Propaganda films at election time
Ahead of an election year, it’s peak propaganda that tells its viewers to vote for the right candidate, but doesn’t have any political party actively endorsing or backing it.
One of my memorable film viewing experiences was the legendary MG Ramachandran’s 1958 classic, Nadodi Mannan (The Vagabond King), at Coimbatore’s iconic Delite cinema back in 2014, the centennial year of the theatre. The first film that the actor directed and produced had him in the double role of King Marthandan and revolutionary Veerangan. An engrossing mix of intrigue and emotion, comedy and action, it was above all politically charged in its dismissal of monarchy and call for democracy with MGR as Veerangan getting thumping approval from Delite’s predominantly underprivileged audience as he spoke about the oppression of the poor.
Nadodi Mannan often gets mentioned in Indian cinema history as a “propaganda blitzkrieg”, “party manifesto” and “ideological vehicle” for the DMK, with party flags visible through the film. It also firmly established MGR as a “revolutionary leader” of the masses, the one who never lost an election in Tamil Nadu. At its very basic, the propaganda in the film was replete with idealism—anti-injustice and pro-reforms, a film of the people and for the people.
Cut to 2023 and I find Shah Rukh Khan trying to attempt something similar in the dual role of father and son in the biggest blockbuster of the year, Jawan—fighting corruption and kickbacks in arms deals, helping dispossessed farmers, making a case for sturdy medical infrastructure, and above all exhorting people to exercise their franchise with care. Ahead of an election year, it’s peak propaganda that tells its viewers to vote for the right candidate, but doesn’t have any political party actively endorsing or backing it.
As opposed to this old-fashioned positivist, pro-people pamphleteering, this year has also seen the success of Anil Sharma’s Gadar 2, that rides on the animus against Pakistan, and Sudipto Sen’s The Kerala Story, heavily promoted by the BJP and RSS and used in the Karnataka assembly election campaign by none other than the PM himself. About Islamophobic stereotypes and conspiracy theories about conversions, love jihad, radicalisation and extremism, it has been one of the biggest hits of the year so far.
As we move towards 2024, propaganda cinema in Bollywood is interestingly poised and shifting shape. Political parties and governments have tried to leverage media and cinema to their advantage since time immemorial. One of the earliest recorded propaganda films is supposed to be a 1939 social drama, Master Vinayak’s Brandy Ki Botal, which was reportedly sponsored by the Congress and promoted Gandhi’s prohibition ideology.
The cinema of the 1950s and early 1960s reflected the Nehruvian vision of harmony, pacifism and progress and socialist nation-building in films such as Jagriti, Ab Dilli Door Nahin, Naya Daur, Hum Hindustani, Dhool Ka Phool, Dharmaputra and a lament-like war film, Haqeeqat. Even critiques of Nehru’s policies in films such as Pyaasa, Phir Subah Hogi, Footpath, Shree 420 and Do Beegha Zameen were marked with grace. These were social commentaries stressing pro-people policies and community building; they were deeply nationalistic without being shrill. The remnants of that Nehruvian aesthetic could be seen later in the humanism of films such as Lagaan, Chak De India and Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
Then there were films like Shyam Benegal's Arohan (1982), in which Om Puri played a disempowered tenant farmer whose destiny changes for the better once the first Communist government comes to power in West Bengal and he gets his rights. A veiled endorsement of the Left Front government.
Things have come a long way with the BJP understanding the power of propaganda more cannily than the rest. In 2019, propaganda cinema before the elections was fawning and personality-focused with two features and a web series pivoted on the PM. Uri celebrated the 2016 surgical strikes. In the biopic PM Narendra Modi, Vivek Oberoi, playing him on screen, justified not apologising for Godhra: “Maafi gunehgaar maangte hain aur kanoon saboot (A wrongdoer asks for forgiveness and the law demands evidence).” Then there was Eros Now’s web-series titled Modi: Journey of a Common Man.
Another kind of propaganda film questioned the Congress: Vivek Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files raised questions around Lal Bahadur Shastri’s sudden death and Vijay Gutte’s The Accidental Prime Minister caricatured former PM Manmohan Singh.
Since then, the BJP has smartly bolstered a majoritarian cinema that has been emerging as a counter to the Nehruvian narratives of yore. It’s about promoting the BJP ideology as that of the nation rather than just giving props to Modi. There are films based on government achievements—Toilet Ek Prem Katha, Mission Mangal—and others that platform the rise of aggressive jingoism with slogans like—"How’s the josh?” There are revivalist historicals—Tanhaji, Manikarnika, Samrat Prithviraj—and others harking back to mythology and Bharat’s supposedly supremacist past. Like Adipurush, Brahmastra, or the recent Ram Setu. What’s galling, however, is the whipping up of communal hatred targeted against the minorities in films such as 72 Hoorain and Ajmer 92 as a mode of stoking Hindutva pride.
While propaganda cinema is acquiring these variegated shades, it’s apparent that not all of it is working. Post 2019, apart from Tanhaji, The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story, the rest have bombed at the box office. It’s been the same with the fortunes of film stars seen as BJP mascots, be it Kangana Ranaut, who delivered a new dud in Tejas, or Akshay Kumar, whose new film Mission Raniganj had few takers.
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It’s tough to expect nuances and accuracy in propaganda. But what about the aesthetics of messaging? Pamphleteering too has its art. The reason why Leni Reifenstahl’s Nazi propaganda Triumph of the Will (1935) is a prescribed text in cinema studies for its motifs, camera work and editing. The technique of montage traces its roots back to Soviet propaganda cinema. Close-ups and fadeouts were pioneered by DW Griffith in The Birth of a Nation (1915), the first film to be screened inside the White House and denounced later for its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan and the racist depiction of African Americans. Hollywood’s Vietnam war films and anti-Soviet Cold War propaganda of Rocky IV entertain even while peddling American glory. Meanwhile, we are tortured as much by The Kerala Story’s hate politics as by its awful filmmaking.
Industry watchers feel making propaganda movies is more of a business decision than a reflection of the makers’ politics. It’s also all about ensuring clout. There are many such films waiting in the wings. The self-explanatory titles like Accident or Conspiracy: Godhra, directed by MK Shivaaksh or Ranaut’s Emergency, Agnihotri’s The Delhi Files on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Dhruv Lather’s Operation AMG on the evacuation of Indians amid the war in Ukraine, Ram Vamsi Krishna’s India House, Ram Charan’s production on the “140th birth anniversary of our great freedom fighter Veer Savarkar Garu”, and Randeep Hooda’s Swatantra Veer Savarkar. Will they make money at the turnstiles? That’s anybody’s guess. Colonising the minds of the masses is not always easy. While elections are fickle, the box office is even more so.
(Follow her on X @Namrata_Joshi)