Media culture is influential enough to shape popular socio-political opinions on a global scale. Far from compelling media houses to churn out genuine depictions of reality, the rich and powerful use this influence to propagate false narratives that benefit their agenda. While the masses are slowly but surely noticing the pattern of propaganda, there still exists a bubble of ignorance around this issue. Of late, journalism and cinema have become an extension of a political party’s election campaign. Consequently, public opinions are left adulterated.
On 5 April 2019, a biopic film about Prime Minister Modi was released to the public, just a week before the commencement of the general elections. The film glorified the life and times of Narendra Modi, taking the audience through the journey of his life from adolescence to a full-blown political leader. The film also showcased Modi as an empathetic, patriotic, and charming personality while using the ‘phoenix’ narrative to highlight his rise from poverty into a successful political career. The overly positive depiction of the Prime Minister had many critics raising their eyebrows dubiously; even more so when the trailer of the film was released by Devendra Fadnavis, former Maharashtra Chief Minister and a BJP leader. The portrayal of a near-perfect character in Modi and the proximity of the film’s release date to the Lok Sabha Elections compelled many among the audience to think of it as a propaganda film. Needless to say, the only one to benefit from the film, apart from the ruling party, was Vivek Oberoi’s dead career. In fact, Oberoi enjoyed his new role as a political puppet so much that he announced his upcoming film, “Balakot: The True Story (2020)” shortly after the release of the biopic.
Using media as a tool for unfurling pro-government propaganda is not a modern-day discovery. For decades, cinema and journalism have been influenced and moulded by those in power to push out messages that are favourable to them and their ideology. One of the earliest indications of films being used to shape popular public opinions surfaced only during the First World War, wherein the British noticed the Indians’ faith in the veracity of anything captured on camera. The Soviets and the Germans followed suit and started making newsreels and documentaries to glorify their leaders and ideologies. At the same time, ruling powers also launched movies and used other channels of mass media to dehumanize vulnerable minorities – a trend callously used against the Jews in Germany during Hitler’s reign.
Running smear campaigns, discrediting the opposition, or diverting focused attention from a monumental issue is made easy for the ruling powers through the use of mass media. All this leads to limited freedom of expression for various media houses, with their actions and productions being closely monitored and censored. In such a state, a nation’s democratic operation becomes crippled and tax-paying citizens face the brunt of it.
India’s venture into the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic was nothing short of horrific. While thousands choked under the fatal grasp of the virus, the government went radio-silent, focusing instead on the campaign for the West Bengal assembly election. With the majority of the country suffering, one would expect a major backlash from the citizens calling for the impeachment of the government. But the government, again, was left unquestioned; because they controlled the narrative. As soon as things started to look up, Modi resurfaced again as the messiah, with news channels crediting him for massive vaccination drives across the country. His blunders, soon thereafter, were forgotten and buried alongside the innumerable innocents who lost their lives to the deadly pandemic.
There are many such instances where the government hid behind the gallows while the public was busy focusing on ‘issues’ that weren’t even of national importance. On 2 October 2021, Aryan Khan (S/O Shah Rukh Khan) was detained and later arrested following an NCB raid on a cruise ship hosting a rave party. In the blink of an eye, all the major news channels had nothing else to talk about. While all the media houses were scrambling around trying to get a statement from Aryan or Shah Rukh Khan, Lakhimpur Kheri was burning. Union Minister Ajay Mishra’s SUV trampled upon 8 people, 4 of which were farmers protesting against the government. Later, Priyanka Gandhi was arrested without a warrant to prevent her from meeting with the family of the bereaved. This sort of selective coverage makes one wonder if journalism is another state-sponsored tool to mislead and manipulate the masses. Raising a very good point, Dr. Shama Mohamed, a spokesperson of Goa Congress, questioned the NCB for being so proactive in Aryan Khan’s case, but not showing the same kind of determination when 3,000 kilograms of heroin was smuggled into the country through the Adani Mundra Port.
Mainstream journalism had lost its credibility a long time ago. But such a vociferous use of cinema to uphold a party’s political agenda in recent times is something that needs to be scrutinized by the consumers. The production of biopics with scripts akin to hagiographies and dramatic portrayal of various policies that can potentially influence public opinion and elections have become the new vogue. Films like ‘Uri’ portrayed the ruling party’s determination to uphold the honour of the country and took painstakingly calculated measures to glorify the already inflated hype around the “surgical strike” against Pakistan. At the same time, films like “My Name is RaGa” and “The Accidental Prime Minister” were glaringly obvious attempts to slander the opposition and portray their leaders in a negative light. The ruling party even went as far as sharing the trailer of the “Accidental Prime Minister” on BJP’s official Twitter handle with the caption “riveting”.
Governments are there to be criticized, not idealized. Vigilance is the key to form an objective, unadulterated opinion. Recognizing the concept of propaganda films and questioning the participating directors, actors, and screenwriters could compel at least high-profile, mainstream celebrities to pull out of this practice. In such an extreme political climate, citizens mustn’t allow themselves to be influenced by propaganda films and selective, narrative-based journalism. Normalizing the growing relevance of citizen journalism and compiling information from independent news outlets like Maktoob Media and Khabar Lahariya could help us give an objective picture of the diverse issues and incidents from across the country.
Anzal Khan is a student pursuing B.Com (Hons) from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Diptarka Chatterjee