By Dyuti Sudipta and Sharan Kaur
Films have been a vehicle of conveying ideology to the masses since a long time. Over the course of history, the amazement offered by moving images have often surpassed the erstwhile popular mass media like newspapers, broadsheets, posters, street performances, theatres that appealed to the masses. With the advent of talkies, and the slow transformation of cinema from an art form consumed by only the rich and the elite to a medium consumed by the masses, the utilisation of cinema as a medium to convey ideals to the larger populace became inevitable. As per the famous saying, “Art imitates life”, cinema has been influenced by the politics of its makers and its audience, but on the other hand, it has been seen to influence the politics and ideals of its audience as well. Scott Spector (2001) in his essay “Was the Third Reich Movie-Made? Interdisciplinarity and the Reframing of "Ideology"” calls movies and other popular media as not only the “barometer” of social change but also “cultural products that themselves have had an active role in representing, but also enforcing or even constituting, visions of society and of history” (Spector 2001; Sklar, 1976; Rosenstone, 1985).
Alan Sennet (2014) defines the anglophone connotation of propaganda as “ the dissemination of particular messages of a dishonest and dangerous kind; ones usually associated with authoritarian and tyrannical regimes. Propaganda is associated with the manipulation of large numbers of people and is seen to involve deliberately misleading them either by obscuring reality with a partial or slanted view, or through downright lies”. He further goes on to elaborate on how the negative connotations associated with the word “ propaganda” often required powers like Wartime Britain and United States of America to name their state sponsored platforms as “ Ministry of Information” and “The Office of Wartime Information” as opposed to the Ministry of Propaganda of the Nazi Germany, to claim to use “information” to counter “propaganda” of the power that the Anglophone world disapproved of (Sennet, 2014).
In the 20th Century, the use of films as vehicles of ideology was the most stark in the Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany’s emphasis on using films to glorify the third reich and the leadership of Adolf Hitler has been studied extensively. Eric Rentschler, a renowned film historian calls Hitler’s regime a “sustained cinematic event” (Rentschler, 1996). The most (in) famous film of the time glorifying the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler was Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph des Willens/ Triumph of the Will (1935). The use of great cinematic techniques in this “record” of the 1934 Nuremberg rally often has gotten Riefenstahl the tag of “a film maker of genius” (Sontag, 1975). However, there have been repeated attempts by Riefenstahl to refuse her political inclination towards the Nazi Party and portray her film as a non partisan documentary recording the infamous Nazi rally, despite the title, status and the production of such a film cannot completely be rid of the political association Riefenstahl attempted to renounce (Sennet, 2014)).
Still from 'Triumph of the Will' (1935)
India’s tryst with films have been reflective of its trysts with popular ideologies of its time as well. While the post independence Indian films began focusing on the newly independent agrarian society through films like Mother India (1957), Shree 420 (1955), and Naya Daur (1957) where the contrast between the urban and rural life and the divide between the rich and the poor were dominant themes, the films in the 60s and the 70s were reflective of the nationwide student unrest and often featured the working class man challenging the status quo as the protagonist. Amitabh Bachchan’s rise to fame through films like Deewar (1975), Sholay (1975), Parvarish (1977), Coolie (1983) as the ‘angry young man’ portrays him in roles of a working class man or an educated government employee.
The films in the later half of the 1970s and the 1980s were influenced heavily by the Indian women’s movement which was collectively protesting against the Mathura Rape case and the subsequent acquittal of the accused police officers by the Supreme Court in 1979 on the basis of the fact that Mathura, the 16 years old Adivasi survivor of custodial rape had previous consensual relations, and there were not adequate signs of bruising as an evidence of her non consent and the lack of her verbal declarations of the said non consent. With the nationwide protests the legalities of rape laws were changed in regard to the burden of proof being on the accused rather than the accuser and the court to be mandated as a woman’s declaration of non consent to be absolute. The nationwide feminist movements and the lack of justice and sympathy shown by the apex court led to a massive cry for justice and in the absence of the same within the legal means, there was the emergence of the avenging female vigilante (Gopalan, 2008 cited in Karki, 2019) in films like Insaf ka Tarazu (1980), Pratighaat (1987) and Zakhmi Aurat (1988).
The 1990s, with the economic liberalization and the rapid industrialization and urbanization, brought in Bollywood the culture of showing the unique mix of tradition and modernity, the stories of industrialists, with a large family and even larger house living together happily such as in films by Suraj Barjatya, viz. Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1995), and Hum Saath Saath Hain (1995) as well as the films by Karan Johar, Abbas-Mustan and Rakesh Roshan featuring extensive visuals of the western world – Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1999), Baadshah (1999), Kaho Na Pyar Hai (2000) etc. These films provided the mass with the promise of a newer, wider world to explore and an escape from the mundaneness of their daily life.
There was a hike in the number of films having women as their central protagonists post 2010. Every year, atleast one film was made where the plots revolved around the character of the woman as the central role, instead of treating her like a peripheral character aiding in the male protagonists’ development of character. Films like Ishqiya (2010), Kahani (2012), Queen (2013), Mardaani (2014), Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), Dear Zindagi (2016), Pink (2016), Raazi (2018), Thappad (2020) are some of them.
In India, under the rule of the incumbent Hindu supremacist government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party since 2014, there has been a rise in making films directly promoting the government policies and actions. The most successful attempt at such film making in the recent past was the four national awards winning ‘Uri– The Surgical Strike’ released in 2019. The film was based on a fictionalised account of the Indian Army’s retaliation to the Uri attack of 2016 by terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad in Jammu and Kashmir. The film became one of the most successful films of recent times, earning a hefty 245 crores just from the domestic market. Following this there has been other films being made on the policies of the government like Toilet on the Swach Bharat Abhiyan to eradicate open defecation, a very dominant practice in rural India.
Then we have seen the biopic of the Prime Minister- PM Narendra Modi, a film that did not do well in the box office despite being released twice in the theatre. The film features Vivek Oberoi as Narendra Modi, and glorifies his role as the Prime Minister and aims to gain sympathy for his part as the Chief Minister during the 2002 Gujarat Riots, which several key persons in the current ruling government, including the Prime Minister and the Home Minister have been accused of inciting. The film was promoted by the film stars close to the Prime Minister as well as several key BJP politicians.
However, from the glorification of the incumbent government, the tendency of films releasing in the more recent times has been to promote anti Muslim agenda, which has now graduated to unmistakable Islamophobia, resembling the several Anti Semitic feature film released in Nazi Germany such as Jew-süss (1940). The biggest example of such a film released recently is the Kashmir Files (2022) directed by Vivek Agnihotri.
Following a fictional plot based on a Kashmiri Hindu exodus in Kashmir, the film portrays the early 1990s exodus in the contested region of Jammu and Kashmir as a genocide, which is largely regarded as untrue . The storyline alternates between a modern setting in the year 2020 and flashbacks to 1989–1990 starring prominent bollywood actors like Anupam Kher, Mithun Chakraborty, Darshan Kumar, and Pallavi Joshi.
Since the film switches between time zones - the 1990s and 2020 - in the 90s, the story revolves around Pushkar Nath Pandit (played by Anupam Kher), a teacher and his son, Karan who has been accused of being an Indian spy by Kashmiri militants . Pushkar seeks help from Brahma Dutt (played by Mithun Chakraborty), a civil servant, to ensure Karan's safety in highly militarized Kashmir. After witnessing the violence against Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir he then decides to escalate matters by talking to the chief minister of the state (J&K). Subsequently, Brahma gets suspended. This suspension is meant to portray a certain dismissive attitude towards the issue of violence against Kashmiri Pandits. Eventually, Karan is killed by militant commander Farooq Malik Bitta, who is Pushkar Nath's former student, while Pushkar and his daughter-in-law Sharda plead for their lives. In order to spare their lives Bitta asks Sharda to consume rice soaked in Karan's blood. This particular incident, like many others across the span of the movie, is meant to paint Muslims in a rather sinister light, showing them as merciless, vile and demonic. The scene where Kaul, a Hindu poet, and his son are seen hanging is also another such incident meant to emphasize the fact that Muslims will not show mercy to anyone who identifies as non-Muslim, since earlier the film depicts Kaul as having maintained cordial relationships with Muslims. Later, the Pandits from the Kashmir valley are shown to be living in conditions of extreme poverty in Jammu. Meanwhile, Brahma is appointed as an advisor to the new Governor of J&K. He helps Sharda with a government job in Nadimarg in Kashmir, where Pushkar’s family settles. However, Bitta comes back dressed up as a member of the Indian Army, and harrasses Sharda by stripping her. He then kills her by sawing her body in half, for her resistance against them taking her son, Shiva. He shoots all the other Pandits, including Shiva into a mass grave except Pushkar so that fear remains in the hearts of the survivors by hearing this incident.
Still from 'Kashmir Files' (2022)
On the other hand, in 2020, Krishna (Sharda's younger son) is contesting the ANU's student election. He’s been raised by Pushkar who has told him that his parents passed away in an accident. Under the influence of professor Radhika Menon, an advocate of Kashmiri separatism, Krishna believes that the Indian government should be held responsible for not being able to sort the Kashmir issue. Pushkar does not agree with this, since his memory of the “genocide” of Kashmiri Pandits has been refreshed by Brahma and his other friends. However, after Pushkar dies, as per his last wish, Krishna goes to Kashmir to scatter his ashes where he meets Bitta who is at that time leading a non-violent movement based on Gandhian ideals. But Krishna slowly finds out the truth about Bitta as it is revealed to him that it was militants dressed up as the Indian Army, and not the Indian Army, who killed his family. Krishna returns to Delhi enraged about the plight of his family and gives a speech about it at the ANU campus, where he is accepted by some and ridiculed by some.
As the story follows someone who is made to believe that the muslim militants are the rootcause of the problem, the audience consequently believes it too, regardless of their opinion on the matter beforehand. It is garbed inside the feelings of insecurity that the Hindu community harbors as one that has been wronged throughout history. Columnist Asim Ali was also critical of the film in a piece on news website Newslaundry, “The message an ordinary Hindu is expected to take from the movie (as attested by many viral videos coming out of theatres) is another kind of ‘never again’ – never again to trust the Muslim, the secularist or the leftist,” he wrote. He further writes, “The Kashmir Files has elicited such a strong reaction because the Pandits have always felt that their story had been stifled. They're experiencing, if I may call it that, an emotional catharsis," he adds.
The Hindi-language film has received a tax exemption and is being actively promoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government in power, which has been incentivising its popularity by giving government personnel time off if they go see it. Meanwhile, the film's premise, which was created by a Modi follower, and its visual language of Pandit harassment and deaths, is inflaming Hindus and escalating religious tensions. For instance, social media is swamped with videos of audience members erupting in rousing hate speeches, with calls for the death of Muslims and a boycott of Muslim businesses. Ideologically aligned with Modi's administration, such incidents are frequently staged by Hindu vigilante groups.
While the films like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kashmir Files bank on the mass appeal strengthened by an unhealthy dose of majoritarian supremacy and unfiltered Islamophobia and misrepresentation of students and teachers from universities like JNU that have received the brutal brunt of violence by the attackers of ABVP (the student wing of RSS) in an unprovoked attack aided by the Delhi police in January 2020, shortly after the brutal state led police violence in Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, two renowned minority institutions of India.
While films showing patriotism is not the problem, the way the patriotism in these films translates into vilification of Muslims and the dissenting sections of the population the government disapproves of, becomes a problem. The fictionalised accounts in such films are believed as absolute truth and fuels communal tensions and disharmony. Raazi (2018) is an example of a biopic of a woman upholding the ideals of “Watan ke aage kuch nahin (Nothing is more important than my country)” by being one of the first Indian woman spies in India providing inputs to Indian intelligence. The film did not demonize the Pakistani people, even though the film’s based on the India Pakistan conflict.
Sennett, A. (2014). Film propaganda: Triumph of the Will as a case study. Framework: The journal of cinema and media, 55(1), 45-65.
Karki, I. (2019). Scripting resistance: rape and the avenging woman in Hindi cinema. Journal of international women's studies, 20(4), 83-102.
Spector, S. (2001). Was the Third Reich movie-made? Interdisciplinarity and the reframing of “ideology”. The American historical review, 106(2), 460-484.
Sklar, R. (1994). Movie-made America: A cultural history of American movies. New York: Vintage Books.
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Rentschler, E. (1996). Ministry of illusion: Nazi cinema and its afterlife. Harvard University Press.
Dyuti Sudipta is an Advisor for CRRSS's Gender Team. She is an incoming doctoral student at Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University.
Sharan Kaur is an assistant with CRRSS's Gender Team and a recent graduate from Ashoka University.