Will PM Modi Biopic Sway Voters? Don’t Take Audience For Granted

The sight of Vivek Oberoi depicting Modi in full HD, warning Pakistan with hefty eyebrows that ‘they have seen our sacrifice but now they will also see our revenge’, has caused quite the stir in India. In the two and a half minute trailer of PM Modi’s biopic, there’s a glimpse of a young boy selling chai; a youth telling his mother that he wants to be a sanyaasi (saint); and a middle-aged man trekking through the snow with the Indian flag.

Of course, the riots and massacres, folded hands in front of the passers-by who are wearing skull-headed caps or burqas, and the reference to the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak’s (RSS) idea of Hindustan is not lost in the trailer.

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It is a visually powerful demonstration of political appeal and propaganda for ‘Modi’s India’. So even if by some miracle the Election Commission of India (ECI) would have put a blanket ban on the movie, it would make little difference: the short-film-style-trailer is already in circulation and has served its purpose for the BJP-led government that is notorious for public spectacles and combative media projections.

The Opposition, along with cinema critics and intellectuals, have raised concerns about the movie releasing before the commencement of the 2019 elections in India. They have argued that the movie will bear an influence on the decisions of voters. But most of these claims emerge from a popular belief that audiences are “passive” recipients of cinema and its content.

However, as Stephen Hughes (2011) says, what people do with cinema and how they engage with it, cannot be predetermined. The power that cinema unleashes is not limited to audience receptivity, as the audience can never be taken for granted.

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History of ‘Audience Reception’ of Cinema

Until the 1960s, visual, cultural, film studies presumed that viewers were passive consumers of cinema. It was only in the 1970s, when ethnographic films, such as ‘Disappearing World’, were broadcast on televisions, that the audience began to be taken seriously.

For instance, Laura Mulvey’s essay on Visual Pleasure and Narrative cinema (1975), engaged with psychoanalytic theories to study the dominant male gaze in most cinema, that objectified the female and held her as a site of erotic pleasure.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the audience was so diverse that an individual viewer’s social, historical and political context and their relative access to media, determined their relation with the cinema. The emphasis shifted from “critic’s” view to audience’s perception of cinema.

One such attempt reflected in Janine Radway’s ethnographic study Reading the Romance (1984), on the popularity of romance novels and the meaningful ways in which people interacted with it in their everyday lives.

Identity & Cinema

Cinema’s reach through globalisation created public debates as well as outrage about how religious identities are influenced by it. In Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: an Ethnography of Television, Womanhood and Nation in India, Purnima Mankekar (1999) wrote about the audience perception of Raamyana.

Despite cinema’s ‘fictive’ representation, it played a significant role in imagining the nation. William Mazzarella (2011) notes that since the late 1990s, censorship has become commonplace in Indian cinema.

With the rise of right-wing Hindu politics, any form of ‘indecency’ or ‘obscenity’ on screen was met with vigilantism and threats of violence. It is not surprising then that in 1987, when Ramayana was shown for the first time on Doordarshan, the official channel of the secular government, several critics and intellectuals worried about the possibility of communal tension. They pointed out that the secularity of India would be in question, if Doordarshan sponsored religious content.

Cinema’s Role in Imagining the Nation

The intellectuals’ fear of communal tension was not ill-placed. The RSS and VHP were notorious for using political rhetoric. In his banned book, The Essentials of Hindutva, VD Savarkar who popularised Hindutva, stated that ‘Muslims were invaders and India was the Hindu land of Lord Rama, the god-king from Ramayana’. Critics feared that an explicit favouritism of a Hindu epic would create religious tensions among the Hindus and the Muslims.

Moreover, depictions in the Ramayana closely resonated with the ‘identities of an ideal man and woman’ in nation-building. Men were righteous and possessed ‘superior masculine’ power like the ideal king Rama, whereas women were chaste and would stay within their ‘maryada’ (limits).

Rama’s wife Sita, who had crossed her ‘maryada’, was abducted by the demon-king Raavan (Mankekar 1999). Such depictions certainly re-enforce a strong masculine nationalist identity.

Mankekar’s study however, noted that the audience developed their own reasoning to engage or disengage with the series. While cinema is capable of producing religiously provocative content, Mankekar pointed out that faith in religion was both powerful and complex, thus, could not be reduced to nationalist or communal brackets.

Indian Cinema And Its Appeal

Indian cinema has held a mass appeal in the Nigerian market for its depiction of love and songs. By touching upon themes such as love, compassion and relationships, Indian cinemas drew attention of the audience who felt that Western films did not resonate with their taste as it was “too outward” in showcasing romance.

Ironically, the Indian songs that were used in Bandiri-Sufi music were sometimes quite sexually transgressive such as “Jumma Chumma de de”. However, Sufi music, which is associated with the adoration and love for the Prophet, actively engaged with the tunes of these songs.

Brian Larkin (1997) writes that one of the pertinent reasons for using Indian music to compose Sufi songs was to revive religion and bring a religious essence to cultural and ritual events such as weddings and baby-showers.

This divided the people into Sufi and anti-Sufi; Sharia banned the Bandiri videos in 2001; and Sufis were declared as “imposters” of Islam. Though later the ban was lifted, it led to serious thinking about what constituted true Islamic identity in Kano.

Need To Pay Closer Attention to the Audience

In India too, cinema has crafted, blurred and silenced several questions about national identity. The power of cinema in image-making can never be overstated, as was evident when Indian Twitter users hash-tagged How’s the josh? after the grave showcase of masculine aggression post-Pulwama attack.

This is precisely why it is important to pay closer attention to the audience and viewership. There is no definite methodological or empirical way of “knowing” the audience, but there is a growing need to recognise the ever-changing audience who are deeply affected, yet cannot be simplistically bracketed as passive consumers of cinema even, when the film is intentionally released to meet nationalist propaganda.

(Saumya Pandey is a recent graduate in social anthropology from the University of Oxford. She researches and writes about everyday political life, livelihoods and debt. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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