Art & Entertainment

Bollywood Outsiders Script Propaganda Fables

Since 2019, the Hindi film industry has witnessed a surge in movies aligning with the politics and ideology of the ruling party.

Vikir Films
Sabarmati Report Producer Amul V Mohan with actor Vikrant Massey Photo: Vikir Films
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There has never been a meeting between filmmaker Sudipto Sen, writer Saurabh Pandey, and producers Amul and Anshul Mohan but the three are creators of a new genre of politically charged movies that sensationalise real-life tragedies with half-peddled truths. The films, often made at moderate budget and with lesser-known actors, new writers and directors, are flaring nationalistic passion among audiences while setting the cash registers ringing at the box office. 

Critics have charged Sen’s The Kerala Story, The Kashmir Files written by Pandey and the upcoming The Sabarmati Report produced by Mohan brothers, to be propaganda pieces victimising Hindus and commonly villanising Muslims. The formula has captured Bollywood’s attention and also the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, whose ‘Hindu, Hindutva, Hindustan’ mindset the movie scripts reflect. The makers have denied being anti-Muslim and respecting Islam, but their films much like the characters in it play fast and loose with bad Muslim-good Muslim tropes. 

Like Shalini Unnikrishnan, the lead protagonist of The Kerala Story. Trapped and helpless, somewhere along the tensed Afghanistan-Iran border, Shalini aka Fatima ba, earnestly, tries to convince her interrogators at a United Nations incarceration facility, that she is not an Islamic State militant. Instead, she insists, she is a Hindu woman from Kerala who was brainwashed and converted to Islam to serve the Caliphate and fight infidels.

“I am not alone in this game. There are thousands of girls trapped like me who have fled their homes and are buried in the desert,” she says in thick Malayalam-tinged Hindi.

The tale of the nursing student and her two friends, radicalised by a group of extremists, turned into human bombs for terror groups in Syria to establish global Islamic rule, is a "fictionalised account" inspired by Kerala residents fleeing to join ISIS in Afghanistan.

Sen, writer and director of The Kerala Story, insists this is the real story of around one lakh Hindu and Catholic girls in Kerala alone, who are victims of “manipulative conversion” to Islam. Before its May 2023 release, the film’s producer, Vipul Amrutlal Shah, conformed with a Kerala High Court order to remove the controversial claim from the film’s teaser stating that over 32,000 women from Kerala joined ISIS. The film’s disclaimer acknowledges the absence of authoritative data on such events and disputes the authenticity of the 32,000 figure.

But, much like another character in his film, Nimah Matthews, who references the 30,000 conversion figure in her intense monologue towards the climax, stating “boys from Kerala have been found to be involved in bomb blasts in Singapore, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan,” Sen remains adamant that “every conversion attempt feeds into the terrorist network.”

“The question is not how many girls have gone to Afghanistan. It is about the indoctrination process, my film is not about how many girls have shifted to Syria or Afghanistan. It is an uncomfortable truth. If one girl is also suffering then we should hang our heads in shame,” he stressed during a two-hour interview with this correspondent at the offices of Sen’s Sipping Tea Company.

The cosy office on the 13th floor of a swanky corporate tower at Veera Desai Road in Andheri is located in the same lane as the big film production houses and studios of Yash Raj Films, Nadiadwala and Grandson Entertainment and Balaji Motion Television, among others. A national award-winning documentary filmmaker, Sen spent years working with the World Bank and as a corporate ad filmmaker, before he rose to the charts as a top filmmaker, grossing Rs 300 crore at the box office with The Kerala Story’s surprise success.

Critics have panned the film as propaganda, with cringe-worthy writing built on a wafer-thin plot and supported by hamming actors. But Sen is undeterred, as he refuses to be caught in “rightist or leftist” binaries.

He is, however, nauseous at the label of being clubbed with Bollywood’s successful filmmakers. “They wanted to ban Sudipto Sen’s film and said it would not be played anywhere. Because he makes anti-communist films. But Bollywood neither knows ‘anti’ nor communist.”

He complained that the industry feels threatened by his rapid ascent because an outsider like him has cracked the formula of “real entertainment.” Sen pointed out that only a few families in Bollywood determine what the entire nation’s audience watches. “Raj Kapoor once said, people love to see dreams and we sell dreams. No, it’s not that. Your life, your neighbour’s life is entertainment. I try to depict reality based on human emotions,” Sen emphasised.

Much like filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files, depicting the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, Aditya Dhar’s Uri: The Surgical Strike, portraying the Indian army’s surgical attack on Pakistan and Article 370, showcasing the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, Sen belongs to a growing cohort of ‘outsiders’ in Mumbai's Hindi film industry, who are reshaping commercial blockbusters with a dose of Hindu right-wing ideology, albeit with selective truths.

These films reinforce well-established narratives of Hindutva supremacy, injustices against Sanatani Hindus, and jingoistic nationalism and blame Indian Muslims for national security threats. Hindu outfits like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and Bajrang Dal endorse these views. Right-wing outfits held special screenings and distributed free tickets to Hindu communities.

The biggest validation of The Kerala Story, The Kashmir Files and Article 370 came from Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, who said the films revealed the ugly truth.

Since 2019, the Hindi film industry has witnessed a surge in movies aligning with the politics and ideology of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), aiming to boost the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Many of these films, primarily produced by newcomers or less-established writers and directors, some with ties to the BJP or its religious nationalist ideology, have unexpectedly found success at the box office. Reputed studios are now capitalising on their profitability by distributing them nationwide.

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Sudipto Sen, Director of Kerala Story at his office in Andheri, Mumbai.
Sudipto Sen, Director of Kerala Story at his office in Andheri, Mumbai. Photo by: Dinesh Parab/Outlook
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The seemingly blatant propaganda also poses the risk of bans. Sen’s films, The Kerala Story and Bastar: The Naxal Story, released in March, angered communist regimes in Kerala and West Bengal, leading to their prohibition. Sen himself was a communist believer, like a large number of Bengalis “born with Maoism in their mind, whether positive or negative,” he says. Sen was born in Jalpaiguri, 40 km from Naxalbari, and saw his sister’s incarceration as a Naxalite, a topic he doesn’t want to talk about.

He says that over the last 70 years, our country has had a faulty socio-political system, and the audience has been indoctrinated with a neo-colonial mindset under the influence of communism. “We are taught the wrong definition of entertainment, where the hero runs after the heroine and there is a Gujarati or Punjabi wedding. We are a 6,000-year-old civilisation and all that we are left with (in the name of entertainment) is Salman Khan’s dhinka chika (garish) songs… How pathetic?” he implored.

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Brushing aside allegations of high-decibel propaganda, Sen emphasised that his films, set in Kerala and Bastar, stemmed from personal experiences, backed by extensive research and interviews spanning eight to ten years. They aim to portray the reality of Indian life and people’s struggles on screen. “My subjects are based on human suffering. People tend to paint with political colour, which gives them the convenience of raising certain questions and controversies,” he said.

The difference in the box office record of the two films, confirms why the movies have been branded to promote BJP's views. The Kerala Story depicting Muslims as evil extremists earned Rs 300 crores whereas Bastar: the Naxal story's commentary against communalism, a topic of lesser appeal to the party's primary Hindu supporters, earned only Rs 2 crores. Both movies were made back-to-back by Sen and starred Adah Sharma in principal roles.   

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Writer Saurabh M Pandey, who worked as a research head and wrote the additional screenplay for The Kashmir Files and The Tashkent Files, echoed Sen’s sentiment. “No one intends to make a ‘controversial’ film. People were surprised by The Kashmir Files film because it raised the issue of the Kashmiri Pandit genocide that no one had talked about for years. There was a stunning silence on the topic.”

Born in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Pandey was an engineering student, before wading into Mumbai’s film industry. He was unfamiliar with Kashmir politics and the decade-long militancy. “When Vivek sir gave me the brief to focus on genocide in Kashmir and the atrocities committed against people, I was intrigued by the idea. I didn’t know much about Kashmir, except that it was called heaven on earth, but no one spoke about genocide,” he said.

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Pandey dedicated three and a half years to research, studying a dozen books on militancy. He interviewed experts and historians to authenticate the information. To validate the script's events, he spoke with nearly 700 Kashmiri Hindu victims across various locations. “There was so much to read. The problem we faced was what to keep in the movie. We have only shown around five percent of the reality in the film, the rest could not be included because it is so brutal. I still get goosebumps thinking about the narrations,” he said.

The 2022 release of the film evoked strong audience reactions, with tears and chants of “Jai Hind” in theatres. Despite controversies, it emerged as a blockbuster, earning Rs 252.90 crore. However, prominent Kashmiri Pandits like documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak and Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS) leader Sanjay Tikoo criticised it for spreading dangerous propaganda and inaccurate facts, aiming at demonising Kashmiri Muslims and polarise relations between the two communities.

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Pandey is receptive to both, the criticism and objections against the film, but believes filmmakers have the freedom to make films based on their ideology. He, however, insists that he did not pen The Kashmir Files with the lens of targeting Muslims. The canvas of the story, he says, deals with ‘State versus Terrorism’. “There was a genocide against Kashmiri Hindus, like the Jews, but that doesn’t mean we can tag all the Germans as Nazis. All the events are real. It happened 30 years ago, but it was not acknowledged. No one tried to make a film on these atrocities. I got the opportunity as a filmmaker to present this story. Genuinely, it should not be linked with caste or religion. It would be wrong.”

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The makers of the upcoming film, The Sabarmati Report, brothers Amul and Anshul Vikas Mohan, have also urged audiences not to judge their movie through the prism of ideology. Known for their work in movies like Behen Hogi Teri and Ek Villain, they’re launching their banner Vikir Films with this project. Presented by Balaji Telefilms, and starring Vikrant Massey, the movie depicts the Godhra train-burning incident and is set for release on May 3, amid election season.

Amul says the film is based on the human tragedy involving 59 persons who burned to death in the train at Godhra. The film, which the brothers claimed was heavily based on research and facts, took three years to develop into a script by writer Aseem Arora. The shoot took only 40 days. “People want to give it colour, but that’s not the story. It’s a true crime investigation thriller about the death of 59 people, the majority of whom are women and kids, that triggered the Godhra riots. No one was talking about the train burning incident,” he said.

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Amul refers to the 9/11 and 26/11 attacks, the subjects of many films. However, he stresses the importance of focusing on the victims—ordinary people going about their daily lives, whether heading to work or having tea at a restaurant. “These people are apolitical. They become statistics. It’s not about Hindus or Muslims,” he says.

But it is.

On February 27, 2002, the Sabarmati Express, carrying kar sevaks from Ayodhya, was attacked near Godhra railway station. Four compartments were set ablaze, resulting in 59 deaths. The cause remains disputed, with theories of arson by outsiders or accidental fire from cooking cylinders. The incident was framed as a retaliation for the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. The train attack triggered riots in Gujarat, claiming over 1,000 lives, primarily Muslims. Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the riots bolstered his image as a Hindu leader, aiding his rise to power in Gujarat and paving his path to the prime ministership.

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“We have made a political thriller that is driven by investigation at its core. There is an audience and market for such films and we want to exploit it,” the brothers say.

Whether The Sabarmati Report smashes the box office record of The Kerala Story and The Kashmir Files remains to be seen, it is, however, certain to find its eager audience amongst the political parties hunting for a fresh salvo against their opponents during the Lok Sabha polls.

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