Tickets, Popcorn, Propaganda?

Tickets, Popcorn, Propaganda?

From big-budget releases like Ram Setu to smaller films like The Conversion and Hindutva — propaganda films are increasing, but are their returns diminishing?

If one were to include Bollywood’s two big releases – Ram Setu and Code Name Tiranga – at least three films have alluded (in varying degrees) to Hindu pride and jingoism in the last month. Add to them Ramrajya, releasing this week, and next week’s Bal Naren, and it takes the count to five of such films coming out in as many weeks. As Ramrajya’s official synopsis states, it is “a drama film that talks about Lord Rama’s principles that can be used to solve new-age problems”. Since the unexpected success of The Kashmir Files (2022), films with an obvious right-leaning agenda seem to have suddenly become prominent, and this year has seen an increase in the number of propaganda films released in theatres. What happens to these films after their trailers drop and briefly become trending topics on social media? Do they make a dent in our discourse? Are they basking in support from the current political establishment? 

The directors we spoke to denied receiving any kind of help from state or central governments. “If my film is promoting Hindutva then they should be sponsoring me, no?” said director Vinod Tiwari, whose film The Conversion released in May this year. Made on a budget of around Rs 8-9 crore, The Conversion earned an estimated Rs. 1.5 crore at the box office. Tiwari is still miffed about his film not getting the endorsements that The Kashmir Files did. “U.P. [Uttar Pradesh] elections were happening around the time The Kashmir Files came out so they [the state and central governments] publicised the film. But what about my film, which is about an issue still taking place amongst us?” he said. Director Karan Razdan, who made Hindutva, said, “If I was making this as propaganda, then I think my last 20 mins would be more one-sided.”

Tickets, Popcorn, Propaganda?
Ram Setu Review: Akshay Kumar’s Budget Indiana Jones Adventure is Too Incompetent to be Dangerous

Superficially, films like The Conversion and Hindutva have a lot in common. The trailers invariably begin with the sound of a conch shell and a temple bell; give or take a shlok (Sanskrit verse) or two. Protagonists sport a tilak on their foreheads. We’re shown their evil past – when they used to be aimless wanderers (often in BMWs) — and get hints of how they became devout Hindus and thus found direction. There is inevitably a clutch of Muslim characters who all sport kohl-lined eyes and long beards, and who speak along the lines of “Humaare Love Jihad mission ke mutaabik(according to our Love Jihad mission).” In the trailer of Ramrajya, directed by Nitesh Rai, the hero (Salman Shaikh) declares, “Mere jeevan ka ek hi maqsad hai: Ram rajya (There is only one purpose to my life: Ram rajya).” Calling these films’ aesthetics tacky, reductive and simplistic might be to overstate the case. Without big stars at the helm, these films hope for a dollop of credibility by including familiar faces like Govind Namdeo, Manoj Joshi, Rajesh Sharma and Anup Jalota in the supporting cast. 

Exhibitor Vishek Chauhan is of the belief that films like Razdan’s are part of an expectation that the commercial success of The Kashmir Files marked the beginning of a trend. “Every few years a successful film emerges at the box office, and it spawns at least 50 duplicates — out of which 47 go unnoticed. Maybe one or two will succeed,” said Chauhan. He pointed out that it is not easy to game the box office for a quick buck. “In my opinion, the box office is a purer medium [of public sentiment] than the general elections and even the stock market. There’s no way you can convince someone to go to a theatre unless they feel it in their gut,” he said.

A still from Ramrajya.
A still from Ramrajya.

Razdan, who last directed Anupam Kher-starrer Mr Bhatti on Chutti (2012), said he registered the title ‘Hindutva’ in 2017. He started working on the film after 2018, when his remake of Malayalam film Joseph (2018), with Sunny Deol (who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019 and is currently the member of Parliament from Gurdaspur), fell through. “I think there was a certain anger [within me] of people being shy or ashamed of saying out loud – ‘I am Hindu!’,” said Razdan. Identifying himself as a “proud Hindu”, Razdan said he’s been disappointed by how the word Hindutva has been maligned in recent years. “Words and phrases like ‘Hinduphobia’ and ‘Saffron terror’ emerging contributed to factors behind writing and directing Hindutva,” said Razdan. 

Produced on an estimated budget of Rs 11-12 crore, Hindutva released in October and Razdan claimed it was on 400 screens across India. Satisfied with its theatrical run, Razdan said he’s in negotiations with OTT platforms, and optimistic about the film’s revenues eventually going up to Rs 20-30 crore. Rajesh Singh, a distributor in the Bihar region, said Razdan’s film met with an ‘average’ response, though the numbers he suggested diverge from Razdan’s claims. “Such films get around 20-25 screens in the state,” said Singh. “I don’t think these films have a financial life. Most of them don’t even break even,” he added. It’s worth noting that big-budget releases of this genre, like Ram Setu (2022), failed to make a profit at the box office and the response from the target audience of the upcoming Adipurush has been negative. According to Singh, the success of The Kashmir Files has made other propaganda films more noticeable. Without that precedent, films like The Conversion, which was championed by far-right political commentator Madhu Kishwar (she described it as “another game-changer after Kashmir Files” during a livestream), is an ‘investigation’ into cases of ‘Love Jihad’. Love jihad has been used by far-right conspiracy theorists to describe inter-faith couples in India.

Tickets, Popcorn, Propaganda?
Inside The Box: The Kashmir Files Scores Big At The Box Office

Razdan believes his film may have underperformed because the final 20 minutes of his film is not right-wing enough. “If my last 20 minutes were as radical as certain sections of Hindu society would have liked it to be, my film might have done better business,” he said, adding that he plans to re-edit the film to change the climax for the film’s OTT release. 

Tiwari said that the Central Board of Film Certification denied him a certificate five times and repeatedly pulled him up for “promoting Hindutva” — both of which he presents as evidence that his film is not propaganda. “If my film is promoting Hindutva, then they should be sponsoring me, no?” he said before raising a rhetorical question: “Even if by chance, it is promoting Hindutva, what is wrong in discussing your own dharm?” The suggestion that his film be placed in the category as The Kashmir Files evokes a certain amount of bitterness because he feels The Conversion was not given the support that the other film received. “So many people were organising free shows, a large part of that collection isn’t organic. I think a large part of The Kashmir Files’ box office is sponsored,” he claimed.  While there’s no evidence to back this claim, The Kashmir Files was granted tax-free status (which makes tickets cheaper and therefore more appealing to audiences) in several BJP-ruled states.

When Razdan is asked about his film being labelled right-wing propaganda, his response is straight forward. Reminded of his earlier statement that he would be changing the climax for the film’s OTT release, Razdan clarifies: “I’m a creative person and I would like to see what the reaction to the other climax is.” Tiwari says the state governments of UP and MP should repeal all laws relating to Love Jihad: “If they exist, then why didn’t they endorse my film? The fact that they didn’t endorse my film, means they don’t exist.” Upon hearing the suggestion that they might have wanted to use it as a vote-gathering tactic for an upcoming election, Tiwari giggles.

If these low-budget, right-wing propaganda films appear to be replacing potboilers from the Hindi belt — both genres invariably have a romantic track, love songs, the odd ‘item song’ and a similar visual aesthetic — Chauhan and Singh say the differences are more noteworthy than the similarities. To begin with, the pulpy films that were once the staple fare in single-screen theatres are now available online since these theatres are no longer functional. “I think those B-grade films have disappeared from theatres and moved to OTT platforms,” said Singh, pointing out that it’s now hard to distinguish between A and B grades. “These are simply made by people who desperately want to make a film in their life,” he said.  According to Chauhan, the country mostly focuses on two to three movies at a time now. “The entire North Indian belt is only playing Ram Setu and Thank God right now. If you’re lucky, you might find Black Adam playing somewhere,” he said. 

For Chauhan, films like Hindutva and The Conversion get made by people who are less interested in ideology and more enchanted by the glamour of Bollywood. “There are lots of rich people in India doing unglamorous things like selling pipes, manufacturing nut-bolts, oil – having surplus money so they can pump in a few crores into a film. Even if they lose Rs 50 lakh in the end, they still get a piece of the glamour, get invited to film parties, get acquainted with stars,” he said. “This is not a recent phenomenon, it’s how film industries have been run since eternity.”