Supporting Role

How Bollywood acted under the Modi government

01 April, 2019

When Aditya Dhar’s Uri: The Surgical Strike released in January this year, the defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, tweeted a series of videos from a cinema hall in Bengaluru, where she watched the film with war veterans. One video showed a crowd brandishing national flags and shouting slogans such as “Indian army zindabad!” Another showed Sitharaman gleefully leading the chorus of the film’s tagline. “How’s the josh?” she called. “High, sir!” the viewers responded. She went on to tag the producer, director and actors of the film, commending the latter for their “brilliant performances.”

As the country readies itself for elections this year, a spate of films featuring blatant support of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been released. Apart from Uri, there is Abhijit Panse’s Thackeray and Vijay Ratnakar Gutte’s The Accidental Prime Minister. These films either valorise the achievements of the BJP, and its ideological allies; critique its perennial nemesis, the Congress; or construct narratives of the past that push a Hindu-nationalist agenda.

The content of these films appear largely unencumbered by narrative techniques. In previous eras, movies usually avoided direct representations of political figures, often relying on allegory or subtext to communicate their message. This sometimes prompted a ban or restricted release of films that obliquely represented aspects of the ruling establishment in a poor light. For instance, Gulzar’s 1975 film Aandhi was banned by Indira Gandhi, at the height of the Emergency, for the parallels it drew with her estranged relationship with her husband. In comparison, this is the first time that portrayals of real political figures are being encouraged by those in power. The BJP government has actively enabled the making and screening of movies that conflate nationalism with pride in a macho, militaristic Hindu state.

Uri is based on the retaliatory strikes carried out by the Indian army against militant bases in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, in 2016. The strikes were heralded as a military triumph by most of the mainstream media, giving BJP officials plenty of opportunity to do some nationalistic muscleflexing. However, as the former foreign secretary S Jaishankar pointed out, while “target-specific, counter-terrorist operations across the Line of Control” had been conducted in the past too, this was “the first time the army has gone public about it.” According to a report in the Mumbai Mirror, the team of Uri was trained by “Captains and Majors teaching them slithering, using arms and ammunitions.”