There’s a popular sawabout how when the US entered World War II, it wasn’t just soldiers who were enlisted but also Hollywood. In fact, the American war office had a unit dedicated to reviewing film scripts that could sell the war to its citizens. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship, which has since gone from strength to strength. Hollywood’s portrayal of the valiant American saving lives around the world is now a staple and quite a unique cultural phenomenon — no other country makes as many movies glorifying itself as the US does.
During WWII, it was easy for Americans to come off as the good guys ranged against the evil Nazis. But even when America’s role was not quite so angelic, as for instance during the infamous Vietnam war, Hollywood did not flinch from its duty — John Wayne’s The Green Berets glorifying US soldiers came four months after the My Lai massacre where they wiped out an entire village.
Not that others didn’t know a thing or two about cinema as propaganda — Hitler’s favourite filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is considered quite the masterclass as far as puff pieces go. Closer home, we too are busy manipulating trauma to make lurid cinema. But the US is a class apart; its reach so terrific that it is in your face all the time, all over. It presides like the Grand Panjandrum over the McDonaldisation of propaganda.
I have been watching agog as this plays out in real time. Within days of the war, my social media began to throb with Ukrainian arts and crafts. And old men are now painting pots and young women tatting lace all over my feeds. At one time, the only Indians to have heard of Chicken a la Kiev had to have dined at Kolkata’s gently fading Mocambo; now folks are making tribute versions at home. Overnight, Ukrainian sopranos and folk dancers have burst upon my timeline and home bakers are icing cupcakes in blue and yellow.
Of course, none of this is accidental. It’s the Grand Panjandrum at work, squeezing our tear ducts for all it’s worth. Don’t get me wrong — I abhor war, killing and destruction. I sympathise with the Ukrainians. I am just astonished that in all my years on social media I’ve never encountered so much as a cushion cover embroidered by Palestinians. Nor seen a Kosovan recipe go viral.
Last week, Hollywood hulk Arnold Schwarzenegger made a video telling Russians he loved them and warning them that Putin, the president they were so mistakenly supporting, was waging an illegal war. The moving speech had Russian subtitles and got 1.3 million likes on Twitter. Arnie, of course, has always been a patriot. In 2003, when the US was wreaking shock and awe on Iraq for weapons of mass destruction it did not possess, good ol’ Arnie hadn’t dwelt on legal technicalities, instead telling US troops: ‘You are the real Terminators!’
Americans who would’ve been hard put to find Ukraine on a map are suddenly waxing eloquent about Zelensky and the puppies he loves and the babies he kisses. Of course they are — the Ukrainian president’s brave and handsome face has been moving them to tears on every domestic TV channel they turn on. Meanwhile, Fox News reprises a year-old story of a Russian model killed by her boyfriend, with the headline ‘Russian model who trashed Putin found dead’. And The Economist, which has staunchly defended every war the US has launched with headlines like ‘A heart-rending but necessary war,’ has suddenly discovered peace, placing a bleeding Ukrainian flag on its cover.
Of course, the culture war must also be fought in reverse. So, the heroic western world that has always insisted on civilising the rest of us pagans is now busily banning Russian cultural icons from Yuri Gagarin and Dostoevsky to Tchaikovsky and Tarkovsky, not to mention sundry dancers, tennis players, musicians and models. No doubt they’ll soon decide it’s Tolstoy’s anti-war classic War and Peace that incited Putin.
But there is one upside to all this mayhem. The end of the Cold War had created a huge villain gap for Hollywood, and it has been making do with psychopaths of varying degrees. Now, the evil Russian can make a glorious return.
I started my column in 2014, and it’s been eight years of joy and learning. I move now to other pastures but, like Schwarzenegger, might just be back. Till then, adieu and thanks for all the fish!