Fuelling hate through film: Bollywood flooded with pro–Modi movies for India 2024 elections

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Millions of voters across 93 constituencies cast ballots in India on Tuesday, where the multi-phase general elections will run until 1 June 2024 and where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been mounting up polarising rhetoric in incendiary speeches that have targeted the Muslim minority.

The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Modi, is vying for a rare third term, and intriguingly, has been utilising soft influencing tools like 'propaganda' films from Bollywood.

During his decade-long tenure, Modi has positioned himself as a champion of a "new India." He has done this by adopting stringent yet divisive policies on “nationalistic issues” such as revoking the autonomy of the disputed Muslim-majority Kashmir valley.

This has been an attempt to assert dominance over neighbouring rival Pakistan, and making a concerted attempt to reshape India’s secular democracy into a Hindu nationalist country. 

"Modi’s policies have often been perceived as deeply entrenched in Hindu nationalism, with critics arguing that they harbour discriminatory implications against minority communities, particularly Muslims"

These ideas are prominent themes in recent releases such as Swatantra Veer SavarkarJahangir National UniversityArticle 370Mai Atal Hoon, all promoting Modi and his policies.

Additionally, there's a host of lesser-known films released lately or scheduled to be released, such as Bengal 1947Razakar and Accident or Conspiracy: Godhra, all based on ultra-nationalistic, xenophobic or Islamophobic themes.

The majority of these films are either directed or produced by individuals with links to the BJP and in one case, even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the paramilitary Hindu rightwing organization which is the ideological fountainhead of BJP.

Modi’s policies have often been perceived as deeply entrenched in Hindu nationalism, with critics arguing that they harbour discriminatory implications against minority communities, particularly Muslims.

The recently released body of films not only accentuates Modi’s right-wing agenda but also denigrates his critics and opponents.

“Films like these have ignited a weird nationalistic fervour,” Rajesh Rajamani, a filmmaker and film critic, based in Chennai, told The New Arab.

Rajmani explains there are two sides to the cinema gaining pro-establishment momentum at this point in the country.

“One is the uncertainty within the cinema itself, which is confusing the makers about what kind of content resonates with the Indian audience in today’s polarised times,” he elaborated.

“The other is right-wing filmmakers trying to leverage polarising and provocative content to attract viewers.”

"While post-independence Bollywood emphasised themes of national unity and inter-faith solidarity, recent years under Modi's leadership have seen a departure, with a shift towards ultra-nationalistic rather than socially conscious cinema"

India leads global film production with around 2,000 movies annually, surpassing Hollywood's output by a significant margin.

Bollywood, a thriving industry centred in the western city of Mumbai, has historically blended entertainment with societal messaging.

While post-independence Bollywood emphasised themes of national unity and inter-faith solidarity, recent years under Modi's leadership have seen a departure, with a shift towards ultra-nationalistic rather than socially conscious cinema.

Shohini Ghosh, a prominent film scholar and essayist based in New Delhi, believes that employing popular cinema as a campaign tool to promote Hindutva (a modern political ideology that advocates for Hindu supremacy) is fostering hatred towards religious minorities and also significantly contributing to a divisive narrative in the country.

“Such narratives pose a risk of worsening the deep ethnic and religious divisions in the country,” Ghosh told The New Arab.

Films possess a visceral appeal of their own. People become immersed in that sensorium,” she added. “Hence, it's the current milieu that filmmakers are capitalising on.” 

Divisive cinema

Despite the barrage of pro-government films released since January 2021, which are criticised for their blatant propaganda, there has been little to no oversight on the content of these films.

Numerous narratives within these films propagate Islamophobic conspiracies, frequently disseminated within Hindu right-wing circles that share ideological alignment with the BJP's political objectives. These stories also depict critics of the ruling BJP in a negative light.

“Majority of these films are purely propagandist in their outlook. They're not artistic at all,” said Ira Bhaskar, a former member of India’s censor board and a retired Professor of Cinema Studies at the School of Arts & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.

“What’s even worse is that these films bank on narratives portraying minorities as enemies, targeting government’s critics while also pushing lies and debunked theories about minorities such as Muslims,” Bhaskar added. 

Films such as Article 370 released in February this year, stand as an overt celebration of Modi’s contentious decision to revoke Kashmir's autonomy and statehood, portraying him as a decisive leader safeguarding India from an unresolved turmoil.

This portrayal mirrors a broader pattern evident in works like the biopic on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the chief ideologue of India's Hindu supremacist movement, and Jahangir National University, which purportedly exposes the “anti-national agenda” of a New Delhi-based university, suggestive of Jawaharlal Nehru University, which members of right-wing have regularly targeted for its left-leaning student union groups.

Another upcoming film claims to expose the conspiracy surrounding the 2002 Gujarat train fire, a catalyst for one of India's deadliest anti–Muslim riots at the time when Modi was the state's chief minister.

This cinematic trend, as Bhaskar pointed out, is epitomised by successes like The Kashmir Files (2022), a film based on the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the conflict-torn Himalayan valley and The Kerala Story (2023), a film about Indian women converting to Islam and joining the Islamic state.

These films have discernibly amplified hate in the country. For instance, cinema halls frequently witnessed audience members expressing sentiments of inciting violence against Muslims and endorsing their boycotts during the screening of these films.

Last year, two Muslim students were attacked after they objected to a student posting a link to The Kerala Story on a class WhatsApp group in a Government Medical College in the Jammu region.

In another incident last year, one person died and eight others were injured in communal clashes triggered by a social media post on The Kerala Story in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

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Modi and many key officials from his party have often been seen publicly endorsing these films while right-wing groups have frequently threatened to block the release of films they deem offensive to Hinduism and make calls on social media to boycott such films.

In February this year, Modi openly praised Article 370, despite many film reviewers calling it “factually incorrect” and a “thinly veiled propaganda film” favouring the government.

Experts say that apart from the state support, BJP is also employing its ground-level workers to promote such films. For instance, other discernible propaganda films like Razakar and Bengal 1947 saw promotion by people associated with the RSS through free screeningstax relaxations, and promotions on social media, leading to the creation of more such films.

“While some of these films do get successful, a lot of them don't, but now we see more of these films because they enjoy government backing even if it is covert,” Bhaskar said. 

Polarising discourse

Even as most of these films have been made by the second rung Bollywood actors and directors, mainstream Bollywood too has been riding on high patriotic and ultra-nationalist pride. For instance, the 2019 blockbuster Uri – The Surgical Strike, which was released prior to the 2019 general election and featured Bollywood stars like Vicky Kaushal and Yami Gautam, was based on India launching a “surgical strike” against Pakistan in 2016 following a deadly attack on the Indian Armed Forces in Jammu and Kashmir that same year.

"Bollywood has always had problematic films but never has been so blatantly polarising”

While critics called the film an implicit attempt to manufacture a collective sentiment of repulsion against Pakistan and packaged it as “persuasive propaganda,” more than half a dozen other films released in the last five years have portrayed Pakistan and Muslims as the “enemy”.

Recently released big-budget Fighter (2024), which stars A-listers like Deepika Padukone, Hrithik Roshan and Anil Kapoor, is based on Indian fighter pilots being assembled for a “quick response team” to counter a militant attack planned in Kashmir, is the latest among the films charged on hyper-nationalism.

Rajamani believes that the current atmosphere makes for a good substitute for “mediocre” films and filmmakers.

“For many, right-wing films have become a shortcut to instant fame and space in the industry,” he said. “Bollywood has always had problematic films but never has been so blatantly polarising.”

For over a century, Bollywood has been seen as a unifying force in India, a nation marked by religious, caste, and political divisions. However, recent films have challenged this perception, sparking debates about the potential consequences of such cinematic narratives on social cohesion in India.

“It is the change in discourse and the vision of India that bothers me,” Bhaskar lamented. “I am not worried about the artistic quality or elections being swayed by the propaganda films,” she added.

Ghosh echoes Bhaskar’s sentiments. “I don’t think these films would stand the test of time,” Ghosh said, adding, “But I feel really bad that in the future when we look back at this phase of cinema, we all are going to be very disappointed.”

Hanan Zaffar is a journalist based in New Delhi and has written extensively on South Asian politics and minority issues

Follow him on Twitter: @HananZaffar

Jyoti Thakur is an Indian journalist and fellow at Earth Journalism Network and Village Square

Follow her on Twitter: @jyotiithakurr