Lights, camera, election: Bollywood goes into poll mode

Shunning the inclusive approach, Hindi film narratives are busy promoting aggressive nationalism and Islamophobia and are demonising left-leaning liberals before India votes this summer 

Updated - March 15, 2024 01:19 pm IST

Published - March 15, 2024 01:06 pm IST

A poster for ‘Fighter’

A poster for ‘Fighter’

A female police officer vowing to eliminate left-leaning liberals that support the rights of tribals on natural wealth, a fighter pilot eager to occupy Pakistan, and a news anchor desperate to put out the truth of the fire in Sabarmati Express at Godhra station in 2002. The images of aggressive nationalism, Islamophobia, and the ‘Red Scare’ are wafting into theatres to build public opinion against the political opponents of the ruling dispensation.

As it seeks a third term, cinema halls are turning into rallying points for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to help create the mahaul (political atmosphere) in its favour. The notification of election is yet to be made and parties and alliances are still being broken and forged but a section of the film industry has already declared its manifesto and is indulging in dog-whistle politics.

A far cry from the stated credo of inclusivity defined by sabka saath, sabka vikas and sabka vishwas, historical events, it seems, are being skewed to fit a particular communal narrative by dividing communities into monolithic groups of heroes and villains based on religious and ideological identity. The spaces and issues that are contested or have existed for years in a grey zone are being insidiously turned into a black-and-white contrast that suits a political narrative.

The chronology of the release dates tells a story. Since January, every other week we have a film that reflects the ruling dispensation’s thrust on a contentious issue, stated or otherwise. Hrithik Roshan’s Fighter took a shot at the promised Akhand Bharat while reimagining the Pulwama attack and the subsequent Balakot strike. Yami Gautam’s Article 370 explained the government’s vision of Naya Kashmir where peace is earned through the bullet and not negotiated through the back channel diplomacy. This week, Adah Sharma’s Bastar: The Naxal Story is holding left liberals, which the party leaders often describe as urban Naxals, to account for the Maoist insurgency.

A poster for ‘Bastar: The Naxal Story’

A poster for ‘Bastar: The Naxal Story’

This idea of finding the enemy within is taking another shape in the form of the upcoming film JNU whose provocative poster made it to social media this week where a reputed Central university’s name is mischievously expanded as Jahangir National University — a centre of education that promotes anti-national ideas, teases the poster. The university is being repeatedly used to get even with political opponents with hardly any creative filters.

Then, The Sabarmati Report will unravel in the first week of May when the political temperature is expected to be peaking. In a statement, the makers said that the film narrates a story of events that took place in The Sabarmati Express on the morning of February 27, 2002, near the Godhra railway station in Gujarat. Before that Razakar: The Silent Genocide of Hyderabad backed by a BJP politician and set against the blood-soaked backdrop of Hyderabad’s merger with India, is striking a disconcerting tone against a religion with its trailer.

Changing ecosystem

Apart from seeing controversial issues and events in a ‘new’ light, an attempt is being made to put one source of light against the other to provide ideological muscle to the claims. It started with Rajkumar Santoshi’s Gandhi Godse: Ek Yudh, where Gandhi was charged with appeasement and Godse had the last word.

It continued this year with Pankaj Tripathi’s Main Atal Hoon, a sanitised biopic of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and is now ready to take the next level with Randeep Hooda’s Swatantra Veer Savarkar that seems keen on whitewashing the conflicted personality and legacy of a freedom fighter who wrote multiple mercy petitions to the colonial power and accepted a pension from those he once fought against. Unlike Gandhi, Savarkar believed in the power of cinema, and, ironically, decades after his death, the medium is being used to help him scale Gandhian stature.

Randeep Hooda in ‘Swatantra Veer Savarkar’

Randeep Hooda in ‘Swatantra Veer Savarkar’

There is a concerted effort to correct the ecosystem which the right-leaning influencers in the film industry say hasn’t changed as much as they wanted it to in the last ten years. They see it as an ideological shift and put it under the umbrella of freedom of speech, a counter view that was allegedly suppressed when film folks saw the world from the prism of bhaichara (brotherhood) or Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (syncretic culture), euphemisms for appeasement politics.

However, in the real world, the Prime Minister still takes G-20 leaders to pay floral tributes at the Gandhi Samadhi. The new ecosystem speaks with a forked tongue. Replying to an RTI query, the Home Ministry said it didn’t have any information about urban naxals or their activities.

We saw a similar but limited attempt without much box-office success before the 2019 polls as well but the new variants are a lot more technically polished and emotionally manipulative in putting the point across. Also, they are being headlined by competent actors such as Hrithik Roshan, Randeep Hooda, and Yami Gautam and are backed by producers for whom it is proving to be a safe proposition.

Investing in political narratives

As the industry means business, producers are investing in political narratives after seeing the box-office success of The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story. They feel there is a mass that wants to see the dramatic representation of what is dog-whistled at political rallies and newsroom debates and give the crude WhatsApp chats a creative shape. For the foot soldier, the advantage is that ‘suitable’ portions make it to reels to roll over the facts over and over again.

For instance, the Indian government had described the surgical strikes after Pulwama as a ‘non-military pre-emptive strike’ but Fighter frames it clearly as revenge. The Central Board Of Film Certification, until recently was very careful about how the Prime Minister is portrayed on the screen, let a declamatory statement like “Show them who is daddy” go in his name in Fighter.

At another level, it shows the makers like politicians don’t want the Pulwama episode and the Balakot strike to go off public memory. In 2019, we had Uri: The Surgical Strike on the same operation by the same producer. The difference is while the movie threatened home invasion, Fighter talked of the possibility of ‘India Occupied Pakistan’. Telugu film Operation Valentine also milked the same events with lesser intensity and craft. Curiously, the creative fraternity, like the ruling party, is silent on the martyrs of Galwan so far.

It is not that this polarising cinematic discourse is going uncontested. Dissent is taking allegorical shapes to avoid censorship. Last year, it was very much present in the measured subversion of Pathaan and Jawan while Afwaah and Bheed measured the impact of disinformation. The surge in films around the 1971 war and Indian intelligence officers’ exploits in Pakistan ended up endorsing the view that India had a well-endowed chest before 2014 as well.

Ae Watan Mere Watan, a Karan Johar production, releasing on an OTT platform next week documents the sacrifices the youth made to win us free speech. Based on the life of Usha Mehta, the freedom fighter who ran the secret Congress Radio during the Quit India Movement to take the message of the incarcerated Congress leadership to the people, the film will see socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia who has hardly been discussed in popular culture. Not to forget, Devashish Makhija’s Joram evocatively talks of the deliberate invisibilisation of tribals in the name of development and Kiran Rao’s Laapataa Ladies cleverly delivers a political punch on social hypocrisy by stimulating those who seek a ban on hijab to look within.

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