Election season has arrived in India, and one of the main clarion calls to rally supporters is that of nationalism. From invoking the Pulwama terror attack to the Balakot air strikes by Indian fighter jets, the anti-satellite missile launch to labeling critiques as “anti-India,” nationalism is the heady cocktail much in demand in the election cycle. What makes it even more extraordinary is the participation of the Bombay film industry, or Bollywood as it is known in popular parlance. The most obvious example is the eponymous biopic on Narendra Modi starring actor Vivek Oberoi, being released just as Indians prepare to cast their votes this Thursday, April 11.
The Election Commission of India was approached to order a stay of the film, on grounds that it breached the model code of conduct. They temporarily stayed the release of the movie and referred it to a committee using its powers available under law. This ensures that the film will be on hold at least for now. Investigations by media outlets also revealed ties of the producers of the film and their lawyers with the ruling dispensation. Concurrently, Eros on its streaming channel is also a releasing a Web series, also titled Narendra Modi, based his life.
Because of their timing, conversation has centered on the propaganda effect of these media products and, unfortunately for this writer, not on the shoddy esthetics, botched-up prosthetics and sloppy dialogues. One can, however, turn to the memes and parody videos circulating on the Internet to derive some joy.
The biopic and Web series are not isolated cases. Earlier this year, Indians saw the release of Uri: The Surgical Strike, which just recently entered the coveted club of the top 10 highest-grossing Hindi movies of all time. The film, a dramatization of the supposed retaliation to the attack that happened in 2016 at Uri, Jammu and Kashmir, received official support from the Indian Army, which helped train the actors physically for the film.
Since its release, the film has become a cultural phenomenon, with part of its dialogue, “How’s the josh?” (How’s the enthusiasm?), becoming a popular catchphrase for sports persons, actors, politicians and the masses. Look no further, because the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used this slogan while presenting the annual budget for 2019. This year it seems the intersection between cinema and politics has never been deeper or clearer.
Commentary on these new media developments either seem to focus on the selling of Narendra Modi as a brand or on the nexus between media and politics and use of media by politicians for propaganda. The former line of thought suggests that the most viable brand in India today is that of Modi, and Bollywood like any other line of business is capitalizing on that. The latter suggests, drawing from Noam Chomsky’s argument on manufacturing consent, and from Nazi Germany, most notably Leni Riefenstahl’s film The Triumph of the Will, that the current circumstance is akin to these examples.
However, I would argue that while these arguments are valid, it is also true that the intersection among capital, film and politics has always existed. It was more sharply defined when Bollywood was officially recognized as an industry during the tenure of BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This current moment, it seems, is a manifestation of articulating a vision for the nation and the canny use of media by the current dispensation that has led to new ways of thinking through the relationship between media and politics.
The film Uri: The Surgical Strike and the Narendra Modi biopic are not isolated cases. This year saw the release of another film called The Accidental Prime Minister, a critical take on the United Progressive Alliance regime starring actor Anupam Kher, whose wife is a BJP member of Parliament. Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi starring Kangana Ranaut and written by advertisement guru Prasoon Joshi (also the head of the Central Board of Film Certification) not only puts its vision of nationalism front and center with chants of Har Har Mahadev (an incantation to Lord Shiva) resonating in the battlefield, but both actor and writer have publicly stated their support for the BJP government. Ranaut has even articulated that she felt like going to the Pakistan border after the Pulwama terror attack and “killing the enemy.”
But the biggest brand ambassador for nationalism in cinema is currently actor Akshay Kumar, whose movies also glorify Modi government schemes, most notably in the film Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (Toilet: A Love Story), which was an advertisement for the prime minister’s Swachh Bharat (Clean India) campaign.
And who can forget the viral selfie that was circulating online when key Bollywood celebrities met with Modi to discuss how they could “contribute to nation-building.” Contrast this to the controversy surrounding the film Gully Boy. One of its title tracks, “Azadi” (Liberty), sampled slogans by student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who led the Jawaharlal Nehru University protests in 2016 after he was arrested on sedition charges. Controversy erupted, with the left movement in India accused the filmmaker for appropriating the movement for commercial purposes, while the right of center leveled allegations of anti-nationalism.
What is interesting is the way the filmmakers and actors responded to the controversy. The actors declared themselves to be “apolitical,” and stated that they enjoyed listening to the song, while the makers said that poverty and hunger were universal issues, and also removed the “Azadi” chant. What emerges here is how cinema is articulating a vision of the nation. Here the nation is imagined as being hyper-masculine and having a nationalism influenced by Hindutva ideology.
Historically, cinema in India has actively essayed in conceiving an idea of the nation. For instance, when India attained independence from the British, its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru articulated his vision for the country, which was popularly known as Nehruvian socialism. Legendary filmmakers such as Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and Mehboob responded by making films such Awaara, Pyaasa and Mother India. In their films, the nation appeared as a secular constellation with its heart lying in the agrarian sector.
The vision of a masculine, Hindu nation is also connected to the canny way the BJP has often used media to perpetuate its politics. It’s a well-known fact that the party has used social media, most notably Twitter, mobile apps (the NaMo app), WhatsApp text and videos and the prime minister’s exclusive radio show Mann Ki Baat – Thoughts of My Mind) to gain an edge over its political rivals. But the BJP has always recognized the power and influence of media and demonstrated an ability to use it to further its own purpose.
Think of the time when the party first gained ascendancy during the Ayodhya movement to demolish the Babri Mosque in 1990. While the rath yatra (chariot journey) is the most memorable political campaign of that period, it is important also to remember that the party employed video raths (chariots), mimicked by Congress and other parties later, and contraband videotapes of the demolition and audiotapes of speeches by Sadhvi Rithambara, to reach the masses. The BJP has always set the field when it comes to using media for campaign purposes, with its rivals following suit.
This present moment is thus not just propaganda or a consolidation of a brand. It is the amalgamation of a vision of a nation meeting the media management tactics by a political party. What this present moment is telling us is that a new way of doing politics is emerging that relies heavily on a cross-section of media to get its messaging across. It will be too simplistic a reading to see this as propaganda, but focusing on this new terrain will yield a richer understanding of the current political landscape beyond that of speeches, rallies and manifestos.