On July 21, 2018, the BJP’s official handle tweeted: “‘Chalo Jeete Hain’ is a short film which compels you to think who do you live for? It presents an inspiring story of young Naru, destined to serve the nation. Guess who?” Earlier this month, Chalo Jeete Hain won the National Award for Best Film on Family Values. Uri: The Surgical Strike received multiple awards too, for acting and its technical finesse. Even Toilet: Ek Prem Katha managed to win an award for choreography.
First, the obvious point: All three films are a blatant exercise in propaganda for the government, the ruling party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi (he is indeed Naru), and it may well be the case that they have been rewarded for this loyalty through the national awards. But, more importantly, two of the films (Toilet is a bore, and does not move beyond being a two-hour-long PSA) display a technical finesse and narrative subtlety that makes them far more convincing than all the advertisements, apps and TV channels that have been deployed thus far in service of a government and the ruling party’s ideology.
Chalo Jeete Hain, for example, retroactively assigns to young Naru many of the themes that were a hallmark of the prime minister’s first term in office. He is a bright student, does indeed serve tea at the railway station, is filled with concern for a poor, Dalit classmate (Harish) whose mother is fated a life of misery in pre-swachh Bharat. Naru’s mother coughs at a chulha because presumably, there is no Ujjwala Yojana. But it is in Naru’s “rescue” of Harish and his interactions with his Guruji that the most interesting foreshadowing of today’s politics takes place. Harish does not attend school despite being academically bright because he cannot afford a uniform, and Guruji insists that exceptions (a masterful attack on reservation) erode social unity and discipline. Eventually, through a play, Naru manages to raise money from the local landlord to help Harish. There must be no exceptions, divisions, no circumstances in this ideological project.
Like the archetype of the mythical hero, the narrative of New India is read back into the past, and fused with the politics of today. Naru’s inspiration is Swami Vivekananda, and he wants to “live only for others”. He is the adarsh balak, set to be maryada purushottam.
Yet, this message isn’t forced down your throat, and for those who are politically neutral, or not given to putting every frame of the 31-minute film under the microscope, Chalo Jeete Hain is, in fact, a quite pleasing watch. It is in the vein of Amol Gupte’s films (Stanley ka Dabba, Hawaa Hawaai), a world of children, where their innocence allows them to bring about change in the lives of their compatriots because the desire to help has not been tamped by society and cynicism.
Uri: The Surgical Strike is a far more popular film. Everyone from the prime minister to senior cabinet ministers and BJP leaders, were peppering their public statements with “How’s the josh!”, leaving those who hadn’t seen the film somewhat perplexed. But first-time director Aditya Dhar has managed to replicate and cash in on — arguably to an even greater extent than Border — the currency of cool that has defined Hollywood’s celebration of the US military-industrial complex (think Zero Dark Thirty). And there, like here, well-made propaganda featuring soldiers, receives great accolades. The Indian army is beyond reproach, as are the national security advisor and the prime minister. The latter fulfils his promise — ghar mein ghus kar marenge — after the attack by armed militants at the Indian Army base in Uri. The soldiers are slick, the equipment state-of-the-art, and the enemy is a monster. “Terrorism”, and the death of soldiers allows Indian forces to torture, kill without trial.
Neither Uri nor Chalo Jeete Hain claim to be wholly factual, just as the Bal Narendra comic was not an official biography, and the numbers of “terrorists killed” being circulated by political sources (not government) after the surgical strikes or Balakot attacks have never been confirmed by the military. The films, well-made, appealing and “based on facts”, have a far greater impact, each for a different reason. In Uri, the big-screen experience, the larger-than-life and infallible Indian government, lends credence to the stories about the surgical strike(s). It makes real, in mythical proportions, the rumours of what went on because the Indian people do not know what really went on. Chalo Jeete Hain, a short film, takes a different route. It tells a small story, something out of a folktale or even Premchand. It confirms that for the prime minister, family has always been the fellow citizen and it does it in close ups, through a gentle background score and some masterful lighting. It confirms a biography that is not yet substantiated, makes every government scheme part of the PM’s personal narrative.
It is precisely because of the paucity of verified details about their subject matter that both films can appear as truth, or perhaps the lie that is repeated so often that it becomes so. Unlike the ham-handed government ads, or even the poorly-scripted attempts like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, these films will keep you on the edge of your seat, make you cry for the disenfranchised and make you hate the villains and love the heroes.
These stories will make true every half-truth, make history out of every jumla. As such, they do deserve recognition for being pioneers, harbingers of a new era: Indian propaganda has come of age.