“Polliwood”-The New Battleground for Politics in India

This Sunday morning, I decided to take myself back to that one afternoon summer at the Bombay Central station with me staring at that particular spot on one of the platforms that I had come across in my favourite satirical comedy; Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (Let it be, Friends!). The cult classic based during 1983, the time when the city Mumbai looked at its best, essayed a brilliant satirical takedown on corruption.  While the Indian Film Industry has begun blowing the political propaganda technically out of proportion, a movie buff like me can’t really keep silence on where and how it all started.

To begin with, it’s not something new at all. The first such attempt of making Bollywood a political battleground dates back to 1975 and 1977, when “Kissa Kursi Ka” (Story of the chair) and “Aandhi” (Storm), with the former satirising Indira Gandhi’s politics and the latter, allegedly basing on her relationship with her estranged husband, had fallen foul of the then Congress Government.

The trend did slow down then but made an attempt to pick up once again in 2010 attempting to tackle the ever-difficult situation of farmer suicides with “Peepli Live” gaining traction not only at a societal level but in the political scenario as well. Films with such propaganda back then induced discussions among masses and helped formulate a solution in the process. Surprisingly, this new kick-in of the propaganda in the 2018 and this time with a 2.0 version is inducing something poles apart from what it did a decade ago.

The Political movies today hesitate the wait to deliver their message until the movie is released and instead prefer to drop in snippets of the same in the trailer itself. Let’s take a walk through how the different scenes of different such biopics offered a rendition to remember them by as we approach the most important month of 2019: May.

The first story that decides to trigger the storm knocks on the door in the form of “The Accidental Prime Minister”: Rahul Gandhi looks lost, Sonia Gandhi reminds us of Nurse Ratched of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the former Prime Minister played by Anupam Kher, soft and feeble.

Next up would be “Uri: The Surgical Strike”. Kher’s portrayal of Singh was on the brink of lampooning a sketch; the audience did scornfully laugh at the halting and high-pitched voice he assumed. But nobody laughed in Uri. WHY?

Rajat Kapur, who played the role of Prime Minister Modi neither said “Mitron” nor did try to imitate him. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looked as organized in the film as the Congress looked uncaring and rudderless in the first.

In The Accidental Prime Minister, Singh has to negotiate the Nuclear Deal past the unwilling Gandhi family. In Uri, Modi doesn’t hesitate once before ordering a surgical strike on Pakistan-administered soil. All in all, the films successfully paint a neat composite picture for the undecided voter: The ruling party is tough on terror, tough on Pakistan while the opposition is power-hungry and doesn’t have the appetite for aggressive geopolitics.

Very recently, a video featuring Varun Dhawan, Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt, Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh, among others went viral with them shouting ‘Jai Hind’ twice and trying to send across the message of the change that has come about in the past 4 years. Leaving aside this video which I found no significance with politics as such, if shouting out ‘Jai Hind’ has helped instill some knowledge regarding the basics of the NAMES of the President and Prime Minister in the minds of those present in the video, then kudos to the Modi Government.

Almost every month, the previous year produced some film or the other that waved the flag: Pad Man, Gold, Satyamev Jayate, and Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran to name a few. 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 originating from the same sort of crowd who harass others for not standing when the national anthem is played.

This new propaganda of basing films in such political background hints two important incentives: one being simple commerce and the other opportunism. Lately, Manikarnika, which stars Kangana Ranaut as the queen of Jhansi brilliantly, hinted a short propaganda which most viewers might have ignored. 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 was the same argument Modi had used against the Gandhi family in the run-up to the 2014 general election.

Now the question arises whether the wonderful portrayal of the political history of India through the “reel” world would bring about a difference in the voting decisions we make in the month of May or not. If it doesn’t, the movies will remain a memory if not anything else and if it does, two situations arise. One, the realization of the long-lost power of Bollywood in the Indian Political System and second, a serious question on the independence of Bollywood cinema. Just having a flashback of the contentious Section 7 of the RBI Act that questioned its independence a few months back, doesn’t it? Let me leave it for my brilliant readers to ponder over.

Bidisha Bhattacharya
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Bidisha Bhattacharya works ScrollStack. Prior to
this she was a Consultant to the Fifteenth Finance Commission, Government of India and has worked as a Political Researcher in Prashant Kishor’s Strategic Research and Insights (SRI) team at I-PAC.

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