In 1938, Charlie Chaplin started work on The Great Dictator. Even though it critiqued the Nazis, Chaplin was forced to self-sponsor, direct and write the project himself because most mainstream Hollywood studios were hesitant to disrupt ties to German finance, or risk making an overtly political project. Additionally, many in the establishment felt appeasing Adolf Hitler could work, so official censorship was also a real threat. Yet, showing tremendous personal and ideological fortitude, Chaplin forged ahead. The film belied expectations and became Chaplin’s biggest commercial success. It was nominated for five Academy awards and became a cult classic.
Contextualise the enormity of Chaplin’s achievement. Swimming against the tide, his film mocked Hitler’s fetish for photo-ops, self-aggrandising schemes and critiqued the attacks against minorities to distract from economic failures. Most importantly, it exposed the futility of placating authoritarian figures. This was when Hollywood consciously eschewed taking an anti-Nazi stand on screen, even if it privately opposed Nazism.
A site of contestation
A similar situation has come to pass in India. India’s film industries are now a site of ideological and political contestation, as The Kashmir Files and Pathaan controversies highlight. The BJP is consistently leveraging films to sway mass audiences. Mixing religious imagery, patriotism and nationalistic ideals, these films methodically propagate key Sangh Parivar mythologies. The importance given to this endeavour is demonstrated by the fact that no less than the Prime Minister had multiple meetings with key film industry stakeholders, in an effort to prod them into producing “nation-building films”.
There has also been a concerted effort to suppress projects which do not fit the BJP’s vision of and for India. Consequently, barring some notable exceptions, India’s film fraternity consciously self-censors itself, hoping to ride out the storm. Faced with a dispensation that stops at nothing, this self-preservation imperative is understandable. After all, why should an actor or producer or director stand up for constitutional values when they face boycotts and threats, when investigative agencies are unleashed on them, and when no one publicly stands with them?
Coincidentally, this assault comes at a time when the nature of film consumption is undergoing a structural shift. As the DVD and retail business model has been rendered obsolete, filmmakers no longer get a second shot at turning a profit. This has been exacerbated by the unfortunate reality that confronting regressive values and uncomfortable truths is now a high-risk endeavour, for it could invite the wrath of regressive forces. Faced with these legitimate concerns, filmmakers are opting to churn out extravagant, high-budget films that are divorced from reality, or ‘safe’ films.
But India’s film industries do not have the luxury of escaping socioeconomic and political realities. First, the BJP is creating a ‘committed film sector’ by attacking the structural integrity of the film and television sectors. By marshalling the full resources of the state (the merging of four film media units ignoring criticism from the industry, subsidising projects of aligned filmmakers, the censor board withholding clearances, etc.) and coaxing its core vote bank to support films that pander to its political and ideological projects, the BJP is gerrymandering the market. That is partly why films like The Kashmir Files and Tanhaji did well commercially.
Second, progressives are targeted not just for their project choices or because they dissent from the BJP, but for what they represent — an India where you could succeed no matter who you are or where you came from. Motivated by their ideological imperatives, these regressive forces need to constantly reinforce two things to their core vote bank, namely that broad-minded, outspoken and disruptive actors/filmmakers cannot shape India’s image of itself, nor do they have an equal space in films.
Third, audiences do not seem to be watching films as an escape from reality. An ideologically captive audience is seemingly endorsing films that mirror what they are force-fed daily through the electronic and digital media. This is not just an act of solidarity with populist mythologies connected to national, religious and community pride; it also enables them to exert illusionary control over those they don’t agree with.
However, following Newton’s third law, it follows that there is a liberal audience that spurns films with regressive values. That is why films like Samrat Prithviraj, Dhaakad, Manikarnika, etc. tanked at the box office, despite the initial leg-up they got from the BJP’s ecosystem. If viewership trends on OTT and digital platforms are anything to go by, a silent majority is desperate for films that do not propagate communal, casteist, xenophobic, racist and undemocratic values. In this reading, films that objectively and sensitively address socioeconomic and political realities can succeed commercially. These include Jai Bhim, Mandela, Article 15, Sardar Udham, Raazi, Mulk and Pink. Similarly, films on the farmers’/students’ movements; the lived realities of women, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Kashmiri Pandits, OBCs, Adivasis and Dalits; and India’s multiple successes since 1947 could resonate with, and bind Indians together positively.
Admittedly, actualising these requires courage. But the film fraternity needs to realise that it is an equal partner in fostering a national consciousness. While it does not need to wade into polarised political debates, it can (and must) use its craft in defence of our shared values. Unless it spearheads films and serials that remind us to preserve our humanity, that weave a symphony from the many voices of India and that envision a better tomorrow (while being truthful about today), this tsunami of hatred will not pass.
The shared work of progressives
Yet, the onus of furthering constitutional values is not on India’s film fraternity alone. It is also on other progressive forces (including political parties). Given how insidiously regressive forces are colonising the minds of our fellow Indians, all progressives need to support each other in this normative battle for India’s soul. We need to propagate our shared values creatively because high-sounding appeals to protect secular, democratic and liberal values do not sway the silent majority. Furthermore, given the state of a section of India’s media, we need to open up new fronts. Unless we display politico-cultural dynamism, the BJP will keep changing its goalposts and unleashing new culture wars that liberals will struggle to catch up to. That is why progressives need to support the film and television industries. Civil society/political action against outfits attacking film sets, raising their issues in the legislature, the media and the judiciary, and establishing new platforms and means of support are just a few ways in which India’s film industries can be tangibly supported.
B.R. Ambedkar had argued that “constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated”. Seen in this light, it is incumbent on progressives to collaborate in the cultivation of mass emotions. Doing this would mean influencing social consciousness through soaring political rhetoric, disruptive movements like the Bharat Jodo Yatra, and the strategic use of popular culture. Notwithstanding the attack on India’s constitutional edifice, we must recognise that this is also a moment of possibilities — to redesign our operational methodologies, to shed ideological infirmities and to create a more liberal, just and compassionate India.
Pushparaj Deshpande is the Director of the Samruddha Bharat Foundation, a multi-party platform that furthers India’s constitutional promise & the series editor of the Rethinking India series (Penguin)