Movie Trailers

In our contemporary world, the movie trailer, rather than the movie itself, is more effective as propaganda

April 18, 202413 Mins Read

Potuluri Veerabrahmam, a 16th century saint who lived in Kadapa (in modern-day Andhra Pradesh), left behind a book of prophecies, Kalagnanam. As with the French astrologer Nostradamus, many of Veerabrahmam’s prophecies were retrospectively interpreted in the light of political developments in the 20th century. Veerabrahmam is alleged to have prophesied, among other things, that a bania (merchant) would lead the country to freedom, and that a widow would rule India.

Not surprisingly, a film based on the life of the revered saint was proposed, and N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) was asked to play the seer (this was in 1982, when NTR was the reigning superstar). As part of his preparation for the role, NTR started reading the Kalagnanam, and was startled when he reached the section that predicted that Andhra Pradesh would be ruled by a man with a painted face. NTR had risen to stardom playing various deities in mythological films, which required him to put on a lot of make-up. NTR was immediately struck by the realisation that he was the man with the painted face, and therefore destined to rule the State.

Also Read | Rise of ‘Hindutva’ cinema

Within a few weeks, he launched the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). In the Assembly election of 1983, the TDP defeated the Congress, which had ruled Andhra Pradesh since the formation of the State in 1956, and NTR was sworn in as the Chief Minister.

When asked in an interview about his future policies as the Chief Minister, NTR allegedly replied: “You have seen the film (Bobbili Puli). There is a man who always sides with the wronged section of the people. So naturally there is sympathy for the hero. That is the style of role I perform. So that people expect good things to come of my service to them.” While this is not the first instance, particularly in South India, of films being used as an ideological vehicle, it is arguably one of the first instances where a film effectively stands in for the manifesto of a political party.

Bobbili Puli, starring NTR and Sridevi, is about a war veteran who takes it upon himself to clean up corruption in civil society.
| Photo Credit:
By special arrangement

NTR’s story inspired the title of the book, The Painted Face: Studies in India’s Popular Cinema (1991), by the renowned film critic, Chidananda Das Gupta. One of the first serious inquiries into the relationship between politics and cinema in India, the book relied on a relatively simplistic framework of false consciousness to suggest that the inability of the audience to distinguish between reality and illusion allowed film stars to convert their charisma into political gains. It suggested that the devotion that fans nursed for stars was akin to religious devotion, and mythological films in particular allowed for the translation of filmic passion into political passion.

This argument has been subsequently challenged by the film theorist M. Madhava Prasad, who argues that cinema and politics in India should not be seen as separate domains that are brought together by stars. He proposes the term “cine-politics” as a way of understanding the conjoined nature of cinema and the political process: for him, the formal entry of film stars into politics is only one instance of cine-politics. Prasad argues that the South Indian experience is also particularly distinct in the way in which histories of linguistic mobilisation and political passion converge in cinema here.

Crucial difference

There has never been a time when cinema was not political in India, but the interesting question is whether this phenomenon can be collapsed within existing analytical categories such as “propaganda films”. How useful is the term in contemporary times, and how do we account for a set of relatively recent innovations in film practice in India?

Over the last few years, we have witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of jingoistic films, and just in the past few weeks, we have seen several films that have been released, or will be released, ahead of the general election—Bastar: The Naxal StoryArticle 370Swatantrya Veer SavarkarJNU: Jahangir National UniversityThe Sabarmati ReportAakhir Palaayan Kab Tak…?, to name just a few.

All of these films espouse causes which are close to the ideology of the party in power at the Centre and have been a pivotal part of its electoral plank—such as the abolition of Article 370; the critique of left liberal secularists and the institutions associated with them, such as Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi; the revival of nationalist figures considered to have been ignored in the decades of Congress rule.

An immediate question that arises is whether these are political films in the same way that the South Indian films cited earlier are. Could they be considered as political manifestos in the way that Bobbili Puli was projected as a manifesto of the TDP?

Bastar had two teasers building up the suspense.
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By special arrangement

For me, there is one crucial difference between the earlier set of films and the more recent ones, apart from their content. First, with the exception of a few films like The Kashmir Files and Gadar 2, none of these films is a major blockbuster, or likely to be, in the way that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) films or NTR’s films were. In that sense, these new films are certainly not mass propaganda films in the same manner as the earlier generation of films were. But does that mean that they are any less efficacious? What kind of ideological labour would these films have to perform for them to be considered as propaganda films?

A screengrab from the trailer of JNU: Jahangir National University
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By special arrangement

To my mind, one crucial distinction lies in the transformed media ecology that these films are made in and circulate within. The growth of the Internet, the popularity of new media platforms like YouTube, the ubiquity of smartphones capable of transmitting multimedia, and the mushrooming of social media—all these factors collectively contribute to a new logic of media consumption and distribution. We find ourselves in a realm far beyond traditional cinema, in a landscape that some refer to as “post-cinematic”. Now, the consumption of films transcends the confines of complete narrative texts. Instead, they circulate through a plethora of media, ranging from bite-sized clips to viral memes and beyond. In this evolving cinematic ecosystem, one notable phenomenon stands out: the transformation of the role of film trailers.

If earlier, the movie trailer was merely a preview for the real event (the film release) and the cultural artefact (the film), movie trailers have now become cultural artefacts in their own right—as standalone as well as shareable media. In the case of the new propaganda films that I have mentioned, it is likely that even if a person has not actually watched the entire film, they would have seen the trailer, and shared it, either in disgust or in admiration. There is something intriguing about the nature of the film trailer today and the ideological work it does, functioning as more than just a marketing device. If traditionally the function of the trailer was to market a film, a look at some of the recent trailers (BastarJNU) makes it clear that the trailer is not merely advertising a film but also serving as a political statement by advertising ideological positions. It is almost as if the final film were but a by-product of the real cultural text—the trailer.

Trailers as miniature films

Film trailers, like election manifestos, always promise more than they ever actually deliver. Lisa Kernan (author of Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers) describes trailers as “quintessentially persuasive cinematic texts” that combine images in a way that privilege attracting the spectators’ attention over narrative coherence. Kernan argues that trailers are film paratexts that rely on an underlying artefact, but cherry-pick the best moments, the funniest one-liners, the most intense sequences, to create a miniature film that you can enjoy even as you anticipate what is to come. In the era of YouTube, it is also likely that the film trailer will far outlast the actual film, and in the case of films that run for a week or two in cinema halls, the release of the film becomes an ephemeral event that serves as an excuse for the perpetual life of the trailer.

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

It is in this context that it is worth looking at the aesthetic of these trailers to understand the new forms that propaganda has begun to take. Consider for instance, the teaser of JNU: Jahangir National University. It begins with stock footage of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and presents a montage of images: anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act posters, azadi chants, protests against the National Register of Citizens, while a voiceover tells you that this is one of the leading universities in the country where students are found less in classrooms and more in media studios. Simultaneously, you have a stream of words, “Anti-national”, “criminal conspiracy”, “sedition”, “Youth Congress”, “pro terrorism”, running across the screen in the form of tickers, mimicking the form familiar to us from sensational news channels.

A screengrab from the trailer of JNU: Jahangir National University
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By special arrangement

The trailer then moves into a narrative segment with a student leader addressing a group of students. The mise en scène includes a range of thinly disguised political references commonly associated with Jawaharlal Nehru University, including AIVP for ABVP, VFI for SFI, AICA for AISA, and Saira Rashid for Shehla Rashid. It then cuts to a student leader stridently declaring that “The anti-national agenda of the left will not be tolerated either within JNU or in the country”. This is immediately followed by an image of students paying homage to a gigantic cutout of the Prime Minister, flanked by two small posters of Bhagat Singh and Shivaji. This is accompanied by a question, “Can one educational university break the country?”

  • Contemporary propaganda films are made in and circulate within in a transformed media ecology, which influences their nature. The transformation of the role of film trailers is symptomatic of this relation.
  • If earlier, the movie trailer was merely a preview for the real event (the film release) and the cultural artefact (the film), movie trailers have now become cultural artefacts in their own right—as standalone as well as shareable media.
  • In the post-mediatised world, audiences are no longer passive subjects of propaganda—instead, they are active participants who aid in the creation, dissemination, and amplification of messages.

Propaganda revitalised

Given the sharply divided nature of public opinion in India, institutions like JNU have acquired a symbolic status in the divisive ideological battle between the Left and the Right, where the institution becomes a platform for rhetorical claim-making unanchored to any idea of truth. In the moral abyss that we describe as the post-truth world, propaganda emerges as a revitalised force, with one crucial difference. For most of the 20th century, propaganda was primarily a function of the state, involving a top-down relationship of communication, with a passive audience serving as its recipients. In the post-mediatised world, audiences are no longer passive subjects of propaganda—instead they are active participants who aid in the creation, dissemination and amplification of messages.

A screengrab from the trailer of JNU: Jahangir National University
| Photo Credit:
By special arrangement

A trailer of a film like JNU imminently lends itself to being shared and distributed within echo chambers that are not seeking persuasion through truth, but confirmation of their beliefs through emotional experiences. Notwithstanding the slightly conceited claim made by philosophers that humans are rational animals, the fact remains that the battle between reason and emotion has always been a relatively one-sided affair, and trailers of films like JNU work efficiently as propaganda because they affirm what people believe to be true even as they hold the promise of more insidious revelations. If the line between fact and fiction has been entirely blurred in the contemporary world, we can see the emergence of a new aesthetic of the trailer that mirrors this dissolution.

News studio aesthetic

The trailers of both Bastar and The Sabarmati Report have sequences that embody a news studio aesthetic in which a newsreader or anchor directly addresses the audience. If news is considered the “sense-making apparatus” of modernity, we have seen the capitulation of news media into a public address system of populist rhetoric and fears.

Screengrab from The Sabarmati Report teaser.
| Photo Credit:
By special arrangement

This transition was enabled in no small part by an aesthetic metamorphosis, with news channels moving away from the relatively dry world of information and reportage into the more attractive domain of filmic storytelling. News reports routinely “reconstruct” crime scenes, with actors playing characters that the news story is about, and the stories edited in the frenzied style of an action thriller.

When news has become so entertaining, it should hardly surprise us that cinema would turn to news to return the compliment. The trailers of Bastar and The Sabarmati Report defy the conventional ideas of trailer as micro texts that rely on speed and action. Incorporating relatively long segments of direct address to the audience, these trailers borrow from the emotional vocabulary of broadcast media, mixing the realism of news with the excitement of thrillers to produce a heightened affect of fear and horror.

Propaganda items of the Nazi Party at Lofoten War Memorial Museum in Norway.
Nothing assures political dividend as much as a sinister conspiracy theory, and effective propaganda focusses on peddling fear and hatred.
| Photo Credit:
Wiki Commons

An appeal to fear

The history of the 20th century has taught us that an appeal to fear has always provided much greater returns than an appeal to reason, hope, or fraternity. Beginning with the Dreyfus affair (1894-1906) and moving through the Reichstag fire case in the 1930s to the post-9/11 world, nothing assures political dividend as much as a sinister conspiracy theory. Propaganda is only partly effective when extolling the virtues of a ruling power. Where it truly shines is when it peddles the currency of fear and loathing. It therefore appears that the trailer is not merely a manifesto by other means, it is a manifest of other means. It articulates what cannot be said in a formal political manifesto for reasons of legal and political propriety: manifestos are, after all, relatively polite documents that make genteel, if insincere, promises.

Also Read | Viral fever: The curious spectacle of campaign films

Trailers, on the other hand, have no such constraint, and their language of threat picks up from where the promise of the manifesto ends, and makes us an offer we dare not refuse.

Lawrence Liang is a professor at the School of Law, Governance and Citizenship, Dr B.R. Ambedkar University, Delhi. He works on the intersection of law, culture, and technology.

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