A woman steps out of a screening of The Kerala Story. She's approached by another person with a microphone, presumably a reporter, who asks her about the film.
She then asks the reporter her name, and confirms that she's a Hindu woman, before saying, "Bahut acchhi thi lekin darr gayi hu mai. Sahi mai dekhna chahiye… harr Hindu ko. Musalmano ko dekh ke darr lagg gaya. (It's a very good film, but I'm scared. Every Hindu (person) should watch this. Watching the Muslim people scared me.)"
This reaction doesn't exist in isolation. Ever since the film's release, sentiments like this have flooded social media, even as others try to combat the film's claims, accusing the makers of propaganda.
Yes, propaganda. We've all heard that word before. And we also know it's not really a new phenomenon. But The Kerala Story and The Kashmir Files – another film accused of peddling Islamophobia – have managed to reignite conversations surrounding propaganda.
Before we get to how these films act as propaganda tools, it's important to address the potency of propaganda as a medium, its ability to influence. This might seem like a refresher course on the history of propaganda – but as far as Indian cinema is concerned, it's relevant now more than ever.
What Do We Know About Propaganda Films?
Is propaganda any content that tries to 'disseminate ideas'? Technically, yes, but the term gained popularity to refer to films that are deliberately created to manipulate and influence people to think, act, or behave a certain way. In the early 20th century, political ideology became prevalent in propaganda – and vice-versa.
In Indian cinema, films about challenging the status quo and questioning the exploitation of minorities have been around for decades – even if they were fewer in number. As an industry, we have often created films that would inspire conversation.
But on the other hand, films like The Kerala Story use the popular propagandist tool of rhetoric to paint a good versus evil picture, with zero nuance. And propaganda films can be extremely harmful.
Most propagandists either present selective truth or simply lie to dissuade their audience from believing anything that says otherwise. The audience is meant to see what the camera sees with little to no space for critical thinking or objectivity.
During World War 1, the British discovered that they could use the medium of print and radio as powerful influencers. Radio broadcasts, newsreels, and posters were employed to inspire a feeling of nationalism and to boost morale during the war, and at the same time, sway public opinion against Britain's rivals.
Both actors of the war used the propaganda machinery to portray a danger to their 'way of life'. This is a commonality in most propagandist content – one side is painted as the victim and the other as an aggressor, with no bad people on the former side and no good people in the latter.
In The Kerala Story, for example, every Muslim character is shown as an evil manipulator and every other person is shown as being naive to a fault.
Almost every scene with a Muslim character is accompanied by a background noise that resembles the sound of a whip. This seemingly intentional technique is one of the most basic aspects of filmmaking derived from the same principle as the Kuleshov effect.
For context, in the early 1900s, Lev Kuleshov experimented how audiences perceive the mood of an expressionless character based simply on the images that follow. If you see that person followed by the image of food, you'd imagine that he's hungry. If you hear the sound of violence every time a certain character appears on screen, you'd associate them with fear.
Take the very simple example of the sound of a belt buckle hitting a hard surface that would accompany Gabbar Singh in Sholay. Or a specific tune accompanying every vamp in Hindi serials to signify that 'evil' is back on screen. This is a technique to evoke particular sentiments. And they're very deliberate.
Politics, Propaganda, and Indian Cinema
Asking the question of who uses the tool of propaganda – or who endorses it – is just as important as understanding the techniques themselves.
More often than not, propaganda is sponsored by the State, either directly or through endorsements. Consider the Soviet Union. After the 1917 October Revolution, the Bolshevik government led by Vladimir Lenin used propaganda in two ways – to educate the masses and to further the goals of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
On a side note, India has had a very interesting relationship with the Soviet Union and propaganda.
Under Nikita Khrushchev's rule after Stalin's death in 1953, the Soviet state started to engage with Indian cinema. Their film import and export department Soveksportfil'm set up regional offices in India and soon imported Dharti Ke Lal and Chinnamul for a Soviet audience.
The films that were imported had to match up to Soviet ideology, which, in the 1940s and 1950s, resulted in wide popularity for films like Awaara and Shri 420, both of which had hints of socialist themes.
Moreover, a majority of the Indian cinema that made it to the Soviet audience succeeded because it acted as escapist cinema for a population that had been saturated with propagandist content under Stalin.
This crossing of paths of politics and cinema is evident now more than ever as hateful propaganda becomes more prevalent. In the case of films like The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story, spokespersons from the ruling party (including Prime Minister Narendra Modi) have endorsed the films, while those from the Opposition have condemned them.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan alleged that the film was made "with the aim of communal polarisation and spreading hate propaganda."
New Stories, Old Bottle
Some early propaganda films are studied (not heralded) for their craftsmanship and the makers' ability to shroud propaganda under the garb of 'cinema'. German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia (said to be secretly funded by the Nazis) is a film wherein she played with ideas like slow motion shots, different shooting angles, tracking shots for action, and more which were relatively experimental for the time.
Dziga Vertov, one of the Soviet's primary propagandist filmmakers, is the man whose style influenced documentary cinéma vérité. He is also the same man behind Man With a Movie Camera, considered an intricate work of experimental cinema.
But films that are accused of propaganda nowadays can't boast of the same. The tools of propaganda used are the most basic; it's almost as though the makers believe that the audience doesn't need more convincing.
'Othering' the Marginalised
Propaganda films create villains out of the 'Other'. A lot of stereotyping about minority communities prevalent in cinema even today stems from the propagandist narratives peddled against them.
One of the most infamous cases of propaganda is that of Germany under Adolf Hitler's rule.
The messaging in Nazi Germany, led by the minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels was twofold – to present Germany under Nazi rule as a rich, successful, and powerful nation with Hitler acting as a messiah for the masses and to present minority communities (especially people of Jewish faith) as the enemy.
Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will is a (horrifyingly) brilliant instance of propaganda filmmaking. It was shot at the 1934 Nazi Party congress and a rally in Nuremberg, and glorified Hitler and the Nazi Party. It's important to remember that the film was commissioned by Hitler and his name reportedly appeared in the opening titles.
Being in power often gives tyrannical governments the means to stifle the free press and remove the possibility of critical thought.
Hitler would often control mediums like news and film to suppress any content that challenged him or his ideology. Most easily accessible media would sing praises of Hitler and the Nazi party.
Under Goebbels watch, antisemitic films also became widely popular at the time. One film, Jud Süss, is a particularly interesting case study. A German Jewish novelist Lion Feuchtwanger adapted the story of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer for a play and a novel (in 1925). His story spoke of human tragedy and the consequences of grief but was never intended as antisemitic.
His work was later adapted by Lothar Mendes for a British film in 1934. The British version is considered to have been a sympathetic film about human suffering and the lives of the Jewish community in Nazi Germany. However, the adaptation made under the direction of Veit Harlan for the Nazi film industry demonised Oppenheimer's character.
It utilised harmful stereotypes against the Jewish people (visual stereotypes from the time made it into several motion picture films even decades later). Towards the end of the film, the main character sexually assaults a German girl and tortures her father and fiance. The film, pre-release, claimed it was "historically accurate."
A lot of stereotypes, especially with regards to exaggerated facial features, about Jewish people that this propagandist content used entered mainstream cinema, consciously or otherwise. Several Jewish people have pointed out that many Disney villains still display antisemitic features.
The Saviour Complex
It's important to note a common theme in dangerous propaganda – minority communities are presented not just as threats to the majority way of life, but especially to their women and their children. It is based on the misogynist notion that women must be "protected" by men and the "threat" in question is right on the horizon.
This is imagery that was used by Nazi propaganda and until much recently, also used to demonise Black men in the USA.
The most dangerous aspect of propaganda is that often the people who propaganda is intended to target, be it educational or incendiary, believe that everything they see on the screen is objective truth.
Sensationalism and alternate facts replace reality, especially to create a sense of heightened urgency that is perhaps unnecessary.
For example, even though the director of The Kerala Story, Sudipto Sen, changed the figures in the description of his film from 32,000 to '3', the majority discourse on social media is still running with the former number.
Calls to "protect Hindu girls" have become increasingly prevalent. The film uses brutal imagery of sexual violence, essentially exploiting the 'female body' for shock value and ironically displays 'My body, my choice' slogans towards the end.
The film would have you believe that Kerala is a hotspot for ISIS recruitment and blames one character's horrific ordeal on her father being an atheist (which the film conveniently equates to communism). It would have you believe that there are no consensual interfaith marriages, all Muslims are evil and plotting, and infantilises Hindu women as "damsels in distress" who need our protection.
The Impact of Propaganda Beyond the Screen
'Whether it's 3 or 32,000, how does it matter?' you might ask yourself. It's just numbers at the end of the day; the stories are what matter. And stories of young people being indoctrinated into terror groups are important to tell, to analyse.
A film that deals with how three women were brainwashed or indoctrinated into joining a terror group could've delved into why the youth feels alienated from society, why women can't approach family or elders when they find themselves in a tough spot, the important difference between extremism and religion, and how society needs to develop to become a safer space for everyone to combat the aforementioned issues.
For instance, Hansal Mehta's Faraaz that talks about Islamic extremism and terror organisations is much more insightful and effective in its messaging. It draws a line between extremism and religion, aiming its criticism at the former while offering a space for discussion and debate.
Sudhir Mishra's Afwaah that released alongside The Kerala Story talks about the dangers of believing in misinformation and rumours, and how they can drive people to violence without verifying the source or veracity.
Meanwhile, in The Kerala Story, one of the Hindu characters is surprised when her Muslim friend talks about 'hellfire' even though the concept of narak exists in Hinduism. A character also claims that she's never heard of the concept of bad deeds resulting in punishment even though both Hinduism and Christianity have mentions of the importance of being 'good' and the consequences of following a 'path of evil'.
And these are basics that people could learn from watching Doordarshan even if they've never picked up a religious text.
All of this goes to show that The Kerala Story doesn't really understand the concept of 'ideology' or even the basics of telling women's stories, which is a disservice to the stories it is trying to tell.
Instead of looking into the deeper issues that plague society and cause the instances propagandist films sensationalise, these films encourage people to turn against each other. And the fact that propaganda is so difficult to ascertain for a layman and so notoriously easy to weaponise against them only makes it more dangerous.