By Rachna Agarwal

Communication research interrogates the dominance of the ‘visual’ or visible aspects of media in affecting all aspects of contemporary social and political life. In a developing country like India, that boasts of being the world’s largest democracy, but is still marred by poverty, under development and illiteracy, the particular role played by the visual in political communication is doubly significant.

In a developing country like India, that boasts of being the world’s largest democracy, but is still marred by poverty, under development and illiteracy, the particular role played by the visual in political communication is doubly significant.

One of the most powerful mediums where the visual elements and political message interact is cinema. Films in India, not just reflect the social, cultural and artistic traditions but also represent unique traditions of political development. The portrayal of politics and society can be understood in the attempts made by directors to use their film or work as a “means” to transform society. In the attempt to bring about a change, films perform functions that may serve a certain political interest. Over time, the continued portrayal of this political interest becomes so conditioned that the films, under the garb of educating the society, may turn propagandist in nature. Moreover, this propagandist approach becomes contentious due to the ‘power’ which accompanies the rhetoric, which tends to decides how the society will be maintained.

Film-makers, who desire to make politics related films usually follow a ‘politics-business-gangster’ theme. Especially after the Mandal Commission, films portray politics as being all about caste and religion. In fact, in reality too, these two criteria tend to determine a citizen’s vote. Some of the contemporary films that follow the rhetoric of a political background with a social message are:

  • Satta (2003): This film brings into notice, the clear nexus between the underworld, businessman, corrupt policeman, and politicians. It is directed by Madhur Bhandarkar, where Raveena Tandon stars as a female politician, who struggles her way up the political ladder, brushing past more than just gender biases.
  • Gangajal (2003): A movie set in Bihar about the fight between a police force (led by Ajay Devgan) and corrupt, criminal politicians, where the cops use brutal methods to pit in criminals. This film was inspired by the Bhaglpur Acid Building case. This again brings into question the constant tiff between the Indian political system and its police services, looking at the impact that the gangster-backed political structure has on the administration.
  • Apharan (2005): Directed by Prakash Jha is another very recent movie about criminal-political nexus in Bihar, especially the thriving kidnapping industry.
    Films in India, not just reflect the social, cultural and artistic traditions but also represent unique traditions of political development. The portrayal of politics and society can be understood in the attempts made by directors to use their film or work as a “means” to transform society.
  • Hazar Khwahishen Aisi (2009): It is a Sudhir Mishra film on politics in 70’s. It follows the realisation of the idealistic visions of a rich, young man. The dreams of the protagonist are easily identifiable by the ‘common man’, which leaves a touching social message for the audience. The film however, is applauded for attempting the portrayal of a liberated woman played by Chitrangada Singh.
  • No One Killed Jessica (2011): Based on the very scandalized Jessica Lal’s murder case, this film is directed by Raj Kumar Gupta and deals with the underbelly of the bourgeoisie political class and the social, economic and political power that they exercise to impair justice in the National Capital.

Political Films by Ram Gopal Verma

People know Ram Gopal Verma for the realistic crime dramas but his movies have always had political angle, with a gangster under political patronage.

  • Satya (2003): This movie talks about an immigrant who comes to Mumbai to seek his fortune but instead gets sucked into the Mumbai underworld.
  • Sarkar and Sarkar Raj (2009): These two movies tell the story of the Thackeray clan- type family in Mumbai and are inspired by the Godfather movies. Sarkar Raj is more about the intersection of politics and businessmen.

In addition to this, some more films which deserve mention are Company (2002) and Once upon a time in Mumbaicompany(2010). Focussing on the incompetence of the government to combat terrorism, these films mapped a decaying public sphere and audaciously represented on screen, the actual infiltration of the off-screen film world by underworld “black money” financing and extortion. A few more examples that deserve mention include Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool and Omkara and Mahesh Manjrekar’s Vastaav and Kurushetra.

Films about youth politics

Another popular narrative that has dominated the influx of political message is intrinsically linked to youth. Over the years, there has been systemic attempts to engage the youth to become more responsive and participative in addressing issues of national security and concern, through patriotic/nationalistic interventions into the lives of the ‘average urban youth’. For example,

  • Gulaal (2008): This film tries to cover a lot of ground on student’s politics, separatist politics, and young romance.
  • Guru (2008): Another very popular Hindi film focuses on how every individual is engaged in a race to become successful. It can be said that Guru is an exact blue-print of business -politics intervention that we see today.
  • Rajneeti (2010): It is a peculiar film by Prakash Jha, which tries to trace the real picture of Indian politics today. The main protagonist Ranbir Kapoor playing the role of a young NRI from a political family whose casual return to India results in an entry into Indian politics. Throughout the film, the characterisation moves from a charming, innocuous personality to a crafty political sensation.

Films on nationalism and fighting terrorism

bombsyTaking a more radical approach to political content are movies that can be clubbed under the peculiar ‘nationalist’ genre of films. Movies like Bombay (1995), directed by Mani Ratnam, based on Bombay riots, or A Wednesday (2010) a reaction to the 1993 Mumbai train blasts, and lastly Peepli Live (2010) directed by Anusha Rizvi, commenting on the political turmoil of Andhra Pradesh. These films have tried to not just acquaint people about the growing internal and border disputes in the country, but sent out a strong political message on the fate of the ‘Other’ or the anti-nationalist.

Globalisation and Political communication

Globalization has had a huge impact in the way cinema is being packaged, marketed and consumed in India. For example, it has resulted in western production standards, usage of English in the script or incorporation of some elements of western style plots. Bollywood has produced hits like Dilwale Dhulania le Jayenge and Kal ho Na Ho both dealing with the repercussions of the fluid borders that globalisation has enabled. While the above mentioned movies portray how going back to the Indian roots, despite the foreign ties, underlies the national identity of an ‘Indian’, we also find filmmakers like Gurinder Chadha (Bride and Prejudice) and Mira Nair (Monsoon wedding). Chada and Nair both are of Indian origin and made their names in Western Independent Films. Their movies take a slightly different outlook in the cultural Indian values towards adopting more fluid identities. In fact, in some cases like Deepa Mehta’s trilogy (Fire,Water, and Earth), there is a resistance of the traditional beliefs and values that the Indian society entails and an urge to becoming more ‘cosmopolitan’.

Taking a more radical approach to political content are movies that can be clubbed under the peculiar ‘nationalist’ genre of films,they have tried to not just acquaint people about the growing internal and border disputes in the country, but sent out a strong political message on the fate of the ‘Other’ or the anti-nationalist.

Apart from that, a lot of other efforts are being undertaken to give a global look to Indian movies and to foster global markets. The movie titles have now started using more English words. For example, Daag– the fire, Tarzan– the wonder car, Waqt– the race against time. Many of the Indian movies are also dubbed into foreign languages for the audience’s convenience, to widen consumer base.

Thus, political communication in contemporary cinema, has not just developed over the years but has also become more nuanced.

Posted by The Indian Economist