How Right-Wing Populism Infiltrated Bollywood


Bollywood is a behemoth. You only have to be the film-industry next door to fully understand this. Debates about how Pakistan should safeguard its ‘nascent’ film industry against the giant, have been ongoing for a decade. Or rather, they have re-entered public policy debates, courtesy a much touted cinematic revival.

I’m not really one to assess whether Pakistani movies can triumph against their Bollywood counterparts. I’ll leave that to anyone who is delusional enough to believe their own predictions about the future. What I will just highlight, is that Bollywood is a very lucrative industry.

Albeit it goes through peaks and troughs, much like the Indian economy itself, the essential Bollywood formula persists. Dole out locally tailored, fundamentally compelling narratives to a loyal audience. Experiment with narrative forms, yes, but maintain an emotional scale that very few other mediums, or film cultures, can harness.

Within these admittedly broad parameters, Bollywood has garnered a reputation. It works on emotional responses. Even when dealing with grim subject matter, there is a beating heart at the forefront of most Bollywood movies.

Perhaps this is why propaganda films have also been able to find a place among the canon.

Once Upon a Colonial Past

To be clear, when I talk about ‘propaganda films’, I use it as a semi-neutral term. There are some salient features that films may possess, because of which they can be classified as propaganda. Most importantly, they seem to push a certain agenda, to the point where their main aim  is to influence their audience.

To an extent, all films could be accused of espousing agendas. They are after all visual representations of the ideologies embraced by their creators. In fact, don’t stalwarts of foreign policy have a saying that goes a little something like “the best propaganda is not propaganda”? That to truly influence, and get people on your side, you make the convincing seamless. So that an audience, any audience, pockets your world-view, before it even notices what it is buying in to.   

In fact, some may argue that one of Bollywood’s most shining achievements, is how it exerts soft power. How it is able to make anyone fall in love with Indian values, culture and India itself, with the flick of a single bangled wrist.

Arguably, this is also what makes Bollywood, or the prospect of cinema itself, so very powerful. Once upon a time, this is why colonial powers were suspicious of films produced in British India.

Because of the medium’s inherent complexity, films could be used to project world-views, and even insight action, while looking harmless. Invariably, it can be argued that some films released during this time did convey nationalistic messages. In spite, and evading the radar, of British-sanctioned censorship. 

The Art of Propaganda

So, for Bollywood to churn out movies that prioritize a certain world-view shouldn’t be a surprise. In essence, it is a part of the industry’s history.

But, there is a difference between a movie that favours one side of a story, and a propaganda film. In that an obvious propaganda film practically dances in your face, while waving a neon foam finger. I am also beginning to understand the importance of timing. Films exist within the context that they are released in, hence the timing of a film’s release matters. Like, when not one, not two, but three films all praise a prime-ministerial candidate, and are released in election year.

So qualifying a film as propaganda shouldn’t be difficult. Rather, if we are going to argue, let’s turn our canon towards what agenda said films are pushing. In the case of Narendra Modi’s government, I’m willing to give claims of right-wing populism some weight.

This article is getting really wordy, but bear with me. I mentioned in a previous article that not all populism is the same. I was referencing an article by Dani Rodrik, which distinguished between right-wing and left-wing populism. 

To recap; left-wing populism is based on economic fissures. Think people rising up against a corporate entity that usurped their land. Right-wing populism in contrast draws on cultural differences, the us versus them divide, if you will. The Modi government’s brand of populism is right-wing. It pushes an ideal of Indian-ness and pits this against touted ‘outsiders’.

Such populism seems to have entered the Bollywood machine.

2019: The Propaganda Film as A Genre

If you haven’t been paying attention, 2019 has already gotten four nationalistic-verging-on-propaganda Bollywood films. Three of them have been released; The Accidental Prime Minister, Uri: The Surgical Strike, Thackeray. The forthcoming Narendra Modi biopic, has also been announced. It stars Vivek Oberoi (yes, let that jaw drop).

If you actually saw the Queen of Jhansi ‘biopic’, then you’d put that on the propaganda list as well. Call me a history-purist, but when a ‘historical’ film looks more like a superhero origin story, then there is a conversation to be had.

Also, did I not get the memo? Have we all decided that biopics don’t have to be historically accurate anymore?

Anyway, if you turn to the plots of these movies, you’d see that the right-wing populist ethos is prevalent. All of them have an in-group, and outsiders threatening said group.

These outsiders do vary.

Uri settles on Pakistan, that is Narendra Modi’s favourite foe. It recounts the alleged ‘surgical strike’ claimed by India. But of course , factual accuracy be damned. The Accidental Prime Minister, read: the more pedestrian movie, aims its canon at Modi’s political rivals. And in the case of Thackeray, any non-Marathi group seems to be fair game.

And while I am in no way even attempting to discredit the horrors of colonization. But the British baddies in Manikarnika put Austen Powers’ villains to shame. I was genuinely waiting for a cartoonish laugh to escape one of them.

We Need A Hero

One aspect that I feel really posits these films in the propaganda camp, is the emphasis on a saviour. Classical story narratives tend to have a good versus evil shtick. They also tend to have one saviour, a superman (or woman) of herculean proportions. Someone, who can face the odds, emerge victorious, and does this because it is the proverbial ‘right thing to do’.

Recently, grim versions of storytelling have offered up challenges to this formula. As a member of the HBO generation, I am used to narratives centring on anti-heroes or even villain-protagonists. Game of Thrones boasts hardly any traditionally ‘good’ characters.

Even people who start out on the right side of the fence, have to embrace the dark side.

Aria much?

And even Marvel, arguably the gatekeeper of the preppy ‘good-guys and bad-guys’ rhetoric, made Thanos the beating heart of Infinity War.

But in the Bollywood narrative, this complexity seems to have taken twenty steps back. This is not to say that dimensionality never emerges from India. On the contrary, and this is why the digital medium is so promising. Because it allows those more nuanced, shades of grey to breathe.

But when you asses the Bollywood machine itself, the political divide has entered film language. You cannot have two sides to a story; there is only one. And according to recent films, there is a right-wing politician or political agenda at the helm of it.

The Pakistan Question

If we look at representations of Pakistan on Indian screens, they seem to sketch out the history of larger Pakistan-India relations.

Bollywood’s idea of Pakistan cannot be entirely true, because so much of it is tinged with stereotypes or politics, or both. But the image is not static, in fact it has seen multiple changes. 

I can’t go into a timeline of all these changes, because I have already kept you for too long. But here is a great article by an Indian film institute. It needs some updating, but really sketches out how Bollywood’s version of Pakistan has changed.

One thing that really stood out for me was how lineage could have aided in sympathetic portrayals. See, when icons of Bollywood’s golden age could actually trace their families to Pakistan, it wasn’t surprising that they were a bit more sensitive.

But contemporary Indian filmmakers do not have non-mediated links to their neighbours. Their concept of Pakistan, and Pakistanis, is shaped by what less-than-honest news channels feed them.  

Ups And Downs

But despite the lack of literal familial ties, there have been even recent attempts at cross-border comradery.

For instance, when 2018 saw some interesting Bollywood narratives centring around Pakistan, many rejoiced. They saw films like Manto and Raazi as steps towards a more nuanced conversation.

In particular, two episodes of Rajeeve Masand’s annual roundtable focused quite heavily on this.

In retrospect, I feel that such sentiments were premature.

The animosity that exists between the two countries, and the blatant statements made by Bollywood against Pakistan, are longstanding. A few complex narratives, even when they are well-received, cannot diminish them.

Remember, Raj Kapoor was able to cast a Pakistani leading lady in an Indo-Pak romance, during the 1990s. But this did little to curb the anti-Pakistan sentiment that existed in India at the time.

And even recently, the Indian film industry and audience did rejoice when they were introduced to some rather pretty Pakistanis. When the likes of Mahira Khan, Sajjal Aly, Humaima Malick, and obviously the fairest of them all, Fawad Khan made their Bollywood debuts. But as larger politics took an ugly turn, their welcome was revoked as well.  

 The Business of Populism

I called Bollywood a lucrative industry at the beginning of this article. And really, much of this soft power conflict comes back to that. Commercially released movies are made with profit margins in mind. If they do not perform well, they will not be made. Or at least, not at such grand scales.

And this is where the essence of cinema doesn’t change. Films that are not entertaining, compelling and in the case of Bollywood, that don’t elicit emotional responses will not succeed. Even propaganda is not enough on its own. It has to be good propaganda, even if it is obvious propaganda.

For example, Uri was able to garner a healthy box-office run. The Accidental Prime Minister, not so much. Like I said; pedestrian.

But, there is money to be made with nationalistic-verging-on-jingoistic sentiments. So much so, that there is allegedly, already Bollywood interest in the more recent Indian incursion into Pakistan’s borders. Again, I’m going to assume that factual accuracy will be thrown out the window.

I’m not sure how I feel about the new wave of Bollywood propaganda. And yes it is a wave, at least until election fever passes. It isn’t really anything new. It isn’t even unexpected.

But, considering the reality of our times, most of us should be directing our questions towards the gilded cages of the powers that be. So, when movies valorising those powers are released with little pause, it just doesn’t feel right.

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