There is a relationship of convenience between Bollywood and the Indian government. In recent times, movies dealing with polarizing contemporary political issues like “The Kashmir Files” (2022), “The Kerala Story,” (2023) and “72 Hoorain” (scheduled to be released later this year) have become a trend. These movies evidently model themselves as campaign runners for the 2024 general assembly elections for the ruling government. Propaganda films are, thus, mobilizing Indian voters, especially the youth, toward voting for vested political interests.
“Every five years, a new number of voters come into the fold and new ideologies develop through dissemination of such movies,” said Sayandeb Chowdhury an assistant professor for cinema and literature at Ambedkar University in Delhi.
“The movies have made it possible to tell the younger generation that nothing called Gujarat riots ever happened. At least, there can be a new film which will whitewash the crimes of Gujarat. The more cultural disconnect and historical disconnect there is, the easier it is to manufacture a narrative for the new voters, and here is where I think propaganda movies are actually playing a role,” he added.
Films create “an entire world, an entire history which is completely fake.” The narrative virtually influences people, and often physically translates into public disturbances, rumors, and riots, Chowdhury said.
Ajay Brahmatamaj, an author and film historian, told The Hindu, “There is no doubt that there was a Leftist influence on Indian cinema for decades after Independence. Now the BJP and the RSS want to use this soft power of the cinema to their advantage in a more direct fashion by creating narratives around their icons before the 2024 polls.”
The upswing of propaganda films has been notable in recent years. Vivek Agnihotri’s film “The Tashkent Files,” released in April 2019, revolved around the mysterious death of India’s second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. The film alleged that Congress, the main opposition party, was responsible for Shastri’s death. The movie was released during the election campaigns for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
A biopic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, starring Vivek Oberoi, was initially scheduled to be released during the same time. The Election Commission of India, however, postponed the release of the film. Despite facing a lawsuit filed by the Congress party, the film was eventually released. It was alleged that the film served as a promotional tool for the ruling party, highlighting the shortcomings of the opposition, including Singh’s perceived subservience to the Gandhi family. This raises the question of how “accidental” such film releases are in relation to elections.
Driven by the success of “The Kashmir Files,” the movies scheduled to be released in the lead-up to the 2024 elections include “Dr. Hedgewar,” a biopic on Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) founder Keshav Baliram Hedgewar; “Main Deendayal Hoon,” a biopic on Hindutva icon Deen Dayal Upadhyay; and “Swatantrya Veer Savarkar,” a biopic on the champion of Hindu nationalist ideology, V.D. Savarkar, among others. These are a few examples of productions largely conforming to the dominant ideology of Hindutva nationalism as promoted by the ruling government.
One of the most prominent projects is “Bhagwa Dhwaj,” a high-budget historical epic delving into the origins of the RSS, an umbrella Hindutva group with close ties to the ruling BJP. The screenplay is by V. Vijayendra Prasad, an acclaimed screenwriter associated with successful films like “Baahubali” and the Academy Award-winning “RRR.” Prasad was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the present BJP administration.
Scriptwriter and editor Apurva Asrani wrote in a tweet, “Overwhelmed by the pre-election line up of propaganda films. Never in my 23 [years of] career have I seen cinema used so cunningly to influence votes. And while I think censorship & bans are totally undemocratic, i [sic] wish some credible talents hadnt [sic] sold their souls to the propaganda mills.”
In November last year, Nadav Lapid, an Israeli film director and the jury head of the 53rd International Film Festival of India, described director Vivek Agnihotri’s film “The Kashmir Files” as “vulgar” and “propaganda.” Later Vivek Agnihotri wrote in a tweet, “Truth is the most dangerous thing. It can make people lie. #CreativeConsciousness.”
Despite facing criticism for his remarks, Lapid maintained his position on the film. In an interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, he said while making bad films is not a crime, this is a “very crude, manipulative and violent propaganda film.” Three other members of the jury supported Lapid. The only member who differed was Sudipto Sen, the maker of “The Kerala Story.”
Notably, the BJP government also backed the film. “The Kashmir Files is a bold representation of truth. It will work to make the society and the country aware in this direction that such historical mistakes are not repeated. I congratulate the entire team for making this film,” said Home Minister Amit Shah while meeting those who worked on the movie.
This development came a day after Modi in a parliamentary party praised “The Kashmir Files” and emphasized the role of the film industry in showing history. “The Kashmir Files” became the first Bollywood film post-pandemic to earn a profit of more than 2.5 billion Indian rupees ($30 million) while being made within a budget of 150 million rupees.
“There is a very distinct, top-down approach to propaganda films in India,” said film critic Tanul Thakur. “I watched ‘Kashmir Files’ a week after the film was released. I remember once the show was over, I saw a huge queue of people waiting to get into the theater. That never happens, I was like, ‘What explains it?’ It suddenly struck me that a day or two before, the movie was praised in the Parliament, and it was made tax-free.”
The box office collection of “The Kashmir Files” on the first day of its release was 35 million rupees. On March 12, the second day of its release, the movie collected 85 million rupees. Since then, major BJP leaders were rigorously promoting “The Kashmir Files” inside and outside the Parliament, especially on Twitter. The movie ended up with over 970 million rupees in ticket sales at the end of the first week.
Similarly, the opening day collection of “The Kerala Story” was 8 million rupees. By the end of the first week, the movie collected 810 million rupees. “The Kerala Story” earned a total of 2.4 billion rupees.
In an industry that fundamentally lacks a spine, it is Bollywood’s destiny to become a propaganda tool, Thakur said. These are people who don’t want to fight back. That is what makes this ecosystem of artistic peddling so vicious and disturbing, he argued.
The relationship between Bollywood and the ruling government is one of reciprocating favors. The film industry has received advantages in the form of political endorsements and tax exemptions. “The Kerala Story” was granted tax-free status in BJP-ruled states like Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh. and Uttarakhand. “The Kashmir Files” was declared tax-free in several BJP-ruled states, including Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, and Tripura, among others.
While exempting the 2019 film “Uri: The Surgical Strike” from the Goods and Services Tax, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adiyanath said, “This is a movie on the surgical strikes. The cabinet has decided to exempt it from state GST. This film is about the country’s valor and will instill a feeling of nationalism and patriotism. This will help youth and all citizens of the country to see it.”
In another instance, Ajay Devgn starrer “Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior” was declared tax-free in Uttar Pradesh. The film was based on the life of Maratha General Tanaji Malusare and was released alongside Deepika Padukone’s “Chhapaak,” which was based on the life of an acid attack survivor. The opposition Samajwadi Party questioned the decision of the government, claiming that “Chhapaak” should have been granted the same tax-free status. “The film ‘Tanhaji’ has been declared tax free simply because it raises the all-important issue of a brave general who fought invaders. His bravery and selfless gesture in driving the intruders away and his act of supreme sacrifice would definitely inspire people. That’s why the Adityanathji’s government decided to make it tax free,” said Shalabh Mani Tripathi, adviser to the chief minister.
The state has made cinema the preferred medium of disseminating information because of the popularity of Bollywood and the appeal of actors among the masses.
“I think all these fascist or proto-fascist or autocratic kinds of governments have made great use of the proliferation of social media. The question is, if social media was successful, then why are they doing the films? Probably because now they want to create an entire story,” said Chowdhury, the Ambedkar University professor.
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Mateen Ahmed said, “In India the impact of movies stays longer. People after watching ‘Kerala Story’ will have discussions on it. Even though they might not entirely believe it’s the truth, it will change the opinions and the way the mechanism of politics works in our country. It will eventually turn the vote bank on their side. It happened in 2019, too. The ruling government is trying to do the same in the 2024 elections.”
Propaganda is layered; hiding someone’s truth, showing a half-truth, and showing falsehood is all propaganda, Ahmed added.
While understanding movies like “The Kashmir Files” and “The Kerala Story,” it becomes evident that their intentions extend beyond financial gains. They seem to be methodically aimed at influencing specific opinions, suggesting a broader agenda.
Films can influence beliefs, attitudes, and social standards. Compared to other forms of media, they have a higher potential to influence opinion and disseminate ideas. As a result, the unexpected influx of political films and biopics and the timing of their release raises questions about politicians using Bollywood’s and Indian cinema’s influence for the next general election in India.
As per Thakur, public memory is notoriously short and fickle. “It will help the ruling party more if movies like these come closer to election times.”
That said, he pointed out that many propaganda films fail. “I will give you an example. [The biopic] ‘PM Narendra Modi’ was released on the day the BJP won the 2019 elections. It tanked. People could have watched it as a celebration, but nobody watched it.”
Thakur continued: “With respect to cinema, it is also about entertainment. ‘Kashmir Files’ is an interesting example. It was a repulsive film, but an engaging film.”