Recent commercial Bollywood projects, some of which have already released and many others still in pipeline have created much noise and divided the industry and audience into factions. There has already been a lot of discussion around Vivek Agnihotri’s ‘The Kashmir Files’ and its hidden objective of advancing Islamophobia under the garb of a very powerful presentation of Kashmiri Pandits’ woes. The trailer of Nikhil Bhat’s ‘Hurdang’ (a movie against reservations), the announcement of the ‘in process’ biopic of Sher Singh Rana, the murderer of ferocious Bahujan leader Phoolan Devi, have also rightfully invited a lot of criticism from among country’s Dalit-Bahujan sections.
Though the Indian film industry, especially Bollywood, has mostly never been very accommodative and sensitive towards representation of historical oppression and marginalisation of India’s weaker sections, this very recent stream of commercial films with their very explicit, unapologetic and powerful advancement of an anti-marginalised propaganda deserve more critical scrutiny than it has received till now. This recent surge in the number of such films must be understood in conjunction with the larger Brahmanical-fascist project of changing the very historical, political and cultural consciousness and imagination of the people to facilitate the ongoing cultural hegemonic project of the current ruling dispensation. One must also look at the political economy of these projects in terms of their sources of funding, the political and ideological inclination as well as the social location of the directors and artists working in them.
Propaganda Movies as a Reaction to ‘Conversation Starter’ Films
Notwithstanding Bollywood’s hitherto problematic representation of Muslim, Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan characters in most of its films, the recent rise and acceptance of some progressive mainstream films which have been able to deal with very sensitive, rarely talked about and hushed-up issues of caste-based discrimination, Islamophobia, gender and sexual violence, class inequalities, etc., have created a lot of discomfort and sense of frustration among social elites within the industry. Wide acclamation and acceptance of such projects on the part of audience could have also created anxieties among the right wing whose ongoing project of cultural homogenisation is often affected by such films.
With all their shortcomings and criticisms, recent films like Mulk, Article 15, Jhund, Jai Bhim, Asuran and others with “mainstream Bollywood artists” playing important characters have proved to be conversation starters on many of the contemporary socio-political issues concerning marginalised voices in this country. Films like ‘The Kashmir Files’ and ‘Hurdang’ can be understood as a right wing, Brahmanical cultural reaction emanating from the anxieties of the upper-caste, upper-class lobbies within the industry as well as outside.
A film like ‘Hurdang’ with its clear, unapologetic and powerful depiction of the times when Mandal Commission was implemented providing Reservations to ‘Other Backward Classes’ in Public Education and Employment is a clear attempt at fuelling the anti-reservation and anti-social justice sentiments simmering within the society. Creating a biopic on Sher Singh Rana who was convicted for murdering Phoolan Devi can be seen as an attempt to humanise him and providing rationalities to his acts by showing audience ‘his side of the story’. One must understand that the larger goal behind creating such movies cannot be just plain story-telling, but to overwrite the real life tales of India’s marginalised communities who just like Phoolan Devi continue to suffer violation, violence, harassment, discrimination, marginalisation and exploitation.
The thin line between ‘History’ and ‘Propaganda’
No art is divorced from the politics of its maker. So is the case with India’s entertainment industry. The director’s choice of subject, the actor’s choice of character, the writer’s perspective and understanding of the story is always significant but becomes much more important when their project aims at recreating and presenting a historical event or a personality. In such cases, the very thin line between presenting a ‘history’ and a ‘propaganda’ gets blurred very often – sometimes unknowingly, sometimes intentionally. The recent surge in the number of such movies with their overtly farcical and manipulated representation of historical events, personalities and issues is nothing less than a cultural war against the marginalised of this country. The central agenda of these movies is very clear: to turn the popular imagination of the people against the most discriminated and exploited communities of India, whether they are Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, Other Backward Castes, women or the LGBTQIA+ community.
Khushbu Sharma is a research scholar as Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She also writes on issues of caste and gender for several esteemed forums. The author can be found on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, following social media platforms: