Campaigning is inherent in any election across the world. Over the years, the form and style of campaigning has evolved and is touching new heights in every subsequent polling. The attempt has always been to leave a lasting impact among the voters, at least till the time of voting. And for this, nothing can be more useful than the audio-visual medium and cinema is the most powerful among all. The political parties have realised this long back and that is why we have seen many films across the world that propagate a particular ideology or party. India too is no exception in this regard.
Although we have had many political films in India, only limited have been made with direct reference to one particular party or leader of the polity. But times have changed. Now everything is direct and transparent (?), it seems. Even more important than making is the timing of the release of a film so that maximum political benefit can be reaped as that is the prime motive along with commercial gain. Indian filmmakers, mostly the Bollywood ones, are doing it very nicely in recent times.
The 2019 general election in India is perhaps one of the most exciting for any political enthusiast, and common people too, as it is widely touted as the battle to “protect the Constitution”. The outcome will decide if India continues its tryst with hardcore nationalistic agenda or moderate-liberal-secular politics will return for five years. We need to wait only till May 23.
However, the campaign pitch has already been set and parties across political spectrum have rolled out their pieces to woo the voters. The traditional methods like rallies, door-to-door meetings and advertisements in newspapers, TV, radio and outdoor spaces are being utilised fully by almost all parties.
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections are also seeing extensive usage of the social media by all unlike the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) dominance in 2014. The social media campaign almost set the path for BJP’s victory five years ago, when nobody could imagine the impact of campaigning in this latest form.
Amidst all these, one of the oldest media, cinema, somehow was left behind during campaigns so far. Nobody utilised it during the crucial two-three months of the campaigning before any election. However, it is all going to change this time in 2019. With at least five big-budget patriotic and political Bollywood films released since January and two more lined up to hit the screens on April 5, just six days ahead of starting of the Lok Sabha polls, the game looks different this time. And not so surprisingly, all these seven are either directly or indirectly promote the nationalistic Hindutva ideology, benefitting the BJP.
The Hindi feature films that have already been released are Uri: The Surgical Strike, The Accidental Prime Minister, Thackeray, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi and Kesari. The two films, Romeo Akbar Walter (RAW) and PM Narendra Modi will be released on the first Friday of April. Out of these, three are directly related to existing Indian political discourse, while the rest promote ultra nationalistic sentiment, in a jingoistic manner to certain extent.
The biggest of all these flicks having direct link with the current Indian political system is PM Narendra Modi. Carefully planned to release the film on April 5 across the country, the BJP is pinning hopes that the film will influence the cine goers to a large extent in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Omung Kumar-directed this biographical cinema is expected to be released in over a dozen different languages.
The trailer of the film has already been watched by over 19 million people in YouTube. As per the trailer, the film will showcase wide range of incidents from Modi’s childhood to him becoming the Prime Minister of the country. It includes the famous ‘chaiwala’ kid selling tea at railway station and his aim of becoming a ‘sanyasi’. If we go by the trailer, the film is going to be very critical of the Congress rule in the country with portrayal of Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi. It has also taken note of the ridicule that how could a ‘chaiwala’ become the Prime Minister.
“Modi Modi” chants, melodramatic dialogues on patriotism, role of RSS in the society, Gujarat model and attack on Akshardham Temple are few of the incidents to be seen in the film. Pakistan-sponsored terrorism and revenge by India are likely to be highlighted in the PM Narendra Modi. ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’-shouting Modi is seen paying respect to Muslim people with folded hands in the film.
The powerful dialogue “Jo decision ek minute mein nahi hota, wo decision hi nahi hota” (The decision not taken in a minute is not a decision at all) is already making rounds. Some people are, however, making fun of this line saying that demonetisation was also taken in a minute without any thinking or discussion and that is why economy bore the brunt.
Whatever said, this film is just an attempt to whitewash the entire image of Prime Minister Modi as even Godhra massacre issue has also been included in the film and he is shown in terrible pain due to the “burning of Gujarat”. Releasing this mega film days before the world’s largest democracy goes to elect the next government cannot be just a coincident as the release date has been preponed to fit the campaign dossier of the ruling BJP, which is desperate to retain its power at the Centre.
A full-length feature film in multiple languages may take the entire BJP campaign to a different level. However, its success in terms of impact on public has to be seen in the days to come. Opposition parties have already written to the Election Commission of India to postpone the release of the film in view of the election. PM Narendra Modi has already been engulfed into a controversy with leading lyricists Javed Akhtar and Sameer denying writing the songs of the film and allegation that their names have been used falsely in the poster.
The Accidental Prime Minister, based on the memoir of the same name by Sanjaya Baru, the media advisor to the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was released on January 11, 2019. It was released in Tamil and Telugu too. Though the Vijay Ratnakar Gutte-directed film did not do well in the box office, it was critical of the UPA’s 10-year tenure. It especially showcased how the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi had “dictated” Singh, who on many accounts refused to budge. It showed as if Gandhi was only concerned how to make her son Rahul Gandhi the Prime Minister of India.
Singh’s character was enacted by veteran actor Anupam Kher, a hardcore supporter of the BJP and Narendra Modi. This film was strongly opposed by the Congress alleging that factually incorrect things were shown for political gains of the ruling BJP, which on the other hand advocated smooth run of the cinema citing ‘freedom of expression and artistic freedom’.
Abhijit Panse’s Thackeray was on the life of Balasaheb Thackeray, the hardcore Hindu leader and founder of the BJP’s ally Shiv Sena. The film, which was simultaneously made in Marathi along with Hindi and released on January 25, too bombed commercially. It tried to propagate Thackeray and Shiv Sena’s ideology as patriotic and pro-development of the Marathis as well as Indian people. It was a whitewash attempt on the life of the late Martha leader.
Uri: The Surgical Strike was a box-office hit immediately after it hit the screens on January 11 and ran for several weeks across the country. Patriotism and jingoism were inherent in this action-drama, based on the deadly terror attack on Indian Army’s Uri camp and the follow-up surgical strike in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. But this is not the only reason for its commercial success. This particular film by Aditya Dhar was also made beautifully and there was no loose moment, a very important aspect for any action film.
Also, the action-drama genre attracts the cine lovers the most. Uri: The Surgical Strike is perhaps the first film of Bollywood showing the real characters of the government in power. Though the actual names were not pronounced, the film showed the characters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Rajnath Singh, the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar, finance minister Arun Jaitley, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and others. National security adviser Ajit Doval was given a fictitious name, but the look was completely matched by Paresh Rawal with the help of makeup. This way, the film created a sympathy quotient for the present regime, which has been claiming credits for the success of the surgical strike.
Likewise, Romeo Akbar Walter (RAW) is also on anti-Pakistan sentiment and is based on the 1971 war. The film revolves around a spy, who is sent to Pakistan to collect sensitive information for the Indian machinery. The espionage thriller will remind people about Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, also on the same theme of the same period. However, the Alia Bhatt-starrer Raazi also showed the humane side of the Pakistani armed forces, but it looks unlikely in RAW with John Abraham in the lead. It seems RAW is an action package with likely depiction of the Pakistani Army in a bad light. The memory of Pulwama terror attack still being fresh, the timing of the film is crucial and hence, it will probably be watched by a large section of the film lovers.
Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi and Kesari are period dramas. Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi is on the life of Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. The film was released in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu on January 25. This film with ultra-nationalist fervour was dumped in the box office and could not manage to recover the cost. Kesari was just released on March 21, but its first three days’ collections are healthy. It is on the ‘Battle of Saragarhi’, in which 21 soldiers of the Sikh Regiment of the British Army were martyred after a brave fight with around 10,000 tribesmen from Afghanistan in 1897.
This film too advocates extreme level of nationalism. Also pertinent point is the name of the film – ‘Kesari’ means saffron, which identifies the BJP and right wing politicians. Although saffron was used by Sikh religious gurus during ancient times, but the present context implies something different.
Whatever arguments be given in support of and against these films, one thing is sure that the entire path of Indian cinema, especially Bollywood, is slowly changing. From presenting real problems in the first decade of this century, it has entered into a channel of political propagation, especially for the party in power. Perhaps now Bollywood has become bolder in the sense that it dares to showcase the political class in real identity. But there is a danger of polarisation too, and it may lead to manipulation of facts. So, ultimately the cine goers themselves have to judge what to accept and what not. Only time will tell if such open political propaganda movies will stay or this is just a passing phase of experiments. We have to wait till then.
(Sohail Choudhury is a senior journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com)