Among the many media of mass engagement (literature, theatre, social media, etc.), cinema is considered the most influential format. However, in our mundane chats, we often look down on mainstream cinema for its lack of ethical considerations towards society or the absence of critical and intellectual vibrancy that can make it a better creative field. Especially concerning the political education and empowerment of the socially marginalised communities, mainstream cinema hardly offered any substantive contribution. The identities and interests of the majority population (Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi) have almost no endorsement in mainstream Indian cinema, which mainly propagates the concerns and ideas of the ruling social elites.
For example, the recently released mega-budget film Adipurush was entuned with Hindutva’s ideological project in the hope that it would bewitch the pedestrian masses and gain big commercial success. With the arrival of Narendra Modi-led right-wing force at the Centre, there has been a visible change in the ideological orientation of cinema. In the current times, we can see cinema’s deep infatuation with the Hindutva agenda, with many mainstream films overtly endorsing the communal and fascist rhetoric and establishing Muslims as its central figure. It is difficult to narrate a nationalist story without portraying Muslims as terrorists, criminals, patriarchal abusers, or gangsters. By projecting the heroes and legends attached to the interests of the social and political elites, cinema has emerged as the new spokesperson of Hindutva politics.
Interestingly, filmmakers, otherwise known for sensible and creative works, did not hesitate to weave the film narratives around Hindutva politics. Even in films like Uri, Raazi, Bajirao Mastani, and more recently RRR and Pathan, the directors found no qualms in endorsing Hindutva’s cultural symbols. Importantly, there are big-budget commercial films like Padmavat, Tanhaji, Samrat Prithviraj, Panipat, and Manikarnika that endorse hyper-nationalist values and unapologetically supplement the Hindutva propaganda on Indian history. Also, there is a plethora of small-budget films, like The Kashmir Files, Hindutva, Gandhi-Godse ek Yudh, The Kerala Story, and 72 Hoorain, that propagate deep communal hatred and justify violence against Muslims.
The villainous ‘othering’ of Muslims is crucial to building the collective aspiration of the Hindu nation. Interestingly, Hindu aspirations are represented overtly by social elites as if they are the sole victims of terrorism. Though the Hindu identity is socially diverse and the lower castes represent its majority, the lead protagonist in mainstream cinema often belongs to the upper caste strata, and the narrative revolves around their social and political interests. Cinema’s preoccupation with the Hindu-Muslim binary hides and neglects other social identities, as such engagement would be antithetical to Hindutva’s project.
Even earlier, popular studies on mainstream films celebrated Indian cinema as a complementary medium to endorse the ideas of secular nationalism and socialist values. For example, the Golden Age of Indian Cinema witnessed the arrival of films that narrated stories about the developing India (Naya Daur), women’s empowerment (Mother India), working class problems (Aawara), and also the changing nature of Indian cities (Jagte Raho). However, scholars overlooked the fact that cinema mostly showcases the lives and events of the social elites and is deeply engaged with the ideological vision proposed by the ruling classes. Seldom in cinema narratives would we witness the presence of lower caste identities. Cinema has, since its beginning, remained divorced from the concerns and desires of the socially marginalised communities, and even if on occasion lower caste characters are portrayed, they are stereotyped as powerless, unintelligent, and passive beings…