As the Mumbai film industry gears up for 2019 with several star-studded blockbusters and interesting indie projects, one face will be most visible during the year – Narendra Modi’s. Far more than the Khans, Kapoors, Kumars and even the Khuranas, it is Modi who will feature in the most films – three are already known of and one more has been announced.
Modi’s visage will be seen in the about to be released Uri, a nationalist drama about the surgical strikes, and Battalion 909, yet another about the armed forces. Rajit Kapoor, who plays him in Uri, has been quoted as saying that the film will show the prime minister as a “planner and a thinker”; “Unki personality mein jo therav hai wo nazar aayega (It will show the calmness in his personality)”.
K.K. Shukla, who has acted in Battalion 909, says he is a fan of Modi, and Lalit Devria, who had played the part of Modi in the Gujarati film Namo Saune Gamo (2014) declares he is one too.
Actor Vivek Oberoi, who looks nothing like the prime minister, has announced his film PM Modi and BJP MP Paresh Rawal, who says he is the best person to play the role, is working on a script.
That Bollywood has many vocal admirers of Narendra Modi is no secret. Modi too reciprocates the affection – he regularly meets film people and recently attended Priyanka Chopra’s wedding reception.
Apart from the MPs, such as Rawal and Kirron Kher, others like Kher’s husband Anupam Kher and former chief of the film certification board Pahlaj Nihalani have openly talked about being his fans.
Nihalani had even made a short film Har Har Modi, which is replete with rousing nationalistic images. During his tenure in the censor board, two films featuring Modi had been denied certificates. Nihalani had said that the producers were asked to get no objection certificates from the PMO. It is not known if the current board chief – another Bollywood personality Prasoon Joshi – has imposed this condition.
Aligning with the powers that be is not new in the industry, nor is making films that reflect the politics of the day. During Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, many commercial films highlighted the construction of dams and other industrial projects. After Nehru died, Kaifi Azmi wrote the moving song ‘Meri Awaaz Suno’ in Naunihal, played in the film over the visuals of Nehru’s funeral. Equally, there were films such as Pyaasa and Phir Subah Hogi, which spoke of disillusionment with the way post-independence India was shaping up.
Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ was reflected in Manoj Kumar’s Upkaar, though Indira Gandhi was more critiqued than admired in films such as Kissa Kursi Ka, made during the Emergency, and later Nasbandi, about forced sterilisation. Gulzar’s Aandhi had an Indira Gandhi-like politician, though he denied it. The then government did not take kindly to the films and the print of Kissa Kursi Ka went missing. In the 1970s, S. Krishnaswamy’s documentary From Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi was purportedly about India’s history but sank and is largely forgotten.
Even so, these films are unique in that they have an identifiable character playing not just a fictional prime minister, but the current one.
The current enthusiasm of making nationalist oriented films – valorising the army and historic figures – fits in well with the BJP and the Sangh parivar’s agenda and point of view. And even if Modi is not present in a film, the messaging is clear, whether the film is about Swachh Bharat (Toilet, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s next) or Hindu kings fighting Muslim invaders (Saffron flags and green flags with a crescent moon in Padmaavat) or indeed bombastic dialogue about serving the nation vs ruling it, along with rallying cries of ‘Azadi’ and ‘Har Har Mahadev’ (Manikarnika). As for The Accidental Prime Minister, about Manmohan Singh’s time as prime minister, it doesn’t leave any doubt that he was under the thumb of the much-reviled Gandhi family.
That these films are coming out just before the Lok Sabha elections is no coincidence. The BJP’s official handle tweeted the trailer of The Accidental Prime Minister. Uri highlights the surgical strikes of 2016, a timely reminder of the ‘success’ of the government’s tough policies against terrorism.
But this trend, even if driven by personal preferences and admiration for Modi, is also being done with an eye on audience preferences. Filmmakers are attuned to what the viewers want and the thinking is that there are sufficient numbers out there who will want to see films about the armed forces and about Indian history, recent and old, that fits in with a particular notion about the past. Whether romanticised or revisionist, films about the past are a favourite among filmmakers, but while at one time they promoted the secular idea of the nation – Mughal-e-Azam is a good example – today they lean towards the ultra-nationalistic and Hindutva, even if accepted history is twisted to suit the narrative.
Propitiating the box office goddess is not always a foolproof affair. If a few nationalism-oriented films flop, the industry will move on to other subjects and if even Narendra Modi does not pull in audiences, films with him in the story will vanish. Bollywood may love him and his views, but ultimately it loves profits and that is what guides its subject choices.