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'Bastar' to 'JNU' & 'Emergency': Lessons in Filmmaking For a New Bharat

As India gears up for the general elections starting 19 April, filmmakers have gone into overdrive.

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In his 1940 “documentary”, The Eternal Jew, Fritz Hippler compares Jews to disease carrying vermin. To drive home his point, he extensively shot footage in the Jewish ghettos of German-occupied-Poland to show the world Jews in their “original state” before they donned their disguises of civilised Europeans. Multiple Indian films over the past decade have used this very trope to depict Muslims as ghetto-based criminals plotting violence against the country and being recognisable “by the clothes they wear.”  

These days, it’s almost normalised to have visuals of bloody violence intercut with those of men in skull caps in Hindi movies. As India gears up for its next general elections starting end-April though, filmmakers have gone into overdrive. After all, we’re in the middle of peak hunting season, so to say.
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'We Are Witnessing a Repetition of What Happened Before 2019 Elections'

It doesn’t take a genius to figure that we’re witnessing a repetition of what happened before India’s 2019 general elections: filmmakers scurrying to release movies that will please the regime. What’s changed though is the sheer volume of propagandous tripe hitting our film screens as compared to the last time around.

As India gears up for the general elections starting 19 April, filmmakers have gone into overdrive.

Adah Sharma in a still from Bastar: The Naxal Story.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

By the time counting of votes begins on 4 June, we would have seen at least eight films of this ilk in theatres, and Kangana Ranaut, the OG will be gearing up for the release of her contribution to the cause – Emergency.

Other films on this ever-growing list includes Accident Or Conspiracy: Godhra, The Sabarmati Report, Swatantrya Veer Savarkar, JNU (Jahangir National University), Razakar and Bastar: the Naxal Story. 

These follow what is becoming a steady stream of films whose only objective is minority-bashing like The Kerala Story (2023) or others that twist facts to glorify the ruling dispensation, like The Vaccine War (2023).

There is a third sub-genre of this category that is solely devoted to the altering of history. This includes attempts to erode the legacy of even global icons like Mahatma Gandhi, while desperately trying to resurrect and whitewash Hindutva’s own flawed heroes. Completing this Venn diagram are those that lie in the intersections, films like Article 370 (2024) which don’t just come across as puff pieces but are brazen pieces of propaganda designed to validate the actions of the ruling government.

As India gears up for the general elections starting 19 April, filmmakers have gone into overdrive.

Yami Gautam in a still from Article 370. 

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

'We Are Now In an Era Where Filmmakers Write Fiction Around Anecdotal Data & Pass It Off as Fact'

One would think that even the ‘sheepiest’ of audiences would tire of being fed the same old material packaged in different ways, and the box office numbers for most of these films shows that there are indeed few takers. What else could explain duds like The Vaccine War and Main Atal Hoon sinking at the box office without a trace? It’s those that buck this trend though, which provide the blueprint for others making a foray into the genre.

Typically, the filmmakers who have found commercial success in this genre are those that venture to extremes when peddling their narratives. If it’s Islamophobia, it’s extreme Islamophobia. If it’s sycophancy, it’s extreme sycophancy. 

These are filmmakers who have discovered that the truth is like an annoying fly in one’s face, an unnecessary hindrance to commercial success, something to be swatted away. As long as the narrative suits the politics of the gatekeepers, anything goes.

We’ve now entered an era where filmmakers can take anecdotal data, write fiction around it and pass it off as fact without having to explicitly say so. Adding the word “files” in one’s film’s title, for example, lends it the kind of legitimacy that is usually reserved for documentaries.  It’s a ploy so successful that Vivek Agnihotri, the filmmaker in question, refers to his films these days as “his trilogy”, making him India’s answer to Francis Ford Coppola. 

It’s a ploy so successful that Agnihotri’s inspired countless other filmmakers including one who took the story of 3 girls joining ISIS and passed it off as 32,000.

The film in question, Sudipto Sen’s The Kerala Story (2023) was such a masterful piece of propaganda that it ticked all the right boxes for the government at the Centre. It promotes Islamophobia; it vilifies the state of Kerala, that last bastion of Indian secularism; and it lends legitimacy to the Hindutva conspiracy theory of Love Jihad.

As India gears up for the general elections starting 19 April, filmmakers have gone into overdrive.

Sudipto Sen’s The Kerala Story (2023) was such a masterful piece of propaganda that it ticked all the right boxes for the government at the Centre.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Is it any surprise then that films like these are given an additional shot in the arm by the regime? Their trailers are shared extensively by ruling politicians, some of whom have even gone as far as organising special screenings. More often than not, as soon as any film of this kind picks up steam, it gets a boost by being declared tax-free in BJP-ruled states. It’s an unofficial system of rewarding sycophancy but it’s also one that rewards mediocrity.

Even an abandoned hyena cub will suck on the teat of a goat for survival. Is it any surprise then that failed filmmakers across the country see this as a possible ticket to fame and money? Before the unprecedented success of The Kashmir Files (2022), Agnihotri had spent a decade-and-a-half lolling on the tramlines of the industry with a dozen or so films to his name but no commercial success or accolades to speak of. It’s no different with Sen whose last directorial feature happened seventeen years before The Kerala Story

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'What A Time to Be Alive!'

These are inspirational stories for budding filmmakers looking to break through to the big time. Take MK Shivaaksh, the debutant director of Accident Or Conspiracy: Godhra, a fresh attempt at telling the story of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Given that the BBC’s version of events in the since-banned-in-India documentary, India: The Modi Question (2023), was made by a bunch of seasoned journalists, it’s about time that we corrected that injustice by having a young first-time director write his own version of events.

When Shivaaksh’s film hits theatres later this month, he’ll be celebrated as a patriot and hero, his film will most likely be declared tax-free and he would have scaled the first step towards making his own trilogy. What a time to be alive!

(This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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