FEATURE FILMS AS POLITICAL PROPAGANDA
The first month of the year 2019, has been marked by a wave of cinema that is political in content, if nothing else. Its most unusual, but considering the coincidence of the proximity of a coming general elections, one can only marvel at the ‘Doorandrishti’(farsightedness) of the election planners who had started this race around two years ahead.
We have ‘An Accidental Prime Minister’ in flesh and blood to recall our memory of a person who remained prime minister for ten years and guided the nation to greater prosperity. We have ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’ recalling an incident on the LOC, when a detachment of the Army lay waste a terrorist training centre deep in the POK area, a dare which most people felt an UDA government would not have risked. It added to the ‘josh’ of the people on this side of the LOC. Then there is more ‘josh’ in ‘Manikarnika: The Rani of Jhansi’ which recalls the fight against the enemy by an icon of Indian history. And more ‘josh’ and possible mayhem in film ‘Thackeray’ based on the life of the Shiv Sainik of Mumbai On the sport front ‘Gold’ and ‘Soorma’ were also patriotic films planned to added another spoonful of josh before election time. No sir, there are too many coincidence. It is the Film Division of the BJP at work, and we salute the effort.
As we gather, there are more ‘josh’ films in the making; one sport film is recalling the defeat of a premiere British football team to the local Mohan Bagan team in 1917 in Calcutta.
If political figures and important historical events were not enough, feature films were made recently which responded to official policy of the National Government. Surprisingly these films were made with good taste and humour and the audience licked them to success. For a starter it was ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’ on domestic sanitation, then ‘Padman’ on personal female health, then ‘Sui Dhaaga’ on self reliance. One upcoming film ‘Hotel Mumbai’ is focused for release just before the March elections, and a reminder of the terrorist raid at the Taj Mahal Hotel in 2008. Some more films are in the pipe line, and some more will be on the drawing board.
At another time and another place, it would have been easy for us to exclaim that all these feature films were propaganda film to rouse the people to endorse a certain ideology of patriotism and ultra nationalism. These films preached majoritism, and anyone opposing the sentiment was sure to end very sorry for himself. The very brave film critics still had the audacity to thumb down most of the efforts, with ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ even getting ‘no stars’ in the official review printed in a leading English newspaper. This rating was unfair, but then such films also tend to rouse one’s own biased sentiments and that is all part of the game.
Any creative work emerging from the human mind is a political statement. Even a painter’s wild brush has a statement hidden within the pigments. When 71 feature films were made between 1913 and 1921 wholly based on Indian mythological events, they too collectively were a bold statement against colonial missionary campaigns in India and to revive a fading spirit of nationalism. Dadasaheb Phalke in 1924 made a small film, ‘Municipal Election’ which arguably should be the first political film made in India. Thereafter the element of politics in Indian cinema varied according to the subject.
British colonial administration in India did not encourage political films being made locally. The Administration, through its Cinematograph Act of 1918, also clamped down on the import of films from foreign lands which directly or indirectly held a political message. Films featuring Charlie Chaplin were all banned screenings in India and so were films made in the Soviet Union until 1955.
Cinema received an early recognition of its worth in 1920, when during the sessions of the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held in Moscow, Lenin directed that cinema will hence forth be the official political instrument to push the message of the Party to the remotest village in the nation. Sergei Eisenstein was made the Party Advisor to this programme. This statement also laid the foundation of the cinema industry in Soviet Union and herald a new genre in cinema art, which we have recognized as “Epic cinema”.
On the other hand when the Indian National Congress Party was waging its own struggle for independence, it branded cinema ‘ as sinful technology’ and kept films outside the use for propaganda for its own political line. It is another thing that individual persons associated with the commercial art, used cinema as an instrument to push the cause of freedom to the remotest corners of the country. This was indeed despite the lack of official support from the freedom waging Party. If today we find the NDA Government using cinema technology in its campaigning for votes and support to its programmes and ideologies, and not the Congress Party, then one can lay the cause of this avoidance by the leading Opposition Party, to its historical DNA.
The content of feature film, post Independent India, underwent a change. Nehru did not will it but the world of artists came around to add meat to a winning team. Very early Nehru while presenting the first national Budget had opened his mind before the assembled members of Parliament that he was visualizing a modal economy to bring the people out from their abysmal poverty of ages and launch itself into constructing an infrastructure to support future economic activities. It was a monumental idea to have new cities and new dreams. This dream also hit many artists and entrepreneurs who dreamt likewise. A series of films emerged carrying forward these dreams. Among the films issued were ‘Samaj Ko Badal Daalo’, ‘Boot Polish’, ‘Naunihal’, ‘Paigham’, ‘Teen Batti Char Raste’, ‘Naya Daur’, ‘Pyaasa’, ‘Leader’, ‘Garam Coat’, ‘Foot Path’, ‘Do Aankhen Barah Haath’, ‘Apna Haath Jagannath’, ‘Shahar Aur Sapna’, ‘Aasman Mahal’ ‘Phir Subah Hogi’, ‘Jagriti’ , Hum Panchi Ek Dal Ke and a late Hum Hindustani and New Delhi in the early 1960s.
Both Tamil and Bengali regional cinema also came out with similar sentiments. In Bengali cinema, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen were early leaders creating films of social protest. They were joined by Satyajit Ray, and Tapan Sinha. in Tamil cinema, S.S Vasan, AVM, and B. Nagi Reddy pressed forward the socialist theme successfully. A possible cause for the INC not changing its stance on the national cinema was also the presence of politicians who were totally bereft of any cinema sense or hostile to modern arts. To start with the first Minister for Information and Broadcasting was K.K Diwakar, a Nehru loyalist who spent time at the seat. He was followed by BV Keskar who hated all non classical strains in arts. He got support from a lady in Mumbai, Mrs Lilawati Munshi wife of Kanhaiyya lal Munshi, a great man of letters. She would hold a strike on anything which smacked of modernism.
By late 1960s, this socialist enthusiasm gave way to social frustration and official cynicism which came to reflect in both cinema and literature. A drama script was written, Kissa Kursi Kaa, another script on Zanzeer started circulating, and so was of Imtehaan and Aandhi. These writings were soon to be converted into films with protest, propaganda and social commentary.
Propaganda films essentially emerged in European Cinema with the working of the Nazi propaganda film units. The anti Semitism in these films was so strong that it led to the creation of counter film production units in USA, UK and France. The coming of the Second World War also caused the Japanese and the Chinese governments to launch their own film propaganda machinery. In India there was still a discernable quiet. However in 1942 when India decided to join the Allied Effort, the British Administration in India felt the local population needed to be educated on why India was supporting the new War. It decided to create a new documentary film unit to make propaganda films. The Viceroy’s office first got a British journalist Desmond Young, who was later the Editor of The Statesman, to handle the job, but Young not being a film man threw up his hands. Then the British attempted to get the leaders of the Hindi film industry to join hands. JBH Wadia of Basant Pictures offered his hand to the effort and he was joined by V. Shantaram who felt if Nehru was fine with the Indian support to the British, he too had no objections. The result was the creation of the fore runner of the Film Division, called the ‘Information Films of India’. This unit made no feature films and is remembered for a dozen odd documentary films on the War Effort in India.
The formation of the ‘Information Films of India’ laid the foundation of propaganda films in India. But Indians were not allowed to make such films privately and any experiments on this genre led to seizure of all film material. The Cinematograph Act of 1952 ensured that Indian cinema could not make propaganda films in the style one saw in France, Germany and England.
A propaganda film would be one such material in film which is a biased version of Truth. It remains the privilege of the class in power to wield this art form and use it to create a feeling of well-being in the masses or to stir them up for some objective of political power play. There is no ‘art’ involved. And if that creeps in, then that is accidental. For instance, one of the greatest film propagandist was a German lady Leni Riefestahl whose talents led her to create some of the best propaganda feature length films praising the Nazi Party under Hitler. She is best known today for two of her works, The Triumph of Will and the Berlin Olympics 0f 1936.
It requires a lot of funding and an official policy on information to plan out a feature film. One does not declare he is making a feature propaganda film. One of the greatest successful schemes of propaganda executed related to a whole period of 1948-58. This was not declared, but formed a part of the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe after the end of the Second World War.
The Marshall Plan required the reconstruction of Europe both in infrastructure which was destroyed in bombings, and emotionally because of the loss of human lives. The overall destruction also caused the disappearance of centuries old culture as population scattered all over the world. All this cost money. In USA and England, there was a public outcry on how national governments spend the national wealth in fighting the War.
A two prong strategy was evolved. In USA the State Department of Defense asked Hollywood studio owners to plan out feature films which explained the working of some of the defense departments which participated in the war effort. CIA moved another section of the film industry to create an interest in the American population in European history and create tourist films which would cause the new generation to plan tourist trips and spend money to fund the local European trades to rejuvenate their economies.
This period is thus marked by the emergence of a host of feature films which talked of how the American and the British defense machinery worked to defeat the German and the Japanese war machinery. There were films like Strategic Air Command, The Longest Day, D-Day the 6th of June, Dam Busters, The Raid, The Great Escape, the Blue Max, Tora Tora Tora, Stalag 17, Desert Rats, El Alamien, Carve Her Name With Pride, Bridge at Toko Ri, Above Us the Waves, Red Beret, Away All Boats, Torpedo Run and more.
On the more popular front to promote tourism into Europe, melodrama and teen aged theme films were produced like Three Coins in the Fountain, Gigi, An Affair to Remember, Come September, The Yellow Rolls Royce, Bonjour Trieste, Genevieve, An American in Paris, Singing in the Rains, Emperor Waltz, On the Riviera, Million Dollar Mermaid, Lili, Can Can, Moulin Rouge, So This is Paris etc., to recreate interest to travel to European countries as tourists, and spend money.
European economy revived without spending the tax payers money and nobody noticed the change that was brought by propaganda films.
In India regional cinema seems to have contributed materially to the creation of films which had an undertone of propaganda.
In 1970 when Bengal saw the emergence of a new leftist government under Jyoti Basu, it also brought a clutch of left leaning intellectuals toward itself. A recast Department of Information was created. This unit began to offer soft loans to young film makers who had themes suited to the Leftist theology. This resulted even in the established film makers to take a dip into the fortunate circumstances. Between 1972-92, Bengali cinema was replete with film themes extolling the rights of the tribal, the struggling labour and the farmers and generally hostile to the capitalists in Bengali society.
Three cinemas of the South and particularly that of Tamil cinema also underwent a change in their social thinking because the area was ruled by a government which kept the cause of the tribal in the forefront. Starting from 1937, the DMK party had emerged as an anti brahminical organisation. The cadre took its lessons from the experience of the freedom struggle and instead of cinema, took its message to the rural countryside through drama companies and gramophone songs. In 1956 when it came to power, regional cinema took a massive turn to plead for the causes dear to the DMK. In film Iravur it paid homage to the two cult personalities of DMK, Karunanidhi and MGR, unabashedly and this was not an isolated case.
The use of propaganda films for projecting the political ideology was noticed by CIA and the Hollywood film industry, and they sent to India their senior researchers to know the secret of success of the DMK in South India. The rise of Ronald Reagan in California was not in isolation. The Republican Party had taken their lessons from South India(?)
For the survival of political cinema anywhere, the first fundamental consideration has to be an educated and politically alive general masses. This has been the crucial advantage of Marathi cinema. While there may not have been great Marathi films emerging from the Western region of the country, interesting political films have continued to be made with moderate financial success. The Marathi audiences have tolerated these films and took side to argue their issues, without taking the theme for street clashes. That does not seem to be the case of Hindi cinema when at the drop of the hat, sections of the audience have taken to street battles to stop political statements in their cinema to be removed, and less discussed. But some films with protests did survive. In film Sinhasan a Marathi film we discovered the first modern political film survive the nasty Act it was reviewed official. This was followed by New Delhi Times a Hindi film. It seems someone had put in his foot between the door to let fresh air in!
India’s lone dedicated contribution to true propaganda feature films rests with Anand Patwardhan. He is the lone soldier who battles with his own government because he makes propaganda films which run counter to the government’s own line of propaganda. May be some day he may be able to sing Woh Subha Kabhi To Aayegi. For that he may have to get the Cinematograph Act of 1952 to be rewritten, and also get the mind of the politicians retuned to accept an alternate reality.