Few politicians – let alone prominent world leaders – tend to run the gauntlet of quoting cheesy phrases from films when making a major speech, fearing derision and ridicule. But when Narendra Modi began an address with a line from a Bollywood blockbuster, he struck gold.
“How’s the josh?” the Indian prime minister asked in his speech at the National Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai in January. The audience clapped in delight, recognising the line (josh means passion or zeal) from last year’s hit film, Uri: The Surgical Strike. The film is a dramatised account of India’s 2016 military action in Pakistan-administered Kashmir following a militant attack on an army base. The film has been called patriotic by some and propaganda by others.
As Indians go to the polls, the past few weeks has seen a debate on whether Bollywood has become a partisan supporter of Modi and the government. It wasn’t just Uri, whose director, Aditya Dhar, said he was honouring the army rather than Modi. There’s also the group of Bollywood stars who flew on a private jet in January for a meeting with Modi, later posting selfies that attracted many followers and comments.
Another story that fed into the debate concerned a Modi biopic, PM Narendra Modi. The trailer provoked criticism that the film was hagiography. It had been due for release on 5 April at the height of the campaign, but the Election Commission of India stalled its release after objections from the opposition Congress party.
These events led to a flurry of comments from critics, with some alleging that Bollywood is playing a leading role in helping Modi get a second term. Influential film critic Rajeev Masand told Reuters: “You can clearly say some of these films are propaganda films. There is no confusion on the agenda there.” Another critic Shubhra Gupta told Time: “It is all about working the optics and colonising the minds of the audience. A narrative is being built clearly, smartly and very insidiously.”
Writing in the Hindustan Times, columnist Smruti Koppikar said: “Bollywood’s participation in BJP’s [Bharatiya Janata party, which is led by Modi] propaganda has been extensive with actors, filmmakers and writers openly backing Modi, running down his political rivals, especially Congress president, Rahul Gandhi … and aligning their creative work with Modi’s agenda.”
In the past, Bollywood has largely stayed away from explicitly political films. The occasional star might appear at an election rally but more as a prop than any real endorsement. If any message was conveyed at all, it tended to be vaguely pro-establishment, not openly partisan. Some critics believe a distinct shift has taken place in the past few months to a more overt political stance.
Others disagree, saying it’s not so much a question of Bollywood supporting Modi but more that the industry has always wanted to be on the right side of the government, whichever party is in power.
“If someone suggested meeting Modi, which film star is going to say no? The BJP has always tried to co-opt the industry because it knows how to influence people through the media but a couple of patriotic films and a few stars meeting Modi, that isn’t the whole industry. It is huge. It is more than just 25 people. It is diverse,” said director Vinta Nanda.
Supporting the contention that Bollywood is not one-sided is the release this month of a film on Rahul Gandhi called My Name is RaGa. Earlier this month, more than 800 theatre and film personalities joined forces to sign online petitions urging voters to oppose Modi.
The fundamental point, numerous directors told the Guardian, is that only money talks in Bollywood. No one is going to spend billions of rupees making a pro-Modi or pro-government film unless they believe it will generate profits.
“The be all and end all of the industry is making money. Uri was a fantastic human drama waiting to be told. That doesn’t mean the director is cosying up to Modi. And if someone makes a film about Modi’s life, it is because he is the prime minister and it is seen as a business opportunity, not because the director loves Modi,” said director and trade analyst Komal Nahta.
The author Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr draws a parallel with Hollywood matching the public mood in America, by making films with anti-communist themes during the cold war or anti-German second world war movies, to illustrate his belief that a convergence often occurs.
“No one called Hollywood’s anti-communist films propaganda. You have to distinguish between films that portray the public mood and films that are outright propaganda,” he said.
In the 50s and 60s, Bollywood films were left-leaning and their themes matched the vision of the government to fight poverty and illiteracy. Likewise, Rao Jr argues, a similar convergence exists now with Bollywood pursuing nationalist themes to echo a somewhat nationalistic public mood.
“Bollywood wouldn’t make films like Uri if they weren’t successful and they are successful right now because the mood is pro-government. It’s not that Bollywood is being partisan but just that it is reflecting this mood,” he said.
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