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South Asian upbringing: Bollywood as propaganda

Krisha Hirani discusses the increasing use of film-based propaganda in the Indian film industry.

CW: Violence, discussions of Nazism

Under the supervision of Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany produced 1,200 feature films both before and during the Second World War. The German National Socialist propaganda films are now understood to be blatant propaganda, designed for effect on the public.

The Allied powers also produced propaganda films for home and foreign viewing to boost morale in the war effort.

Cinema has been at the heart of propaganda efforts since its invention, being used effectively as a tool of intense influence in dictatorships and democracies alike. Its immediate effect in modelling mass perceptions allows film to be used as a method to advocate for national causes and to oppress dissidents.

The Indian film scene – of which Bollywood is the biggest part – has not escaped political agendas. The BJP and their Hindutva agenda takes deep interest in the Hindi film industry with clear intention of manipulating it as effectively as the likes of Goebbels have in the past in the influx of nationalist movies being produced since the party have been in power.

These movies claim to be dramatised historical accounts of India’s efforts to defend against its many invaders – focusing disproportionally on the Muslim Mughal Empire and pitting them against a seemingly honourable Hindu protagonist, fighting to save his land, religion, and people. Patriotism and des bhakti (devotion to the country) are becoming increasingly – and uncomfortably – prevalent in Bollywood.

The trailer for Tanhaji (2020) describes the defence as a ‘surgical strike’ – re-appropriating the phrase from the 2016 surgical strikes carried out by the Indian Army after 20 soldiers were killed in Uri by terrorists. The strike itself had its own movie called Uri: Surgical Strike (2019), painstakingly detailing the decisions and tactics used by the army and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who sanctioned it. The expression is now thrown around by politicians to push the nationalist narrative and refer to Modi’s so-called ‘successes’ as Prime Minister.

Tanhaji should have told the story of a Maratha victory over a section of the Mughal Army that was led by a Rajput fort keeper. All the immediate characters in the story are Hindu – despite the association to the largely Muslim Mughals invaders. In the movie, the main antagonist is dressed in a Pathani turban (disregarding historical accuracy of his being from Rajput), with eyes lined with surma (eyeliner commonly used amongst Muslim men) and dark costume sets. His dress leaves audiences to associate him with Bollywood’s previous portrayals of Islam and does nothing to tell them of his Hindu identity, almost definitely because he is the antagonist of the film. Islam then becomes synonymous with the enemy – not far at all from the BJP’s political narrative, especially considering the recent hijab ban.

The protagonist is heavily associated with Hinduism – the non-secular depiction of the Maratha force is historically inaccurate. Directors decided to use the ‘Om’ (the most prevalent Hindu symbol) on the saffron flag. The saffron flag is historically the Maratha flag and a is a colour with intense meaning in Hindu and Buddhist culture. It has also been re-appropriated by the BJP and their Hindutva agenda. The placement of the ‘Om’ is an aggressive move to push the Hindu narrative behind the film and is fundamentally not true of the historical account of the flag or the Maratha battle against the Mughals.

What’s more is that the film also subscribes to the BJP’s concern with caste, entirely re-writing the protagonist to raise him from a lower Koli class to become a Bhramin (the highest caste). The narrative becomes one that pushes the Hindutva agenda at a multi-level basis, from the supremacy of Hinduism, the criminality of Islam and, finally, the superiority of some castes over others.

In placing these socially-constructed ideals in the basic narrative of the film – irrelevant of how historically accurate it is – Bollywood and the BJP work hand in hand to push the narrative of Hindu nationalism into the consciousness of the Indian subcontinent and its diaspora. The strength of the grip and its incredible global reach is terrifying.

Other movies that have been accused of distorting history include: Mohenjo Daro (2016), Manikarnika (2019) and Padmavat (2018).

In fact, the controversy surrounding the release of Padmavat is evidence in itself of the control the BJP’s politics have had over the Indian public. Based on alleged rumours of an intimate scene between a Muslim Mughal king and the Rajasthani queen, lead actress Deepika Padukone faced death threats from extremist groups as well as the distinct threat to cut of her nose should the film be released. Protests took India into a chokehold over the production, with the Supreme Court banning the film in the four states of most intense resistance – Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh – and I am deeply ashamed to say – my own Gujarat. It feels important to state here that Modi was the longest serving chief minister of Gujarat between 2001 and 2014. The rumoured scene that caused the backlash was not part of the film.

Amongst the shame and anger and outrage that I feel around the politicisation of Bollywood into a tool of Hindutva propaganda, disproportionally targeting the Muslim community, is a deep-set terror. Hindi is the 3rd most spoken language in the world with 615 million speakers – that is 615 million people who are a potential audience for this Islamophobic and neo-nationalist narrative. That is not counting all the people who will watch these films dubbed or with subtitles. Over 615 million people who have the potential to subscribe to this quasi-Nazi ideology.

Image Credit: Flexfxproductions, CC BY-SA 3.0

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