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The Kerala Story, The Kashmir Files, The Ajmer Files are stories that need to be told but… – Beyond Bollywood

Are these falling into the right hands? The spiritual-nationalist godfathers need serious introspection regarding some of the talent chosen to tell these important stories.

By Mayur Lookhar

Good intention is half the job done. This is a fallacy as intent alone isn’t enough to achieve the goals. One needs able hands/minds to execute the task. There is a dearth of such talent in the Hindi film industry. Are we overreacting? Our view stems from the quality, rather the lack of it, as seen in the recent years where most Hindi films have failed to attract theatrical audiences.

Content has rightfully become the king. However, there are few exceptions. No, we’re not referring to the odd mindless, masala entertainers. Over the years, some films have gained popularity for reasons other than cinema. The Left-leaning critics have been quick to label The Kashmir Files [2022], The Kerala Story [2023], and now Adipurush as propaganda films. This is a word that we don’t subscribe to as democracy entitles one to freedom of expression. But is that freedom being used wisely?

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seems the case with Adipurush [2023] with the public at large expressing disappointment over the film. Producer T-Series, director Om Raut and dialogue writer Manoj Muntashir have been facing the ire of the public for giving a poor adaptation of the Hindu epic Ramayana. The more disappointing aspect is how such a film has come from people who claim to be staunch supporters of Hindutva.

Though nothing official, it has been widely speculated/alleged that the BJP, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have been using cinema as a tool to whip up Hindu nationalism and influence public opinion in their favour for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The Adipurushs, The Kerala Storys, The Kashmir Files [2022] etc. are said to be part of that vision. Using cinema for political goals is fine, but when it comes to faith, public is less forgiving, as seen with Adipurush. The representation of revered Hindu deities, and also Ravan, his Lanka has raised questions over the motive of director Om Raut and Manoj Muntashir? The latter has particularly drawn flak as he has projected himself as a Hindutva intellect.

Some 7-8 BJP chief Ministers have been thanked in Adipurush credits. Director Om Raut, Manoj Muntashir, producer Bhushan Kumar met with select Chief Ministers in BJP-ruled states.  Most of them are now silent over the widespread criticism of Adipurush.

The criticism has raised questions over the intent, but more importantly, the powerful nationalists, who supposedly have backed such films, need to introspect on the hands/minds that they’ve handpicked to tell such stories.

The word propaganda was perhaps first heard when The Accidental Prime Minister [2019] came about. This was based on Sanjaya Baru’s 2014 book of the same title. Baru was the media advisor to Dr. Manmohan Singh during the latter’s two-term (2004-2014) as Indian Prime Minister.

Then came PM Narendra Modi [2019], the biopic on the current Indian Prime Minister. It was produced by Sandeep S Singh, who had once courted controversy for allegedly molesting a minor in Mauritius. Beyond Bollywood had reached out to some officials in the island nation but such an incident was denied by them. Singh was also questioned in connection with the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Anyways, PM Narendra Modi [2019] was directed by Omung Kumar, who doesn’t have a great career record. The film was initially lined up for pre-election release, but once opposition raised an alarm, the Election Commission ordered the film to be released after the elections.

Vivek Oberoi pinned great hopes on the film to revive his career, but the poor production values, performances paid put to those dreams. The biggest irony is that till date, Narendra Modi hasn’t acknowledged that film in public. Films on contesting politicians isn’t permitted by the Election Commission but films based on true incidents, history is free to run before or during the election.

Before PM Narendra Modi [2019], there was Vivek Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files [2019] – released a day after the Lok Sabha elections commenced. Based on the mysterious death of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Congress called it a propaganda film.

Agnihotri courted the biggest controversy with The Kashmir Files [2021], a film based on the genocide of Kashmiri Pandits in 1990 at the hands of radical Islamists backed by rival Pakistan. The Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri film made over Rs250 crore nett at the domestic box office, but it naturally attracted criticism from the secular and the Left-block. Besides, the collection wasn’t all that organic. We found that film to be an upgrade from Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files [2019].  However, we felt that a chance was lost to tell to these grim stories in a professional, sensitive and cinematic way. With all due respect to Agnihotri, he lacks the finesse of a sound filmmaker.

Agnihotri has announced The Vaccine War that is likely to praise the Centre’s handling of Covid-19. He had earlier aimed to release the film around Independence Day in 2023. But this is a week that will see a three-way tussle between Animal, Gadar 2, and OMG 2. The Vaccine War is now likely to come in October, 2023.

Last November, enraged by Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid’s open condemnation of The Kashmir Files at International Film Festival of Goa, Agnihotri had announced The Kashmir Files Unreported series that was to cover the Hindu genocide in detail. The controversial filmmaker had vowed to release it in 2023.

Early this year, producer Vipul Amrutlal Shah and director Sudipto Sen’s The Kerala Story opened our eyes to the issues of alleged rampant religious conversions, terrorism, love jihad in the southern state of Kerala.  Though largely panned by critics, it amassed over Rs200 crores nett at the domestic box office. However, much like The Kashmir Files, this film’s collection, too, is debatable. Forget the authenticity of 32,000 girls from Kerala joining foreign terror groups, the issues that this film raised are genuine. The Kerala Story has a story, but no story-telling.

A host of other nationalistic films are lined up in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. After Adipurush, there will be the Randeep Hooda-starrer Swatantra Veer Savarkar.  It is directed by actor, filmmaker Mahesh Manjrekar. He has given the odd good film but like Omung Kumar, Manjrekar, too, doesn’t boast of a great track record as a director. Randeep Hooda is a phenomenal talent and we really wish for the film to do well. But will it be backed at the box-office like The Kashmir Files [2021], The Kerala Story [2023], or Adipurush?

The word propaganda isn’t restricted to low-key productions. Super star Akshay Kumar, too, has drawn flak for being pro-BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. His films Ram Setu [2022], Samrat Prithviraj [2022] were blessed by the right wing, but they failed at the box office.  The latter even had a premiere in Gujarat with Home Minister Amit Shah gracing the occasion.  Samrat Prithviraj was written and directed by Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi, a well-respected, but none of his films have done well at the box office. The YRF-produced film did have a good writer, but did it have the right cast?

Ram Setu looked promising but the average performance, and inconsistent screenplay broke the camel’s back.  Writer-director Abhishek Sharma is capable but has largely been inconsistent in his career.

There was huge controversy over Deepika Padukone’s saffron bikini in Pathaan [2023]. Despite the threat by fringe groups, the film released smoothly and went on to smash box-office records. However, there is a still a question mark whether the collection was organic. Remarkably, the Left, secular media went gaga in praising Pathaan, but most of them were blind-sided to the fact that this film, too. had scored subtle social, political goals. If the #BoycottBollywood gang, rumoured to be a creation of BJP IT cell, were in action, then how did Pathaan score so heavily?

Then there is the relatively low-key film The Diary of West Bengal [2023] by Jitendra Narayan Singh Tyagi. The director has claimed threat to his life.  So, far we haven’t seen the film get the kind of support that other alleged propaganda films have received. The sensational trailer claims that West Bengal is under the danger of becoming an Islamic state with the ruling Trinamool Congress allegedly brushing things under the carpet, all for vote bank politics.  

Tyagi is a Muslim by birth – Syed Waseem Rizvi. He has had his brush with UP politics. He courted news for speaking against the social ills in his religion, got expelled from the Shia Waqf board, and later from the Samajwadi Party. He was slammed by Islamists when he switched to Hinduism.

Tyagi had written and helmed the little-known film Ram Ki Janmabhoomi – based on the age-old issue of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, that was settled after many ages. With no star face nor backing from a big studio, most people are perhaps unaware of The Diary of West Bengal. The trailer, too, doesn’t look very promising.

The Assembly Elections in Bengal took place in 2021. With the film potentially eyeing an August release, it would be premature to label The Diary of West Bengal as another propaganda film, unless of course it arrives in the run-up to the Lok Sabha Election.

Among other films tipped to be part of Project 2024 is the biopic on the late BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Titled Main Atal Hoon, it is produced by Sandeep S Singh, Vinod Bhanushali and directed by Ravi Jadhav. Pankaj Tripathi plays the lead. Jadhav is the same filmmaker whose Marathi film Nude [2016] was dropped from the International Film Festival of Goa. The film was finally cleared by the CBFC without cuts and given an A rating. 

Jadhav is an acclaimed name in Marathi cinema with his film Balgandharv [2011] winning three National Awards. That was a biopic too, but can he be trusted to give another fine biopic and no hagiography? Only time will tell!

Hey, what happened to Aparajitha Ayodhya, the film by actor-director Kangana Ranaut? It was announced few years ago. Is it going to be launched around the time when Ram Mandir is opened to public in January 2024? Baahubali writer K.V. Vijayendra Prasad has penned the screenplay. 

Ranaut has also announced Emergency where she would be playing the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The feisty actress has helmed that film, too, and it is penned by acclaimed writer Ritesh Shah.  It’s set to come on 20 October.

Kangana, Ritesh, Prasad, these are marquee names in entertainment industry. However, despite all the talk on media/social media, Kangana’s box office credentials have taken a hit since 2016.

Veteran actor Annu Kapoor had announced Main Deendayal Hun, a biopic on the life of the late Deendayal Upadhyaya, a tall leader from the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a forerunner to the Bharatiya Janata Party. The film appears to be largely concentrating on the mysterious death of the iconic leader in a train incident in 1968. 55 years later, one is clueless on the whereabouts of the convicted killers. Upadhyaya’s death was passed off as an unfortunate accident during a train robbery with the suspects unaware of the identity of the great man. The suspected political rivals, too, have mostly joined Upadhyaya up in heaven. Interestingly, it is written by a Muslim – Rashid Iqbal. Would the secular critics still call it propaganda?

There’s also little-known director Vinod Tiwari’s film on young spiritual guru Bageshwar Dham. (26). Born as Dhirendra Krishna Shastri, the 26-year-old has a cult following. He claims to have powers like Lord Hanuman. Shastri desires for India to be a Hindu state.  Meanwhile, Tiwari has earlier helmed the low-key film The Conversion [2022] naturally based on inter-faith marriage and religious conversion.

If The Kerala Story, The Conversion harps on religious conversion, then filmmaker Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan’s 72 Hoorain [2023] speaks of terrorism, how fidayeens [suicide bombers] are misguided by radical leaders in believing the myth of 72 virgins in the afterlife. Chauhan is a two-time National Award winner. Ashoke Pandit, a known BJP supporter, came late as a co-producer with 72 Hoorain set to be released on 7 August.

The one subject that should be encouraged by all, is the tragic story of Ajmer Case / Ajmer Files. In 1992, Rajasthan youth Congress president Farooq Chisty, his sibling Nafis Chisty were accused of sexual exploitation of over 250 school/college girls, mainly Hindu students. The Chistys are extended members of the Khadim family who are caretakers of the iconic Ajmer Sharif Dargah. The Chisty siblings and other accused allegedly took indecent pictures of many girls, gangraled, blackmailed them for sexual favours. Many victims committed suicide. Vote bank politics saw the then Congress government go slow on the investigation.

The Ajmer Case is a blot on India’s democracy. Irrespective of any faith, ideology, India can’t rest till all the victims, their families get justice. Interestingly, there appears to be two filmmakers working on the same subject. Earlier, there was talk of Ajmer 92, a film by one director Pushpendra Singh. Later Bhuj: The Pride of India (2020) director Abhishek Dudhaiya announced Ajmer Files in association with TIPS Films. The state of Rajasthan will go for elections around year end. Most probably, these films are likely to come around then.

That cinema is used as a tool for political goals is not such a problem, but it is worrying if tragic stories like The Kerala Story or Ajmer Files end up as means to influence votes. That would be grave injustice to the victims. Poor execution of such subjects further adds to their pain. Besides, such subjects are wasted if made poorly.

The quality and the hands that are working on some of these projects don’t really inspire much confidence. Some of them are perhaps here for quick bucks, fame. Yes, there is a Kangana Ranaut, K.V Vijayendra Prasad, Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, Ravi Jadhav. However, do they get absolute freedom? Or do the rumoured nationalist godfathers vet the scripts?

The Adipurush blunder should raise an alarm in concerned social, political circles. Winning elections and making cinema is an altogether different ballgame. If the nationalists are copping criticism, the secular and the Left-liberal filmmakers, have done the same in the past. Producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra had copped flak for empathizing with terror in films like Mission Kashmir [2000], Shikara [2020].  The Congress, which often slams BJP, had itself backed Parzania [2005], a film on 2002 Gujarat riots. However, the same BJP that banned Parzania, B.B.C documentary on Gujarat riots, cites suppression of freedom when Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal ban The Kerala Story.

Amidst these films, the true film enthusiasts wonder what has cinema metamorphosed into?  Banning films is not a solution unless there is gross misrepresentation, distortion of facts. Ultimately, it is the genuine viewer [not free loaders] that will decide the fate of any film. We close this marathon feature by recalling Narendra Modi’s inspiring words to ace Bollywood stars/ filmmakers during a meet few years ago. Reportedly, Modi had urged the stars, filmmakers to make cinema that unites, brings people together. How many of the so-called Project 2024 films imbibe that spirit?

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