India’s Cinematic Influence: How Bollywood Shapes Political Narratives in the World’s Largest Democracy

Featured & Cover India's Cinematic Influence How Bollywood Shapes Political Narratives in the World's Largest Democracy

As India, the world’s largest democracy, heads to the polls, political parties are leveraging popular culture, particularly cinema, to influence voters. Historically, Indian films have both mirrored and shaped the nation’s political and social landscapes, but currently, Bollywood and regional films significantly bolster the ruling right-wing government.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is aiming for a third consecutive term in office. The BJP, founded as the political branch of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) — a paramilitary volunteer organization — is one of India’s two main political parties. With 80 percent of India’s population being Hindu, the BJP posits that India is inherently a Hindu nation. Their platform has resonated widely, partly because they portray India as a formidable post-colonial power. In contrast, the main opposition, the Indian National Congress, advocates secularism. During his campaign last month, Prime Minister Modi gave a speech that faced widespread criticism for being Islamophobic.

In a recent episode of the podcast Don’t Call Me Resilient, political scientist Sikata Banerjee from the University of Victoria and cinema studies scholar Rakesh Sengupta from the University of Toronto discuss how cinema and social media help propagate ideas that include “a vicious vocabulary of hate against minorities and dissenters” in India, potentially swaying voter opinions.

“In Modi’s India, when people are asking these questions, why am I poor? Why am I feeling so worthless? The answer is always the Muslims,” says Banerjee. “The Muslims have taken away your wealth. They’re taking all the jobs…You see very clearly how Modi is getting people on board with this idea of the Hindu imagined community.”

This blend of Islamophobia and modern Hindu pride has penetrated Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry, producing around 1,500-2,000 films annually. These films have promoted the vision of a reimagined, strong, and triumphant India. This narrative is further amplified by streaming platforms and social media such as YouTube and WhatsApp, which have even broader reach than traditional Bollywood films.

An example of this trend is last year’s ‘Tollywood’ movie RRR, which received accolades at the Oscars. RRR retells historical events from the perspective of the current “victors.” Another film accused of distorting history is Swatantra Veer Savarkar, which focuses on Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the originator of the Hindu nationalist ideology of Hindutva.

Sengupta from the University of Toronto explains that the interplay between cinema and the state in India has always been historically significant. “You can always historically see a kind of reflection of the state of a particular time in the cinema of that time,” he notes. “Under the current regime of Hindu nationalism, we are witnessing more and more films being made on Hindu pride and Muslim violence.”

The election process in India began on April 19 and spans seven phases, concluding on June 1, 2024.

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