Films have always been used as propagandist tools of the establishment. Why the noise now then?
Films they say are a mirror of who we are and have since their evolution reflected society and history from the time-bound context of the story-teller, in this case the fillmmaker. And as they began to capture popular imagination and assume larger than life proportions as the most visual form of mass entertainment and a populist document of contemporary events, the political establishment discovered that such a spectacle could become a propagandist tool, be it of assent or dissent. It was during World War I that the British realised the power of films to change public opinion. The Soviets followed up on that template in the 1920s but it was Nazi Germany which perfected it, Joseph Goebbels being the inventor of newsreels that had to be screened mandatorily before a film. Of course, there was a slew of films which showed the Germans as having a charmed life compared to its neighbours. Post-war, there was a counter-movement of the Jewish narrative, war movies extolling Allied efforts to defeat Hitler and the travails of persecuted Jews. Even now Hollywood indulges in these war films and builds the American saviour narrative through sci-fi, space films or the usual Gulf and Afghan war tropes. Then there have been biopics, all of which attempt an understanding of historical personalities and their conflicts through rather tinted glasses in retrospect. The point of citing all these examples is that we have no reason to circle out The Accidental Prime Minister or Uri or Thackeray as sudden propagandist films that have been unleashed on our national consciousness, extolling the virtues of the protagonist as representative of hyper nationalist times. And if the latest groupfie of Bollywood’s young brigade with Prime Minister Narendra Modi is anything to go by, they have willingly offered themselves to contribute to his brand of nation-building, probably in gratitude for his move to lower GST for the industry. So that’s the give and take. Over the last five years, Bollywood has voluntarily propagated three of the government’s initiatives, Swachh Bharat, menstrual health and Make in India through Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Padman and Sui Dhaga and claimed tax breaks.
Besides we needn’t worry. Our biopics on political leaders are never the researched but the perceived reality which reduces them to being caricatures. Spiced up with creative liberties, depending on whom the narrator wants to please, these films usually end up being crass crowd-pleasers than great classics. Second, the Congress, which is claiming that the portrayal of the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his uncomfortable relationship with the party high command was based on “incorrect facts and bias”, should remember its own intolerance, for want of a better word. Even a mature filmmaker like Shyam Benegal, while trying to rescue the historical worth of Subhash Chandra Bose from the Nehruvian stranglehold, had to pass through many hurdles during filming of Bose, The Forgotten Hero. In the 1970s, a serious filmmaker like Gulzar had to face red tape releasing Aandhi, as it was too close to former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s life. Satirical films critiquing the Emergency like Kissa Kursi Ka and Nasbandi were released only after it was lifted. While the NFDC arthouse films were allowed to dissect social and economic ills, and the broader Bollywood stayed clear of politics to birth a series of champions of the have-nots, one cannot say that they did not have a hidden agenda sometimes in promoting the establishment line of thinking. So if the Congress regime strengthened propaganda by cracking down on dissent films, one may say the BJP went a step further, supporting positive films that popularised its agenda in an entertaining format. Both are equally guilty of plying an old tool of trade.