Bollywood's Propaganda Wheels Have Been Set in Motion

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Sayandeb Chowdhury ( teaches at the School of Letters at Ambedkar University, Delhi.
21 May 2019

In this election season, propaganda in Indian cinema has come of age.

Once upon a time in Hollywood, socially conscious cinema would be frowned upon. It was a standing joke in Hollywood that a studio-era executive, on hearing a sober, earnest script with deep substance would swoop down on the table and say: “if you want to send a message, use Western Union.” (Westwell 2013). 

While the humour drives home the apathy, it also draws attention to the nature of cinema itself. Cinema was born in the age of industrial capitalism. It was at home with spectacle and could be attuned to a popular language of articulation. Cinema could also be "seen" like art, travelled much wider than theatre, could be reproduced infinitely, and could talk, sing and dance. But most importantly, cinema’s appeal as a visual and synaesthetic experience gave it the undeniable potential to simulate the world closely.

Film theorists André Bazin (1967) and Siegfried Kracauer (1997) call cinema an "indifferent" recording medium, which delivers an image as if it is unhinged from any agency; and does not readily draw attention to its own plasticity. This "neutrality" or "automatism" thrives in the ability of cinema to record existence "as such." Coupled with the controlled environs of cinema’s viewership, its ability to conjure an attractive, in-screen realism ensured a participatory, and often, unquestioning audience. It is, therefore, no wonder that as technology improved and cinema earned global approbation, it emerged as the preferred weapon for mass mobilisation—at least in Hollywood, and in various other parts of Europe.

But how does propaganda operate in terms of Indian cinema, with all its diversity and populism? How have films been used to enhance political control? To answer these questions, we need to explore the idea of propaganda itself.

Hollywood’s Griffith Syndrome

The relationship between cinema and propaganda has not always been easily discernible. In the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the hand of the state was clearly visible with the "social realism" that had characterised cinema at the time. The Soviet state had clearly defined rules about the role of the author, the expectations from the form, and the exact nature of its execution.

But at the other end of the spectrum, in Hollywood, there was no rule book because cinema was an uber-capitalist enterprise. Hence it was no surprise that the same studio bosses who ridiculed social cinema, were also making films that carried propaganda. And it started early. W G Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915)—a three-hour epic full of eye-popping editing, and avant-garde photography—ran parallel to the film’s unapologetic plea for white supremacy, and its nostalgia about an antebellum South. The New Yorker’s film critic Richard Brody (2013) calls the film “disgustingly racist yet titanically original,” that never fails to surprise, especially for it being the foundational film for cinematic realism. Hollywood’s very first epic work of fictional "realism" is hence also one of its most painful works of propaganda.

 next film Intolerance (1916)—a monumental epic that stitched four stories across 2,500 years—Griffith was on the right side of ethics; but he found himself on the wrong side of history. Film critic Pauline Kael thought that it was “perhaps the greatest movie ever made and the greatest folly in movie history,” (Pfeiffer 2013). 

Next, Griffith accepted an invitation from the British High Command to make a film to boost the morale of the Allies during World War I. As Westwell (2013) wrote:

Released in 1918, Hearts of the World has the Allies displaying moral rectitude and bravery in the face of German atrocity. This is typical of propaganda films of the time, which, by demonizing the enemy as evil and subhuman, maintained support for a costly imperial war. 

If his first film passed a racist fantasy as realism, his second made history amenable to a film-maker’s craft, and his third was a flag-bearing apology for war. Either way, Griffith became germane to cinema’s potential to be used for propaganda. But if Griffith was known only for his on-hire politics, he would be less of a figure. The difficulty is that he was also a talented film-maker. His “grand and enduring aesthetic,” as Brody says, would not let his art be consigned to the adolescent follies of cinema’s early years. This is also the troublesome part of Griffith’s legacy—that he is considered to be among the finest of film-makers in the 1920s. Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Pottemkin (1925) and October (1928), and Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) were grand, patriotic paeans to their respective nations, but also excellent cinema, committing to the screen some of the finest imagery ever. The climax of this kind of “great-cinema-as-propaganda,” was Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of Will (1934) and Olympia (1936), visionary artistic enterprises in service of Nazism.

The fact that in the long run, these artistic films are more effective testaments to cinema’s capacity to influence public opinion, than the cock-and-bull kind of zeitgeist films, is a compelling reason to revisit cinema’s political limits.

Early Bollywood and Propaganda

With the Indian Cinematograph Act of 1918, the censor boards in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and Rangoon were created under city police chiefs, which ensured that the colonial state in India was watching cinema made for public consumption with a hawk-eye. The possibility of subversion or propaganda—communal, Communist or anti-state—was crushed at the onset.

The Cinematographic Act of 1952 retained most of its predecessor’s preoccupation with surveillance. Perhaps this was why overt propaganda films, or even lambent ones, never really took shape in India. So, negligible exceptions aside, the Nehruvianism of 1950s’ Dilip Kumar films, Raj Kapoor’s derivative socialism or Guru Dutt’s genteel nostalgias never became vehicles for overt politics—having largely remained entrenched in romances. Even “war” films like Hum Dono (1961) and Haqueeqat (1964), or even Manoj Kumar’s Upkaar (1967), Purab aur Paschim (1970), and Kranti (1981) did not carry overt political messages.

If there was a hint of statist propaganda in these films, they were largely subsumed by flashy humanist proclamations, and song-and-dance compulsions that were intrinsic to Hindi cinema. It is no surprise, hence, that there has hardly been any powerful documentation of partition in Indian cinema, because it was likely to show the Indian state in unflattering light. Those that did - Garam Hawa (1973), Andhi (1975), Kissa Kursi Ka (1977) and New Delhi Times (1986) did face the disapproval of the state, but they were too niche to be seen as formidable transgressions.

Even the apparently anti-state “Angry Young Man” figure could never coalesce itself into any significant embarrassment for the Indian state, since much of that energy was spent to manufacture Amitabh Bachchan’s stardom. State-financed "New Cinema" was more socially progressive, rather than politically adventurous, except perhaps Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) which gallantly satirised the establishment. The angry films of Govind Nihalani - Aakrosh (1980) and Ardh Satya (1983) were financed privately.

In the South, however, cinema has long been used for political ends. M G Ramachandran, N T Rama Rao, M Karunanidhi, J Jayalalithaa have all used their cinema to further political goals, while also using pulpit populism to ensure their cinematic durability. 

Rising Jingoism

It was not until the 1990s that the Indian state woke up to the potential of Bollywood as a cultural commodity with a global appeal. Mainstream cinema gradually became a popular template to peddle the state’s neo-liberal agenda. Hence, the Gujarat pogrom documentary Final Solution (2004) and Bombay-blast drama Black Friday (2007)—both showing culpability of state actors at times of gross public violence—were given a hard time by the censor board during the Congress regime. The openly Islamophobic Gadar (2001) ran to packed houses during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era. By the early years of the current decade, Muslim villains and an open call to go to war against Pakistan through chest-thumping jingoistic vitriol had been normalised in Bollywood.     

But what we are witnessing currently, is something unprecedented. A series of films have been made with the objective of "influencing" public opinion during the election season. Of them, the placid film made on Shiv Sena’s supremo, Thackeray, and the derisory The Accidental Prime Minister has found their way to theatres along with a two-part N T Rama Rao biopic and another film, Yatra (2019) inspired by YSR Rajasekhara Reddy. On the other hand, My Name is Raga is turning out to be a ridiculous project, while the makers of Baghini (The Tigress) have insisted that it is not the biopic of Mamata Banerjee. The most contentious of them—PM Narendra Modi— was prevented from reaching the silver screen last minute (A A K 2019).

The makers of this tactically released film expected viewers (and the censor board) to treat it as a work of innocent fiction. The same applies to the television series on the life of Modi. It is impossible to measure their "influence" this early, but the films (and trailers) seem to have a severe aversion to realism and nuance. They are unfailingly loud, declarative and sensationalist portrayals of kindergarten-level political triumphalism. In the end, these films prove to be too blunt to influence the most naive audience.

More effective is the furtive propaganda of a film like The Tashkent Files (2019), which is an investigative story about the unexplained death of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. The entire script is geared to craftily discredit the Indian National Congress. Viewers from younger generations might take this film as a version of the truth, if not truth itself. It is in line with films like the Sikh-saga Kesari (2019), and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavat, a designer drama that peddled misogyny and Islamophobia under the guise of cultural pride.

"Social" films with a purported message, like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) and Padman (2018) try hard to cover up their peddling of government schemes with an uplifting, distracting storyline. The film that does this job disturbingly well is Aditya Dhar’s Uri (2019). Uri’s attraction is in its technological sophistry, taut script and its compelling performances. The film’s sheer visual appeal will not let the casual viewer question the film’s premise: a macho celebration of the unverified “surgical strike” on Pakistan in 2016. In terms of being propaganda, these films are sharper and more effective, having learned to camouflage their real, unctuous intent.

This election has been unsettling at various levels with high-pitched jingoism and open threats of nuclear war. In terms of cinema, this is also the moment when the genre of propaganda has come of age, as is evidenced by films like Uri, which have learned the craft of carefully bending history and polity to reinforce the depravity of the state. Whether or not they will be instrumental in bringing back the incumbent is, presently, indeterminable. But what is certain is that propaganda cinema will henceforth become more confident in its subterfuge. Bollywood is now more prepared than ever to make movies that will imagine a xenophobic political landscape that does not need any substantiation. So the questions we should be asking are whether films like Uri can be seen as traditional forms of political skulduggery on celluloid. Or are they effective political weapons in today’s hyper-visual, inter-medial, post-truth age?


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Sayandeb Chowdhury ( teaches at the School of Letters at Ambedkar University, Delhi.
21 May 2019