Bollywood Movies

Bollywood churning out ‘pro-government’ fare ahead of Indian elections, film critic says

April 12, 20248 Mins Read

The trailer for a new Bollywood film, The Sabarmati Report, opens with a shot of a railway platform superimposed with the word “Ayodhya”, a city in northern India that was the focus of a dispute between the country’s Hindus and Muslims for decades.

Hindu pilgrims wearing saffron garlands and holding religious flags are briefly seen walking past a train, before the edit cuts to the inside of a train carriage where women sing Hindu devotional songs against a backdrop of chants of “Ram, Ram” – invoking the Hindu deity Lord Rama.

A young girl smiles at the camera before the footage cuts again to the scene outside the carriage, where a frenzied mob of men are shown throwing stones at the train. A fire breaks out on the train, and a woman is heard screaming.

“Based on True Events” is flashed in bold letters on the screen before one of two actors playing television reporters says, “I don’t think this was a fire accident”, to which the other replies, “It was deliberately set ablaze”.

The “true events” refers to the deaths of 59 Hindus in a fire aboard the Sabarmati Express February 27, 2002 as it was passing through in the western Indian town of Godhra, Gujarat, the home state of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

There were about 2,000 passengers on the train, most of them Hindus returning home after responding the call of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad group to visit Ayodhya as part of a campaign to have a Ram Temple built there on the site of a 16th-century mosque that was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992.

It was reported at the time that some of the Hindu passengers had misbehaved with Muslim vendors on the platform at Godhra, prompting them to attack the train. An investigation which concluded in 2006 found that the fire was caused by accident, but the Supreme Court rejected the report as invalid and set up a special investigation team which found that it was started deliberately. A special court convicted 31 people in 2011. Eleven were handed death sentences that were later commuted to life sentences.

The incident triggered one of India’s worst bouts of sectarian violence in which at least 1,000 people were killed in Gujarat, the majority of them Muslims, and propelled Mr Modi, who was the head of the state government at the time, on to the national political stage.

According to prominent film critic Raja Sen, The Sabarmati Report is one of a spate of recently released or upcoming films that serve as right-wing propaganda for Mr Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, who are seeking a third term in power in a general election starting this month.

“It is hard not to see that there are many films suddenly coming out. There is a glut of movies particularly aligned in one direction,” Mr Sen told The National.

“These propaganda movies are hogwash and misleading but at some level, some people may believe these, which is frightening.”

Propaganda machinery

The Sabarmati Report is among a dozen such recent productions from Bollywood – the Hindi-language film industry that dominates Indian cinema.

The film Article 370, released in February, deals with the controversial decision by Mr Modi’s government to scrap a constitutional provision that gave semi-autonomous status to Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region, in 2019.

It was endorsed by the prime minister, who said the film was “useful for people to get correct information”.

Other films have a clear anti-Muslim slant, such as Razakars: Silent Genocide of Hyderabad, which was financed by a BJP leader.

The film tells the story of a militia allegedly used by the Muslim ruler of Hyderabad who refused to merge his princely state into India at the end of the British colonial rule in 1947. The militia allegedly attacked Hindu subjects who supported accession before India seized the state by force.

Another recent film, Jahangir National University, tells the story of a fictional university with clips from news agencies of protests at Delhi’s reputed Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The left-leaning university, popularly known as JNU, was at the forefront of protests against Modi government’s policies such as the citizenship law that allows only non-Muslim immigrants to become Indians. BJP leaders and supporters have often accused the university of being the breeding ground of “anti-nationals” and “urban-naxals”– a broad term used for the critics of the government or Hindu nationalism.

Jahangir is the name of the fourth emperor of the Muslim Mughal dynasty that ruled much of India from the 16th century to the mid-18th century.

The film Vaccine War demonises the media for criticising Mr Modi’s handling of the Covid pandemic that killed half a million Indians, while Swatantra Veer Savarkar is a biopic on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, father of Hindu supremacy who is idolised by Mr Modi’s party.

None of these films did well at the box office.

Last week the state-run national TV network, Doordarshan, broadcast the 2023 film The Kerala Story, which tells the story of how Hindu women from the southern state were converted to Islam and recruited by ISIS. While it has basis in factual events, the number of such cases is nowhere near the 32,000 claimed in the film.

India’s security agencies estimate that about 100 from the southern coastal state, both men and women, either joined or tried to join ISIS.

“The slant is scarier than any one film in particular. So many people are exposed to one kind of thing,” Mr Sen said.

“The fear is the fact that Bollywood is so obediently and neatly falling in line, and it is only a matter of time before someone makes a genuinely good propaganda film, which will be far more insidious and convincing,” he said.

Boycott campaigns

Bollywood churns out more than 1,000 films a year and remains India’s biggest and most popular media industry. Its reach is vast and its stars are treated like gods.

It has always been a target of politicians, with attacks becoming more frequent under the present government for anything that is considered against the beliefs of India’s majority Hindu community.

We have seen post 9/11 the ‘otherisation’ of Muslims in film and television across the world, and we have fed into that stereotyping. But now it is reaching a sickening extreme

Raja Sen, film critic

Several top industry figures, mostly Muslim actors and producers, have been subjected to boycott campaigns by Hindu nationalist groups over their on and off-camera life.

Bollywood megastars like Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan have faced wrath over their remarks and have been films were targeted in recent years.

But many have co-opted with the ruling government and Hindu nationalist groups.

“On one end there are famous faces who would just go along with the narrative and may want to belong to the winning side but there are also people who are concerned about the backlash and do not want to be a pariah in their world.,” Mr Sen said.

“In many cases, they are not left with the choice,” he said.


While pro-government content is surging, increased scrutiny by the authorities has left little scope for producing content critical of the ruling party.

The censorship of scenes, dialogue and even song-and dance sequences has increased in recent years.

Scenes in last year’s Bollywood film Bheed, which juxtaposed the misery of millions of Indians and images and speeches of Mr Modi during the Covid pandemic, were removed by the censor board.

The producers of the film Pathaan had to change the colour of the swimsuit worn by actress Deepika Padukone in a song sequence following violent protests by Hindu groups because the original colour – saffron – is associated with Hinduism.

“There has always been propaganda for as long as there has been cinema. We have seen post 9/11 the ‘otherisation’ of Muslims in film and television across the world, and we have fed into that stereotyping. But now it is reaching a sickening extreme,” Mr Sen said.

“There is nothing inherently wrong about this cinema coming up, but this cinema should be called out because it is pretending to be factual, and it is not. We are sharing one side of the story, and the other side is completely not allowed to represent itself. The other side has been made to vanish.”

Updated: April 12, 2024, 6:00 PM

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