Is there anything like a ‘Propaganda’ film? An analysis

A scene from Article 370. Photo: Publicity Photo

Of late, the terms in overdrive with our so-called ‘secular’ media are “Propaganda Films’” and ‘”Jingoism”. The latter term simply stands for (according to these all-knowing ‘thinkers’) what they, in their superior ‘wisdom’, perceive as excessive or needless patriotic statements or depictions. They profess the need for only “intellectually subtle” projection of patriotism in movies, forgetting the axiom that movies are meant to rouse patriotic feelings in the audience.

Interlinked with this is the far more tenacious term, “Propaganda Film”. This is a generalized term employed for any film that corrects or exposes historical or political wrongs, supports ‘Hindutva’ (itself a misunderstood word) or is believed as aligned to promote the government’s supposed ‘agenda’.

At face value alone, and especially pre-release, these movies are putatively branded as “Propaganda Films”, and if such movies become hits or blockbusters, their content, obviously without any attempt at finding out the truth, is collectively termed as canards or exaggerations.

They forget the obvious point that as per the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the makers must submit documented or audiovisual proof of what they are saying in their movies. This is especially so if the cinematic matter seems even remotely controversial, or has potential to incite communal passions, as if an entire community is against our nation’s interests.

An allied weapon in their hands is the fact that many (not all) such movies happen to release just before the General Elections (a film, when launched, does have a release slot but that is never 100 percent predictable). These worthies thus imply that the results of our polls depend on these movies watched by a negligible fraction of the populace! So in one sweeping statement for their convenience and limited intelligence, they are capable of stating that URI—The Surgical Strike, The Tashkent Files and PM Narendra Modi (a highly mediocre film that recovered its meager budget) were major reasons why the government was re-elected in 2019!!

Oh yes, in that year, the badly-executed biopic on Manmohan Singh, The Accidental Prime Minister, had been a disaster. “See, we told you so!” they go! This brigade therefore believes that the thinking and paying audience is plain stupid.

But in that same year, the authentic and very gripping Thackeray (and who can be more right-wing than this late charismatic leader?) also flopped in Hindi (though it did decent business in its Marathi version due to the cartoonist-politician’s Marathi followers). As a script, the film was non-judgmental, open and candid about the controversial aspects of Thackeray’s life and maintained a perfect tight-rope between realism and entertainment (all such films have to be dramatized to some extent). But its failure did not fit in with their mindsets and theories, see?

A scene from Main Atal Hoon. Photo: Publicity Photo

Films versus Politics

And that brings me to the bottom-line: that however real the core story may be, a film works, or is endorsed, simply and only because of its merits and resonance with the  ticket-buying audience, never due to its political stance!

On the merit front, General Elections were round the corner when films like Main Atal Hoon and Swatantrya Veer Savarkar were released this year. Given the theory of propaganda movies, such movies should have at least been hits, if not blockbusters like The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story. On the other hand, the crisp and engrossing Article 370 was a big hit, and the premise of the ‘Propaganda’ film was back! Some sources even gave the film a rating of one star, implying that the truth retold in the film was a lie!

(To a limited extent, like how Pakistan denied the real happenings, such mediapersons even questioned the sheer truth depicted in URI—The Surgical Strike!)

In the matter of resonance, a film like Bastar: A Naxal Story could not survive despite its honest narration. Yes, the brutality shown may have been a shade unpalatable, but so was the case with The Kashmir Files. So what prevented Bastar… from doing decent business was the lack of connectivity with the audience. They simply did not identify with the problem. But what the film’s detractors saw was only the (true) fact that many Maoist sympathizers (including known entities) supported the wrongdoings of the Naxalites and so the film acquired the same label!

Razakar: The Silent Genocide of Hyderabad is the latest example. Though applauded by everyone who has watched this Telugu film also dubbed in Hindi, the ‘objective’ press chose not even to promote or review the film. Again, the lack of resonance to the subject yielded a pathetic pan-India result! It was also a dubbed film, though not a typical ‘filmi’ narration like the other dubbed disaster, Operation Valentine, released earlier this year, on the Pulwama Attack.

Last year, the splendidly-told The Vaccine War also went nowhere, as the technical and medical details went over the head of most of the audience. 

History of the political film

We all know how Kissa Kursi Ka (1976) was banned and its prints rendered unavailable during the Indira Gandhi regime’s Emergency. New Delhi Times (1986) featuring Shashi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore exposed the politics-media corruption nexus. It was denied distribution and television screening due to its controversial theme, though it went on to win three National Awards, including Best Debut Film of a Director.

Veer Savarkar (2001), India’s first crowd-funded film that had a completely authentically researched base, also had its release opposed due to its political sequences (including a real confrontation between Savarkar and Gandhi). In the era of a BJP coalition-ruled central government, it was still released only in Maharashtra (a BJP coalition ruled the state too) and Jammu & Kashmir (where the Shiv Sena had a presence!). This film could be termed by these theorists the first ever propaganda film, and was a tight thriller (true to Savarkar’s real life!) that ran for 25 weeks in Mumbai’s Plaza cinema!


The bottom-line remains: poorly made films, including media-hyped ones like Afwaah and Bheed (made in black-and-white as a gimmick to show the hopelessness in people’s life during Covid!) failed to connect, and this had nothing to do with their anti-government stance. The same filmmaker (Anubhav Sinha)’s Anek, about North-Eastern India’s separatists, also had no takers due to complete lack of identification with the issue and people involved. 72 Hoorain, another film that thematically was on the lines of The Kerala Files, also sank without any trace. Ajmer 92 was critically appreciated but failed to make it.

And haven’t we seen Bose: The Forgotten Hero and Sardar Patel lacking audience? These were off-beat films in times when the populace wanted only mainstream movies.

Tejas, a 2024 potboiler patriotic drama featuring known BJP sympathizer (and now member) Kangana Ranaut was another calamity last year, and even the pro-Hindu Samrat Prithviraj (2022) that described its hero, the Rajput warrior Prithviraj Chauhan, as “the last Hindu emperor” whose death led to foreign rule was summarily rejected as it was a sub-standard product. Indu Sarkar was a disaster, as was the pathetic Ram Setu (2022) about the bridge built by Lord Ram between southern India and present-day Sri Lanka.

Declared a Hindu critic, “Religious sentiment (in Ram Setu) must be privileged over scientific knowledge – another cornerstone of Hindutva thought!” without even comprehending the basic and exact meaning of the term. A classic chant of this tribe runs like this: “Muslims are nearly always the villains of terrorism-themed movies, war dramas and espionage thrillers, as Kashmiri militants, local Quislings or Islamist terrorists working closely with the Pakistan Army and spy agency.”

Well, isn’t that a sweeping generalization? These worthies forget that more than one Muslims are a part of such movies’ teams and often one of the writers too. And not by coercion either, but because of right (as in correct) thinking. So it is these pseudo-liberals who generalize, and then accuse filmmakers of categorizing a religion! And since the1990s, Sarfarosh, Dus and 16 December all showed Muslims as some of the negative characters, but the term “propaganda” films was not a media-creation then! 

But jingoism became the keyword when films like Airlift, Toilet—Ek Prem Katha, Kesari, Mission Mangal, Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran and the fictional Satyameva Jayate,  Naam Shabana  and Baby successfully engaged the audience.

Coming up

The Sabarmati Report, which was set to release on May 3, will now be released after the general election is over, with more than a month to go. So is another film on Godhra, Accident or Conspiracy: Godhra that was to release in April. JNU, Hindutva, Aakhir Palaayan Kab Tak..? all have their releases pushed into later 2024.

The OTT section

Ae Watan Mere Watan, a nicely-told saga on the Freedom struggle, was appreciated, but not Pippa, a mediocre saga about a warrior tank. These two films were released on OTT, showing that quality is important here as well.

The web has seen countless patriotic series that tell of contemporary (as in post 2014) sagas of Pakistani and ISI treachery, among them being the Avrodh franchise and the recent Rannneeti. Happily, little derogatory is written about them, though it is here that ‘jingoism’ becomes the operative word!











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