From PM Narendra Modi to Thackeray: With political propaganda films on a rise in Bollywood, moviegoers must maintain a critical eye
As a tool of propaganda, cinema can either create divides or bridge them. So often it has been used with the former goal in mind, but by remaining a critical and rational viewer, one can prevent this unfortunate outcome.
Even as the Election Commission of India submits a detailed report to the Supreme Court regarding the putative violation of the Model Code of Conduct by the release of highly controversial biopic PM Narendra Modi, various questions about the role of film medium for biased political propaganda have been raised. This comes in the backdrop of recent events in Indian political context wherein the relationship between politics and cinema has become even more pronounced. Following the release of Uri: The Surgical Strike, which dramatises a military mission Modi approved against Pakistan in 2016, recent releases have included The Accidental Prime Minister, an unflattering portrait of the former Congress-era premier Dr Manmohan Singh.
The biopic on Modi seems like a sequel to these movies which reinforces the ideology of current establishment at the time when the general elections are underway. Watching these films impress the notion of the superiority of the current establishment at the expense of factual information and cultural sensitivity. These films led many people to draw erroneous conclusions regarding the government and its policy as well as about the personalities of opposition leaders.
The biopic paints Modi as an efficient administrator and showcases him as the greatest Prime Minister of India. There is no doubt regarding the propagandist agenda of bolstering Modi’s persona, designed to provoke devotion rather than debate. Portraying Modi as a hardline patriot and flauntingly depicting his great love for the country, the movie sets a stage for his advertisement as the most desirable PM. It also tends to whitewash Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat carnage. As Salil Tripathi argued, the corporate media’s attempts to show Modi as an inclusive stateman as part of “the strategy to remake Modi begins with the claim that the Modi of 2014 is not the Modi of 2002; that he appears to have moderated his views”.
Film and Politics: A Background
Contemporary film theory insists that to fully explicate filmic ideology and the ways that film advances specific political positions, one must also attend to cinematic form and narrative, to the ways that the cinema apparatus transcodes social discourses and reproduces ideological effects. In this context, it is important to understand that the film ideology is transmitted through images, scenes, generic codes, and the narrative as a whole.
Even as hegemony over political and institutional power of the right-wing forces is increasing, the system of knowledge and information dissemination have come to be subjugated under this brute control. The ideologically biased nature film censorship shows an attempt to an asymmetry of cultural knowledge that leads to the creation of an uncritical and uninformed citizenry.
A History of Contradictions
For much of history, the connection between politics and film has been both intimate and concealed. Films have often served as a tool of propaganda given their unique ability to reproduce images, movement and sound in an extremely lifelike matter. Unlike other art forms, films possess a sense of immediacy and are capable of creating the illusion of reality. For these reasons, movies are often taken to be accurate depictions of real life. This issue becomes even more pronounced when films depict unknown cultures or places.
While serving as a source of entertainment, movies are able to arouse social consciousness by distorting historical events. This makes film both a persuasive and extremely untrustworthy medium. Political officials have long been aware of cinema’s powerful attributes, and have thus used this media forms to mobilise and indoctrinate society with different views.
While painting the varied aspects of and weaving it into a story, cinema also captures the political dynamism of epoch. In our readings of 1970s films, we detected intense battles between liberals and conservatives throughout the decade in mainstream Hollywood, with more radical voices — of the sort that occasionally were heard in the late 1960s and early 1970s — becoming increasingly marginalised.
As the decade progressed, conservative films were becoming more popular (eg Rocky, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman et al) indicating that conservative sentiments were growing in the public and that Hollywood was nurturing these political currents. And even the most socially critical films (such as the Jane Fonda films, Network and other Sidney Lumet films, among others) posited individual solutions to social problems, thus also reinforcing the conservative appeal to individualism and attack on statism. The film Rambo synthesises this "return to Vietnam" cycle with another cycle that shows returning vets transforming themselves from wounded and confused misfits to super warriors (ie Rolling Thunder, Firefox, First Blood). All of these post post-Vietnam syndrome films show the US and the American warrior hero victorious this time and thus exhibit a symptom of an inability to accept defeat. They also provide symbolic compensation for loss, shame, and guilt by depicting the US as "good" and this time victorious, while its communist enemies are represented as the incarnation of "evil" who this time receive a well-deserved defeat. Cumulatively, the return-to-Vietnam films, therefore, exhibit a defensive and compensatory response to military defeat in Vietnam and, I would argue, an inability to learn the lessons of the limitations of US power and the complex mixture of good and evil involved in almost all historical undertakings.
The Mirage of Objectivity
The film as a vehicle of information is as susceptible as any other medium to the enthusiasm and bias of a director who aims at producing a certain effect on his audience. The compilation of a documentary film is not unlike the writing of history. Each process entails the selection and presentation of facts. It is of course quite impossible to rule out bias in work of this kind; a man's mind is at all times receiving impressions and forming judgments. But the same criterion which we apply to the historian can be applied to the documentary producer: be his "faith" what it may, it must not lead him into deliberate falsification or suppression. With an impassioned speech on the film’s ability to incite an emotional response, one could not help but realise the authority of the film industry.
Bollywood and glorification of Hindutva
For the last few years, the cultural affiliation of Bollywood has been shifting towards a more forceful expression of Hindutva. For a very long time, the films have resonated with dominant majoritarian culture, but in recent past, they have been politically channelised to target a section of the Indian community. When Thackeray succeeded at the Box Office and enjoyed popularity across India, one thing was clear, that Hindu nationalist image of Bal Thackeray outweighed his nativist image. Similarly, the movie Padmavat and the controversy about its release presents the perils of glorification of majoritarian encroachment over Indian cinema.
All this being said, it is essential that moviegoers maintain a critical eye when viewing films. As a tool of propaganda, cinema can either create divides or bridge them. So often it has been used with the former goal in mind, but by remaining a critical and rational viewer, one can prevent this unfortunate outcome.
Bhaskar Kumar and Prannv Dhawan are students of National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. Prannv Dhawan is the Founding Editor of the Law School Policy Review.
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