Many Indians travelling overseas would have had my experience of the 1980s with a taxi driver in Dakar, Senegal, who offered to drive me around for free if I would part with a music cassette of Amitabh Bachchan’s latest movie. From Raj Kapoor in Moscow in the 1950s to Aamir Khan in Beijing more recently, Bollywood actors have been India’s cultural ambassadors. In Tokyo’s Diet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh received resounding applause when he informed his audience that he was aware of the popularity of “Odori Maharajah” (Dancing Maharajah), as Tamil actor Rajinikanth was popularly known in Japan.
Among the earliest strategic policy analysts to draw attention to the diplomatic benefits of Indian cinema’s overseas popularity was none other than the guru of strategic affairs, K Subrahmanyam. I had fascinating conversations with him a quarter century ago on the “foreign policy” of Hollywood. It was in 1990 that American political scientist Joseph Nye coined the phrase “soft power” exploring the US’s global cultural influence that added to its economic, technological and military power. “When one country gets other countries to want what it wants” summed up Nye, that would be its “co-optive or soft power”, as opposed to its “hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants”. If cinema or music can make a country popular in another that would be its soft power.
Subrahmanyam drew my attention to various examples of soft power. Worried about rising communist influence in Italy, and competing with the Soviet Union for the affection of Italians, agencies of the US government encouraged Hollywood to make films that reminded Italians of the 1960s about the sacrifice of US soldiers during World War II. Readers from my generation would be familiar with Gina Lollobrigida’s Buona Sera, Mrs Campbell and Stanley Kramer’s film version of Robert Crichton’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria, films that aimed to project American popularity in Italy.
While some in Washington DC understood the many external diplomatic uses of Hollywood’s soft power, there have been others who have sought to malign the film industry in pursuit of their own domestic political agenda. The most infamous of them all was Senator Joseph McCarthy who took it upon himself to purge Hollywood of alleged communist influence. A recent film, Trumbo, brings out poignantly the hounding of Hollywood script writer Dalton Trumbo by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for being a member of the communist party.
While both the Pentagon and CIA have had internal offices devoted to liaising with and funding Hollywood, the power elites of Washington DC and Hollywood have had a testy love-hate relationship that has endured over the years. Hollywood has had its favourite and detested politicians, while Washington DC’s power elite have had their favourite and black-listed Hollywood producers, directors and actors. Few US Presidents have divided Hollywood more than Donald Trump. Oscar-winning stars like Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro criticised Trump for his politics and his crude rudeness and, in turn, Trump has attacked them.
Bollywood, too, has lived with its love-hate relationship with New Delhi. From Indira Gandhi’s ban on the airing of Kishore Kumar songs during the Emergency to the politically motivated and orchestrated boycott of several actors and directors today, there have been many examples of political bossism stifling freedom of expression in cinema. On the other hand, many film actors from Sunil Dutt and Rajesh Khanna to Anupam Kher and Akshay Kumar have happily courted the Delhi Darbar.
Quite apart from such individual relationships, there has developed over time a certain institutional relationship between New Delhi and Bollywood, though it is not yet as well-oiled, subtle and effective as the relationship between Washington DC and Hollywood. If indeed popular cinema is an aspect of a nation’s soft power, then it is incumbent on the institutions of the state to deal with the former in a responsible and not overly partisan manner.
Attacking Bollywood as an institution in pursuit of a political party’s partisan and ideological agenda, as is now happening, does not serve the national purpose. It is now becoming increasingly obvious that Hindu extremists within the so-called Sangh Parivar have targeted Bollywood for a variety of reasons. There is the view that Bollywood had come to be dominated by Muslims and Urdu. A campaign is afoot to “Hindu-ise” and “Hindi-ise” it. There is also the view that the lifestyle of cinema celebrities has encouraged young people to mimic an alien culture — from dress to drugs — forgetting that semi-nakedness and smoking weed are very desi attributes.
On top of this middle-class communal and cultural critique some have begun to impose a caste perspective. Language, ethnicity, caste, class and even colour of skin are all inherent to cultural attitudes in India and Bollywood is no exception. To seek to purge Bollywood of one set of biases in favour of another is a political project but not one that would serve the larger cause of promoting diversity of talent and perspectives in Indian cinema.
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While cleaning Bollywood of black money and bad influence is a worthy endeavour, the pursuit of political agendas that stifle free expression in the name of nationalism and puritanism, can rob popular culture of its soft power. Social media has been full of brazen campaigns against highly regarded Muslim actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan and writers like Javed Akhtar, as well as the icons of alternative cinema like Shyam Benegal. The media frenzy being whipped up about the personal life of actors harms not just the individuals involved but the institutions they function in. Cultural policing by the state and majoritarian politics can rob Indian cinema of its soft power with popular culture increasingly viewed as propaganda.
Indian cinema is a national institution and a national asset. It is an aspect of Indian soft power. In destroying its credibility by hurting the standing and credibility of the individuals who make these institutions tick, we harm the national interest. By muting the voice of Kishore Kumar on All India Radio, Indira Gandhi’s government harmed the credibility of state broadcasting, not Kishore’s popularity. Narendra Modi’s government should not walk down that slippery slope.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 29, 2020 under the title ‘The assault on Bollywood’. Sanjaya Baru is a former Media Advisor to Prime Minister of India
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