Bad films, ‘good’ propaganda

The Indian film industry is busy serving ‘national interest’ by making propaganda films, often divisive and vulgar. The inside story

Poster of 'The Kerala Story' (Photo Courtesy: IMDb)
Poster of 'The Kerala Story' (Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

Chandan Kumar

You’d have to live under a stone to have missed the moments constellating around The Kashmir Files (TKF) and The Kerala Story (TKS). Described as ‘vulgar propaganda’ by the chairman of the jury at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) 2022, TKF was exempted from entertainment tax in BJP-ruled states, all Indian citizens were exhorted by the prime minister to watch the film, and the ruling party even organised special screenings of the film for its legislators and members, paying for tickets in theatres. While the outrageous premise of TKS did not prevent it from being passed by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).

What the paying public may not be au fait with is that, behind the scenes, the government had effectively turned the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) into an event management agency, having absorbed within it the Films Division, the Directorate of Film Festivals, the Children’s Film Society of India and the National Film Archive of India—agencies that were originally constituted to produce and nurture good films.

The appellate body of the CBFC was disbanded and authority vested in the Union home ministry. In short, the ground had been prepared for films that serve the interests of the ruling party and the government in power.

Buoyed by the box office success of TKF and TKS, many more propaganda films are awaiting release, among them films on the 1992 Ajmer blasts and the 2020 Delhi riots. One leitmotif common to these divisive films is a villainous community of ‘anti-national’ Muslims.

Bad films, ‘good’ propaganda

A producer, let us call him Jain-sahib, is one of the most important interlocutors in the industry for the government. He is busy producing a film Main Atal Hoon with Pankaj Tripathi playing the role of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He also produced Ram Setu with Akshay Kumar in the lead.

The film flopped, but that has not deterred Jain-sahib or Akshay Kumar or indeed Kangana Ranaut, who has just announced the release date of her film on the Emergency. Meanwhile, the father of S.S. Rajamouli—maker of RRR and Baahubali, among others—who is a Rajya Sabha MP, is also making a film on the RSS. All are clearly determined to serve the nation.

The last few years have seen the rise of a whole new breed of film financiers. Though relatively unknown, they have let it be known that money is no constraint for the ‘right kind of film’. According to the grapevine, much of the financial backing comes from politicians, whose money is invested and laundered by these financiers, suspected to be their frontmen.

This is not a new phenomenon. Politicians have historically invested money in financing films. The owner of a major studio in Chennai, the promoter of a chit fund based in Lucknow, a well-known political fixer who is no more, and Babas-turned-entrepreneurs were the usual suspects who acted as conduits for ‘cash surpluses’. But the new crop of film financiers seems interested in funding only a particular kind of film, the most prominent being those that brand the Hindu–Muslim binary.

Then there are directors like Vivek Agnihotri who ride the waves of their atrocious and unabashedly propagandist films. For his new film, Vaccine War, Agnihotri has sidelined Abhishek Agarwal, who produced TKF. Agarwal is not a complete newcomer, having produced several successful films in Telugu.

72 Hoorain poster (Photo Courtesy: IMDb)
72 Hoorain poster (Photo Courtesy: IMDb)

Agnihotri’s wife Pallavi Joshi is his new producer, however. Sources close to Agnihotri argue that there is no reason why the director, now that he is rolling in money, would need the help of others. However, they also claim that part of the funding of Agnihotri’s future projects, including a film on Partition, tentatively titled Bantware Ka Khooni Khel, is from people close to the powers that be in Delhi.

Narendra Modi’s first term as prime minister (2014–19) had seen promotional films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Batti Gul Meter Chalu, Mission Mangal and Sui Dhaaga. The prime minister had famously invited a group of directors and actors to New Delhi, posed for photographs with them and urged them to make nationalist films to promote patriotism, ancient Indian culture and traditional values.

Several of these films, however, bombed at the box office and were not as politically successful as hoped.

The year 2019 appears to have been a turning point when a Union minister travelled to Mumbai and invited prominent people from the industry to discuss the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). A section of the industry attended the meeting while others, presumably not enthused by the agenda, failed to turn up.

The displeasure of the minister was conveyed to the absentees, who were told in no uncertain terms that they had made a serious error by not attending the meeting despite the invitation.

Bad films, ‘good’ propaganda

The same minister, known for suffering from ‘foot-in-mouth syndrome’, once again visited Mumbai in 2020. This time he was more direct. A group of ‘committed’ filmmakers, those who could be intimidated by the Income Tax department, the Enforcement Directorate and so on, was identified.

They were told they ought to (read: must) make films in the interests of the nation, and in so doing, their own interests would also be served. They were also informed that the government would extend a helping hand and all possible support. On a confidential note, the minister added that he himself came from the trading class and understood commerce and commercial interests.

Once the main man left for Delhi, his sidekicks explained in plain terms what the minister meant by ‘national interest’. Promoting the ideology of the ruling party with biopics, films based on Hindu mythology and historic figures, films reflecting the disunity in the majority community and threats to them, films on terrorism—all these would serve the purpose nicely.

After all, the party and the nation were one and as the ruling party worked ceaselessly in the interest of the nation, the party’s interests were the nation’s interests. Clear? Couldn’t have been clearer.

Meanwhile, those who didn’t play by the script faced the music. Anubhav Sinha’s recently released film Bheed received critical acclaim but disappeared from theatres within days, as if a hidden hand was pulling the strings. Bhushan Kumar’s T-Series had produced the black-and-white film based on the exodus of migrant labour from Delhi during the lockdown.

Days before the film was to be released, the names of Bhushan Kumar and T-Series vanished from the production credits.

Predictably, neither the prime minister nor the ruling party exhorted people to watch this film, nor did state governments trip over each other in their eagerness to grant tax exemptions. Mainstream media is unlikely to ask the PM or the I&B minister if they watched the film and why it did not deserve tax exemption the way TKF and TKS did.

T-Series also burnt its fingers by producing Adipurush, rubbished by critics and viewers alike. Even the bhakts (devoted) took exception to the film and its dialogue, declaring it as “bakwas” (nonsense). The film is unlikely to recover the production cost of Rs 300 crore although an unnamed company, as per the filmi grapevine, has paid T-Series Rs 150 crore for Telugu and Tamil film rights.

But as ‘national interest’ is the real hero of this story, industry sources claim that although the film proved to be a disaster at the box office, it will be bought up by cash-rich OTT platforms to make good the producer’s losses. Didn’t Amazon and Netflix recently assert their commitment to uphold Indian values and India’s interests?

While the ED seems to have little information, intelligence or interest to look into money laundering within the film industry, the story of a builder-turned-film-producer, once known for his productions with Govinda in the lead, now based in London, is no secret.

These days he is better known for engaging stars to shoot films in England and fly them back to Mumbai in chartered planes. The films rarely last for more than a few days in theatres before sinking without a trace. Despite this, his zeal for producing films has not waned.

Here is a true patriot who will keep serving the nation by making third-rate films with second-rate actors, while helping politicians to turn black into white.

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