Bollywood’s accidental politics
Three films releasing in theatres this month build into a larger narrative that favours the ruling party
Imagine attempting a Hindi film double bill last weekend. You would have begun with The Accidental Prime Minister. Rahul Gandhi looks lost. Sonia Gandhi looks like Nurse Ratched. The UPA government is a cesspool of political machinations. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh, played by Anupam Kher, is soft, feeble. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appearing at the end in a news clip, is so much livelier.
Next up would have been Uri: The Surgical Strike. Modi’s in this as well, played by Rajit Kapur. Kher’s portrayal of Singh was on the brink of caricature; the audience snickered at the halting, high-pitched voice he assumed. But they don’t laugh in Uri, because Kapur doesn’t say “mitron", doesn’t try to imitate Modi. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looks as organized and decisive in this film as the Congress looks uncaring and rudderless in the first.
In The Accidental Prime Minister, Singh has to manoeuvre the nuclear deal past the unwilling Gandhis. In Uri, Modi doesn’t hesitate before ordering a strike on Pakistan-administered soil. The films paint a neat composite picture for the undecided voter: The ruling party is tough on terror, tough on Pakistan; the opposition is power-hungry and doesn’t have the stomach for aggressive geopolitics.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton ran a controversial ad in the race for the Democratic Party nomination which asked the question: “It’s 3am (in the White House). Who do you want answering the phone?" Last weekend, the Indian version of this played out in cinemas across the country. But Clinton’s was a paid political ad. This is free publicity. And the timing couldn’t have been sweeter: a few months to go for the general election, one film with an ineffectual challenger, another featuring a capable incumbent.
The day the trailer of The Accidental Prime Minister released, it was shared on Twitter by the official BJP handle. Last weekend, Amit Malviya, head of the BJP IT cell, suggested taking the family to see both films. He also tweeted another video which has a group of stars—Varun Dhawan, Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh, among others—shouting “Jai Hind" twice (it was a promotion for Uri). “Have we ever heard film stars chanting Jai Hind like this before?" he wrote. “This is what changed in 4 years!"
Bollywood has been chanting “Jai Hind" for some time now. And the BJP and its allies have so successfully cornered the market on vocal nationalism that any film with a patriotic bent can be seen as doing their work. Almost every month last year, some film or the other waved the flag: PadMan, Gold, Satyamev Jayate, Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran. In Baaghi 2, Tiger Shroff’s army man ties a stone-pelter to his jeep, just like Major Leetul Gogoi did in Kashmir. Later in the film, he pauses while decimating a police station, catches a small plastic India flag mid-air, and places it down carefully. This was greeted with cheers—probably emanating from the same sort of people who harass others for not standing when the national anthem is played.
A lot of this is simple commerce—patriotism is as saleable today as youthful romance was in the 1990s. With this comes opportunism. When Kangana Ranaut praised Modi and spoke against cow slaughter in July last year, it was a soft signal to his base that she’s one of them—and would they please also watch her nationalistic period film? Manikarnika, which stars Ranaut as the queen of Jhansi, who fought the British in the 1850s, is set to release on 25 January—just before Republic Day. The trailer ends with the queen saying that the difference between her and the British is that they want to rule and she wants to serve. This is the same argument Modi used against the Gandhi family in the run-up to the 2014 general election.
Thackeray also releases on 25 January, completing an unusually political month at the movies. There was some shock when Nawazuddin Siddiqui accepted the role of Bal Thackeray, erstwhile leader of the Shiv Sena, in what would likely be a propaganda film (it’s directed by Abhijit Panse, a former Sena member now with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena). Why would he agree to play the founder of a party whose workers had forced him to pull out of a Ram Leela performance in his UP village? But Siddiqui has never been outspoken politically. It’s unlikely he agrees with the Sena’s ideals, but he probably weighed that against the opportunity the role represented and decided it was worth the bad press. In this he resembles much of the Hindi film fraternity, which—apart from the right-leaning Kher and BJP MP Paresh Rawal (incidentally, stars of The Accidental Prime Minister and Uri)—is establishment-leaning but says as little as it can about politics. Few could even find the courage to support Naseeruddin Shah when he was being threatened for saying he felt worried for his children in today’s India.
Last year, Chalo Jeete Hain, a short film inspired by Modi’s childhood, released. Two feature films on the prime minister are in the works—one starring Vivek Oberoi, the other, Rawal. The Hindi film industry has always flattered those in power, and will continue to do so. Uri and The Accidental Prime Minister may not have started out as propaganda. Yet, by releasing when they did, by opening alongside each other, and by feeding a larger political narrative, that’s what they ended up as.