Narendra Modi's Bollywood blitz, and a bandwagon of political films begs the question: Are we citizens or fans?

Partha P Chakrabartty

(On 24 April, Akshay Kumar interviewed Narendra Modi at 7 Lok Kalyan Marg (LKM) in Delhi for over an hour. A day earlier he claimed the interview would be "informal and non-political". Read the highlights of the interview here. We are republishing an earlier op-ed that is relevant again in light of this interview.)

Over the last few months, PM Narendra Modi hobnobbing with Bollywood has captured the national conversation.

In March, he tweeted to several celebrities, urging them to use their clout to influence people to vote in the Lok Sabha Elections 2019.

The stage had earlier been set in December with a high-profile meeting with an all-male Bollywood contingent resulting in the slashing of GST rates for movie tickets. The new tax rates came into effect on 1 January, just in time for the double release of Uri and The Accidental Prime Minister on the 11 January.

A day before that, the Prime Minister met a delegation of 'young' Bollywood stars. Taking pride of place among them was Vicky Kaushal, the star of Uri. Finally, on 19 January, he inaugurated the National Museum of Indian Cinema by once again quoting from Uri, asking an audience of Bollywood bigwigs 'How's the Josh?' Members of the audience shouted back, 'High, sir!'

A huge Bollywood group met Narendra Modi earlier in January.

The josh has been high indeed with Bollywood lately, with each one of these interactions resulting in Twitter broadcasts. The GST declaration was celebrated with tweets by Aamir Khan, Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh, Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar, among others.

The PM's photograph with Karan Johar garnered close to 750,000 likes (erasing whatever chance there was of him being held accountable for the shameful Hardik Pandya episode). In fact, so high was the josh among fans that even a 'backfie' (with Imtiaz Ali, Kartik Aaryan) featuring the PM's crown earned more than 27,000 likes on Instagram, and the PM's reply picked up over 50,000 likes.

Big as Bollywood superstars are, Narendra Modi is the biggest social media brand of them all, and taking selfies with him means getting noticed by his ardent following. The prime minister gets to reinforce his image, as fans of Bollywood personalities watch their icons bending their knees to fit into a selfie frame.

His timing in 2019 is impeccable. Not only is he gearing up for the elections but he is also doing it through a 360-degree volley that includes Uri, The Accidental Prime Minister, as well as a media blitz for Vivek Oberoi's political biopic, PM Narendra Modi.

This is, of course, on the urban front. Social media users are primarily urban, educated, young and male. There are hints that his hold over this urban constituency is slipping; in the recently concluded elections in MP and Rajasthan, two key states in BJP's 2014 sweep, the BJP lost 6% urban vote share in MP and a whopping 9% in Rajasthan. This was a continuation of a trend seen in by-elections in UP, MP and Rajasthan. Maybe this is why this time the selfies are not solo or with his mother; this time he needs a Bollywood leg-up.

But even more dramatic was the BJP's reversal in rural India. Gujarat and MP showed how much ground the BJP has lost in rural constituencies. The prime minister's mastery of social media, and therefore urban audiences, is well-known; lesser-known is his incredible rural political roadshow of the Loha campaign launched back in 2013. It was this Loha campaign that tied into the Statue of Unity. Is there a similar campaign afoot in the hinterland now? Or is the prime minister falling back on the Ram Mandir promise? Will it work?

Rural India turns to leaders promising relief from decades of negligence, and duly gave the prime minister his shot. This time around, rural constituencies are less susceptible to clever marketing, mostly because their circumstances are so desperate that they cannot be distracted from dire issues on the ground. Of course, this same urban-rural divide is seen in both penetration of the Internet, and Bollywood itself. Only 20% of rural Indians are on the Internet, and India only has 9,000 movie screens€"compared to 40,000 each in the US and China€"most of which are concentrated in the 30 biggest cities. Rural India isn't on an updated Bollywood diet; most of the films they are watching are older hits, or even films that didn't make much of a mark in urban India.

Having said all this, we cannot ignore the number of firsts this Modi-Bollywood blitz represents. Narendra Modi is the first Indian prime minister to rub shoulders with Bollywood; former prime ministers kept Bollywood at a distance, either in order to preserve a veneer of seriousness, or to avoid an urban aura.

This is the very first time that current political narratives have made it to the silver screen€"if you recall, the surgical strike was one of the prime minister's chief defenses during the no-confidence debate€"much though Uri's makers may protest the film is not propaganda. Nobody is even pretending that The Accidental Prime Minister is not a partisan film. Between them, the two films represent the two prongs of the BJP's electoral strategy, to play up its claims of success, and to project that there is no alternative to Modi.

Then ofcourse, there is Vivek Oberoi-starrer PM Narendra Modi, which the EC eventually banned from being released until 23 May. A web series titled  Modi: A Journey of a Common Man also released on Eros Now in the first week of April.

This is also the very first time that a biopic is trying very hard to be released not just while a leader is active in politics, but also when he is still in power. The last film to attempt this, Aandhi, only had loose connections with Indira Gandhi, and was hardly the hagiography that PM Narendra Modi promises to be. In general, one is hard-pressed to find feature films praising politicians; Gandhi is a notable exception, though even in that film, Jawaharlal Nehru had notably told Richard Attenborough, 'Richard, whatever you do, don't turn him [Gandhi] into a saint. He was much too human and complex to be a saint.' In most of the rest of Bollywood, the politician is always a figure to be wary of, a two-faced, selfish, exploitative villain.

Political propaganda is making its way into cinema. Makers of biopics, who usually wait to assess a personality with the benefit of hindsight, have realised you can make money while a personality is still very much occupying the center stage. But does this also mean that citizens are turning into mere spectators, even doting fans?

Also See: With political propaganda films on a rise in Bollywood, moviegoers must maintain a critical eye

It is finally acche din for Vivek Oberoi: Why EC stalling Modi biopic is a win-win situation for the actor

PM Narendra Modi: SC dismisses plea seeking stay on release of Vivek Oberoi-starrer; CBFC yet to certify film

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