The tide of nationalism sweeping India seems to have spawned an unexpected beneficiary. In the run-up to the general election and charged up after the Pulwama terrorist attacks last month, the Indian film industry has seized the moment.
Movie producers are scrambling to register movie titles like “Balakot" and “Pulwama: The Deadly Attack", a recent news report suggests. War drama Uri: The Surgical Strike, launched more than a month before the attacks, is now in its seventh week and still going strong.
There’s also the line-up of patriotic films, all announced months ago, from Akshay Kumar’s Kesari and Mission Mangal—the first based on the 1897 Battle of Saragarhi and the second on India’s mission to Mars—to contemporary tales like Salman Khan’s Eid offering Bharat, where he will play the eponymous patriotic protagonist.
There are even hagiographical political biopics, including one on PM Modi himself. Swelling pride has overflowed off-screen—the Uri team, for instance, was at the Wagah-Attari border this Republic Day, weeks after its early January release. Promotions of the film teemed with slogans of Jai Hind. Actor Varun Dhawan, on the other hand, was at the same location to promote a dance film (Street Dancer 3) that has barely begun shooting and is unlikely to have much to do with nationalism.
A couple of weeks ago, Akshay Kumar did an Instagram Live with sports minister Rajyavardhan Rathore, extensively discussing his fitness campaign #HumFitTohIndiaFit. Kumar is already the poster boy for many government schemes, with films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha to his name.
All of this suggests Bollywood and its most popular faces are likely helping target voters, particularly young millennials, in the run-up to the general elections, though they won’t admit it.
“Film stars do seem to be queuing up to be seen in nationalist gumboots. There have been movies made around the theme of the border and so on, but what’s different about this new genre of films is that it’s referring largely to heroic patriotism," said political analyst Manisha Priyam, adding that there is a clear sense of how these films are selling off recent events (Uri is based on the 2016 surgical strikes against terrorists while The Accidental Prime Minister details the term of Manmohan Singh, quite fresh in public memory) with which millennials have been very involved. The two films mentioned above, she said, are “timed to suit a particular type of politics".
Filmmakers are quick to defend themselves. “Uri is dedicated to the Indian Army which as an institution, has no political affiliation," said its director Aditya Dhar. “I was trying to show the chronology of what happened in those 10 days and, given that the decisions were taken by the present government, I couldn’t have bypassed it."
Bollywood’s plunge into patriotism and politics in 2019 could be either accidental or by design, but brand experts say the patriotic narratives, both on and off-screen, play to the current generation that is a lot more vocal and aggressive about its political opinions and nationalism. An analysis of Election Commission data by The Indian Express reveals there will be an estimated average of 149,000 first-time eligible voters in each Lok Sabha constituency, holding the key in as many as 282 seats.
“Earlier we would shy away from chest-thumping, now we’ve become far more aggressive and in-your-face. The current government’s posturing is that we will not sit back and watch, a lot of which was captured in Uri," said Deepak Kumar, vice president at advertising agency Dentsu Aegis Network.