Modi’s movies – Rafia Zakaria

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THE world knows India through its movies. For more than a century, most of South Asia has been humming Bollywood tunes, mimicking Bollywood actors and awaiting the next blockbuster with rapt anticipation.

The reach of Bollywood stretches beyond the subcontinent; diehard (and rude) American fans gang up and troll people who do not agree with their choice of the best Bollywood film of all time, and Egyptians, Nigerians and millions of others around the world have similarly gyrated to its dance numbers. Obviously, they have also gotten to know, at least to the extent possible through the screen, the country that exports such rousing entertainment to so many.

This may all change very soon. In the weeks and months to come, operatives of Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party are increasingly throttling India’s multibillion-dollar film industry that makes more movies a year than even Hollywood in the United States. Specifically, there are two things that the BJP does not quite appreciate about the movies these days. First is the fact that the triumvirate of the Khans — Shahrukh, Aamir and Salman — have ruled the roost, wielding enormous power over what movies get made, who makes it big and what themes are emergent in India’s film industry.

Read: How Narendra Modi tapped into Bollywood’s star power for his re-election campaign

Over the years, since the inception of Prime Minister Modi’s government in 2014, and with much greater zeal since his re-election in 2019, the BJP has gone head to head against Bollywood. Movies which tell the stories of Muslim conquest and Mughal rule (such as Jodhaa Akbar) are not easy to do, and ones such as Padmavaat have garnered tremendous controversy.

An entertainment machinery is required to distract such a stricken population; the answer, Godiwood.

Bollywood movie producers have learned the hard way that the easiest way to get a movie past meddling BJP censors is to please the BJP. As a consequence, low-budget films regurgitate improbable dramas in which India dominates over Pakistan; the patriotic and heroic are, all of them, Hindu and fanatically so.

In recent days, as the Modi government has confronted the latest deadly and crushing surge of the coronavirus pandemic, the demand to have helpful instruments of propaganda has surged. Like Goebbels, the Nazi administrator who presaged the use of moviemaking as part of an ideological agenda, Modi bhakts seem to have reached similar, if belated, conclusions. The television and print media in India has already been beaten into submission such that the slang term for it is ‘Godi’ (lap) media’, referring to how cosy Indian journalists have become with Modi’s Hindu supremacist agenda.

Now Bollywood megastars and mega producers must be transformed into ‘Godiwood’. It would be led by someone other than the Khans and their ilk and would produce endless hours of formulaic movies whose entire purpose would be to extol the virtues of Prime Minister Modi and his government and re-familiarise a once-secular Indian audience with arcane myths and tales that could be connected to the Vedas or the BJP agenda. It is likely that Kangana Ranaut, who has expressed a desire to go to the border and attack Pakistan, and Priyanka Chopra, who has hugged and giggled with Modi at one of 20 wedding-related events, could star in the ones that were left.

It would be funny if it were not true. When protests broke out over India’s new citizenship laws, the Khans for all their power were afraid to speak out despite the fact that the new law primarily snatches citizenship from India’s Muslims. Whatever little they could say was useless in sating the bhakts; needless to say, the citizenship law passed.

Modi needs to produce a distraction for his long-suffering and Covid-19 traumatised Indian population. For weeks, so many have had to endure more tragedy and loss of life than most people see in a lifetime; worse still, from the BJP perspective, all Indians who had happily drunk the Modi miracle potion have had a bitter dose of reality. The country still has millions of poor, the health infrastructure is non-existent, there is corruption at every level; these are just some of the truths they may have become reacquainted with.

An entertainment machinery is required to distract such a stricken population; the answer, Godiwood. With celebrities frightened away by intrusive audits, threats of arrests, censorship, etc., Godiwood could produce the same song and dance spectacles but with a pointed goal: the glorification of the Hindu supremacist state that the prime minister has almost created.

Fascists always seek to control cultural production in a country in order to realise the complete and centralised control of power that permits them to dominate everything. If one watches the Godi media, it is difficult not to wonder how so many in the Indian population can swallow such obviously concocted praise songs being presented as the day’s news. The time between newscasts is taken up by bizarre and seemingly endless ‘debates’, in which nearly everyone screams at each other in their efforts to show just how much in Modi’s godi they are.

Godiwood will be very similar, one assumes; there will more of a focus on religious themes, the ills of ‘Hinduphobia’ (which, by definition, could not exist in a Hindu-majority country where Hindus control everything), the depredations of Pakistan, the ignominy of all Muslim rulers of the past. If Bollywood was light and entertaining, funny and seductive, Godiwood, designed to please its audience of one, promises to be tedious and banal. You can force creative people to do what you want them to do, you cannot force them to love it.

Ironically, then, while the independent Bollywood was a fantastic and ubiquitous emblem of India’s cultural depth and relevance, Godiwood will likely be exactly (and boringly) just the opposite. If the former stood for a democratic and endlessly fascinating country, the latter is but a hideous and apologetic husk of a project presented to a duped population and those who best do their master’s bidding.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2021