Deepika Padukone did not just appear at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Narendra Modi government has been hard at work for six years to bring it to pass.
There was a time when students went to theatres to see films for fight sequences. Now, fight scenes take place in our universities and film stars come to see them. The government has put so much drama into our mundane lives that we have been left craving for an intermission for six years now. Each time one feels like stretching one’s legs or step out for a reprieve, the plot turns and leaves them twisted in their seats. Is there such a thing as edge-of-your-seat existentialist angst? If yes, it may explain why commercial films are not doing well but ‘Howdy Modi!’ was a grand success.
In days of yore, top editors interviewed leading politicians. In our brave new tinsel world, such interviews fall upon the international khiladi Akshay Kumar.
The Bollywood-Modi government connection
Edifying films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Uri: The Surgical Strike leave one wondering: Do screenplays follow government decisions? Or are the regime’s endeavours crafted to produce results on the silver screen? Does the policy follow the script? Or is the script directing the policy?
The urge for drama is so powerful that we need one on our “Accidental Prime Minister”, too. One is left wondering: did Manmohan Singh play a part even in school-level theatre? Which astrologer could have predicted that there will be a film one day on a person as staid as Manmohan Singh?
The poor future prime minister — Rahul Gandhi — was not spared either. Given that it was tough to paint him as a villain, he was cast into a comedian’s slot, with social media providing extra tension and television anchors making cameo appearances. Which multi-starrer film can compare? When 2024 arrives, will we have manifestos for the Lok Sabha election or just plain movie trailers?
We must appreciate that the Modi government is neutral when it comes to choosing the medium; it spreads its largesse evenly, from silver screen to television. Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes from an underprivileged family; he did not get time for Nehruvian elitist pursuits like ‘The Discovery of India’. So, he went to the Discovery Channel. Comic relief on the small screen has found a worthy exponent in BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra.
The showmanship of the BJP leaders has left economic and political analysts dumbfounded. Their analytical framework looks inadequate, even redundant, to examine the existing government policies. The simpletons condemn demonetisation for bringing the Indian economy down to its knees. As if demonetisation was about the economy or black money.
Keep an open mind and consider demonetisation merely in terms of spectacle and timing. A ghost was first created and then killed — on prime–time TV, at 8pm on 8 November 2016. It was the biggest success story in the history of Indian television. The surprise. The suspense. The drama. The thrill. For the two months that followed, no saas-bahu-sazish soap opera could compete. Talking about the ensuing economic catastrophe is just plain lame. Like operating a kerosene lamp in the middle of a meteor shower.
The reality of Indian politics
Who buys ticket for a Karan Johar movie for a crash course in film appreciation? You don’t do that. You stay home, put your brain on the western sofa, then sit on it cross-legged, and immerse yourself in the glitzkrieg. You see Shah Rukh Khan in exotic foreign locations, disarming Caucasian males who look like Donald Trump, getting them to gyrate to a signature Bollywood dance move. Don’t we swoon when the dapper protagonist, after glad–handing the Caucasian, engages in some multi-ethnic tu-tadak with an elegant African-American figure? Eat our heart out, Barack Obama.
Some leading publications make the blunder of going to scholars like Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Ramachandra Guha for political analyses. Why? What qualifies them to analyse the Modi government’s decisions? What you need are the abilities of a Karan Johar who has a grip on the subtleties of a plot, a command over what it takes to make a crowd sway. That’s the new reality of electoral late swing. You cannot get bogged down by economics or geopolitics, like Nirmala Sitharaman, who doesn’t lose any sleep over it.
Movies do not run for years now, not even long enough for a silver jubilee or a golden jubilee. Attention spans have decreased rapidly. That is why a Game of Thrones runs into several seasons. Similarly, under this government, the storyline must change dynamically. In 2014, the plot revolved around ‘development’. You cannot carry on like a stuck record. So, in two years, our hero grabs the superhero’s anti-corruption cape from Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal with one word — demonetisation — and dumps development on us.
That albatross has hung around Kejriwal’s neck ever since, casting him with the inanities of school education, while our superhero moved to surgical strikes and air strikes on Pakistan, unveiling the kind of supersonic ability that has eluded our radar scientists. Why do people complain that the surgical strikes and air strikes vapourised merely some crows, pigeons and assorted avian threats in Pakistan? Why aim logic-fuelled spitballs at a grand spectacle?
But the air strikes also came with an expiry date. The plot needed a twist. Enter the CAA and the NRC. Again, suspense is key. Will we have a pan-India NRC or not? Just because you paid for a ticket — or a one-year online streaming subscription — it does not mean you have become entitled to monitor the screenplay in advance.
Longest-running feature film in India
Which film has ever made a mark without an antagonist? And in India’s ancient and glorious cinematic tradition, the hero must thrash the villains. The dishum-dishum holds a call-and-response relationship with the claps and whistles inside the cinema hall. With the opposition merely becoming a small part in the subplot, finding the villain has become a casting crisis.
That’s why the Modi government has shifted not just the plot but the genre itself; it’s now a horror movie. We have all kinds of ghosts. Sometimes they are jihadis, sometimes ‘urban Naxals’. The ghosts must be exorcised, a fulsome substitute for the thrashing of the villains.
Horror is a genre with other advantages. A rom-com or a drama leaves the viewer relaxed enough to crave for, say, popcorn and a fizzy drink. In that state, they might ask uncomfortable questions about unemployment, the economy or environmental pollution. Not so in horror. The hyperventilating viewer is grateful for mere oxygen, fixating on the hero’s radar-defying weaponry. Horror has no place for love stories. Love becomes a ghost and indulges in ‘love jihad’.
Politicians have always used theatre. But the Modi government is different. It has created possibly the longest-running feature film of all time. Many news channels have selflessly offered their prime–time slots under media partnerships to promote this mega movie. Social media provides the surround sound effect with dialogues true and false blaring from all sides.
There’s thrill, there’s action, there’s drama, there’s suspense and, of course, there’s tragedy. What more could you ask for?
The author is an advocate in the Supreme Court of India. Views are personal.
Read the Hindi version of the article on ThePrint’s website here.