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Bollywood Films Accused Of Propaganda Ahead Of India Elections


It's election time in India when politics hits Bollywood. Indians are voting right now in elections that last six weeks, and there's a slew of new political movies. But whether you see these films as propaganda may depend on which side of the aisle you're on. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.


VIVEK OBEROI: (As Narendra Modi, speaking Hindi).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The trailer for a new Indian film shows a patriotic little boy saluting the flag. As a teenager, he sells tea on trains, hustling to make ends meet. As an adult, he rescues a child from a burning building. And that's all before he becomes prime minister.


OBEROI: (As Narendra Modi) Narendra Modi.

FRAYER: It's a Narendra Modi biopic.


FRAYER: And India's election commission has banned it from theaters until votes are counted later this month. Modi is running for a second term as prime minister. The film has been accused of propaganda, with lines like this one delivered by an actor playing a slightly thinner and more handsome Modi speaking in Hindi.


OBEROI: (As Narendra Modi, speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "I am warning Pakistan - if you strike us again," he says, "we will strike harder." The film portrays Modi as tough on national security - which, coincidentally or not, is exactly one of his campaign pitches, notes Ankur Pathak, entertainment editor at HuffPost India.

ANKUR PATHAK: I mean, the film has got to be of Narendra Modi. And it's releasing bang in the middle of election, so how neutral can it really be?

FRAYER: The plot of the biopic loosely adheres to Modi's true life story, albeit with some pretty major embellishments. But film critic Poulomi Das says when you're in a movie theater, you're not thinking as critically as you might be when you're watching the news.

POULOMI DAS: Especially if you're not someone who is very politically aware. So why would they not believe that maybe this guy has done all of these things? And why shouldn't I not vote for him? Bollywood is always known to promote products, and now it's come to a stage where Narendra Modi is that product placement.

FRAYER: And it's not just this one movie. There's also a miniseries called "Modi: Journey Of A Common Man." India's election commission pulled that one, too, but only after 5 of the 10 episodes had already streamed online. None of these projects is government-sponsored. They're funded by established Indian production companies. The director of the webstreaming series, Umesh Shukla, says he's no propagandist. He just finds Modi's life story really cinematic, he says.

UMESH SHUKLA: My idea is just to portray what I have seen, what I have felt. If it really influencing, I don't have issue.

FRAYER: Modi is a right-wing politician who's incredibly popular in Bollywood. And it's difficult to imagine the equivalent with a Republican in Hollywood - say, Ronald Reagan, maybe. Pathak from HuffPost India says Bollywood bigwigs aren't doing this for free, though.

PATHAK: They wanted a deduction on GST, which is a tax on cinema tickets. They wanted some stronger anti-piracy laws, which leads to a lot of loss of revenue.

FRAYER: India's entertainment industry has gotten both those things from Modi's administration in the past year. So in January, when a dozen Bollywood stars took a private jet to the capital to meet the prime minister, they were all smiles. Hundreds of millions of Indians saw their cinema idols pose for a cheerful selfie with Prime Minister Modi - basically, an endorsement. It got more than a million likes on Instagram.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.