have been dismissive of the concerns raised by natives with respect to the treatment of lower caste people and Adivasi’s in the film. When discussing the fascist elements emerging in this New Pan-Indian film scene, you’re mostly met with incredulous looks.
One might argue ‘movies’ have an even more important place in understanding the semiotics of the images we consume. ‘Movies’ reaffirm the status quo-planting seeds that cops, the military, and subservience to the pre-existing system are all good at the end of day and that we need these structures to exist. Since BJP coming to power in the early 2010s, there’s been a discernible shift in expressing ideologies that are permissible and that are to be believed in. That there exists salvation in it and your favourite silver screen actor doused in tainted mythologism reaffirms it to you. Nationalism, Hindu honour, legendary Hindu icons, Hindu suffering in the past and contemporary military strength have all become popular subjects for filmmakers in Bollywood. Simultaneously, there has been a subtle and increasingly not-so-subtle othering of the Muslim community through a rhetoric that emphasises the brutality of Islamic invaders and their zeal for forcibly converting the native population.
Vivek Agnihotri’s Hindi film ‘The Kashmir Files’ was released in theatres on March 11. The only well-known actor in the lead cast of the film is Anupam Kher, but it became a massive hit, earning Rs 100 crore in just eight days. The film is a fictional story inspired by real events surrounding the forced exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from their homeland in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. While several Kashmiri Pandits have applauded the film for portraying their real life trauma, others from the community have distanced themselves from its factual inaccuracies and palpable anti-Muslim propaganda. Earlier this year Siddharth Malhotra was announced in yet another fictionalization of military exploits in the India-Pakistan border, the metaphorical primordial soup out of which every homunculus of Indian fundamentalism emerges. Military engagements in this area are especially loved by Bollywood; a privilege hardly granted to skirmishes between China or the failed peacekeeping operation in Sri Lanka undertaken in the 90s, because unequivocal victory is guaranteed.
More than a representation of brewing public sentiment, these movies are actively aiding the nationalistic project undertaking by the concumbent government furthering the nationalist agenda purported by the BJP government.
Sumaiya Shakil is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Ambrisha Zubeen