Editor’s Note: When cinema becomes a tool for propaganda

Published : Apr 18, 2024 11:00 IST - 3 MINS READ

As the line between fact and fiction blurs in the age of authoritarian rhetoric, movies are used to methodically manipulate public perception.

One always imagines that propaganda and brainwashing are modern inventions that Goebbels—aided by Leni Riefenstahl—perfected. Not true. It has been around from the hoary days of the Greeks and of the Natya Shastra, and has always used song, dance, theatre, and festivals as its handmaidens, later incorporating radio, television, and cinema, and now social media. But, of course, it is speech that is the easiest, cheapest, and most common way to propagate one’s ideas. Goebbels was first of all a compelling demagogue who would rehearse his speeches in front of a mirror, perfecting every gesture and dramatic pause, every stress and tone modulation. His speeches and articles had very little truth and a lot of smear, and there were reportedly more than 100 libel suits against him at one time.

Oratory is one of the traits for which Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, is extolled, and it is claimed that he wins audiences chiefly by the gift of the gab. While one can have differing views on that, what is astounding is how easily Mr. Modi and his colleagues disregard facts that are inconvenient to the narrative they are peddling. In the last few weeks, one noted this many times. Take one speech alone, where Mr. Modi claimed that it was “the timely intervention” of the Central and State governments that led to “marked improvement” in Manipur. The facts hardly support this: the Prime Minister has not visited Manipur since May 3, 2023, when ethnic violence first erupted; his party’s Chief Minister in Manipur has been repeatedly accused of fanning the flames and of bias towards one community; and members of Central security forces have complained of being thwarted in their efforts to contain the violence.

Such far-fetched claims are more frequent now because it is election season. And each time, the level of dissimulation is staggering. Each time, a chorus of voices upholds the fabrication, exactly like that immortal line in Animal Farm, “If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right.”

“The line between fact and fiction has faded fast in the past 10 years, with television channels and self-appointed historians enthusiastically using the eraser on it. The rot has spread from textbooks to biographies, from science to history. ”

The question one invariably asks is: Are people really so gullible? Will they swallow anything? It is here that one must pause. If propaganda appears as if it can get away with any slant or spin today, it is because the source material is also being deeply and steadily corrupted. The line between fact and fiction has faded fast in the past 10 years, with television channels and self-appointed historians enthusiastically using the eraser on it. The rot has spread from textbooks to biographies, from science to history. The demented motivation, for instance, that wants to remove Mughal history from textbooks comes from the same place that makes the Far Right in the US demand that schools stop teaching evolution.

The instinct of any authoritarian regime is to control the traditional sources of public information and replace them with alternative, often invented, information that is more dramatic, lurid, and mesmerising. Et voila, cinema. Several films from the genre that Harish Wankhede dubs “Hindutva cinema” have either been released or are in the pipeline, primed for election season. Some are unabashed plugs for government schemes and slogans, but the rest are invariably hyper-communal and hyper-nationalist outings.

While the relationship between politics and cinema is hardly new, two things stand out in these recent cinematic overtures. One is their inherent divisiveness and malignancy; the other is the deliberate merging of fact and fiction. While artistic licence must always be protected, pushing feature films as factual documentary is just plain dishonesty. In the process, we have arrived at a place where popular cinema—with its inordinate influence—is being used as a hypodermic needle to methodically inject doses of hatred into the national vein.

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