General Elections 2019: Can Bollywood Influence the Voters?

As an avid debater in school and college, one of the most interesting themes to engage on, personally for me, was ‘whether art influences real-life or whether real-life influences art’; the answer to this conundrum has evaded me thus far.

Given the sudden proliferation of movies dealing with contemporary political issues in the backdrop of the approaching Lok Sabha elections, the aforementioned question is a good starting point to explore the modus operandi of how Bollywood potboilers are being used to set the narrative for the upcoming general elections.

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Remember ‘Kissa Kursi Ka’?

Before we delve into the recent spate of political Bollywood movies, it would be worthwhile to recall the infamous case of the movie Kissa Kursi Ka (1977), probably the first such case in independent India, where Bollywood and politics merged. The movie was a satirical take on the politics of the day, with the protagonist being depicted as a shrewd but ‘mute’ and ‘helpless’ female politician. The film had such an impact on the political masters of that era, that Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi faced a jail-term for burning the pre-release reels of the movie.

Be it ‘Uri’, ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, Manikarnika or even a documentary film like ‘An Insignificant Man’, all of them showcase and depict information that was already available in the public domain, but as has been seen, the narrative of accusations and counter accusations gets particularly terse when political information is presented through the celluloid format.

So, what is it about movies and their impact that makes the political establishment (ruling government and opposition alike) so jittery about their message and impact?

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How Political Opinions Are Shaped

Our opinions are influenced by the stimuli and discourse surrounding us. Movies are an effective way to validate and reinforce our existing opinions or present contrary evidence to alter them.

A recent study by Michelle C Pautz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, proves this hypothesis. Dr Pautz focus-grouped undergraduates at a college in the United States to fill out a questionnaire regarding their views on government, before and after viewing the movies Argo and Zero Dark Thirty.

She found that after watching the films, 20 to 25 percent of the participants changed their opinion — and generally more favourably — on a variety of questions about the government. Their trust in government increased as did their general optimism about the direction of the country.

The findings of this study can be extrapolated to the impact of movies like Uri which seeks to reassure the audiences regarding the desirability of certain actions and dispositions adopted by the government, allied to the goals of glory and good governance that it seeks to achieve.

It is highly likely that if a similar focus-group study was to be conducted among viewers who watched the aforementioned film, their trust in the government would have been found to be higher than before. Therefore, cinema is a powerful tool to indirectly communicate with the voters and qualify the choices they have at hand.

Mobilising the Youth

The youth being at an impressionable inflexion point in their lives are more prone to respond to a call for action than their jaded and cynical older counterparts. As was witnessed in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, support form youth and first time voters becomes crucial to ensure that the numbers stack up in your favour in the House. It is for this segment, that the movies are the most effective tool for political mobilisation. Being vociferous consumers of multimedia information, the movies can act to push their loyalties towards one side or the other (especially for the neutral and undecided ones).

Michelle Pautz writes,“Movies contribute to the political socialization of people (young adults in particular), and so what audiences watch and how certain institutions are portrayed over time, can be very significant”. Therefore, politically-charged movies in an election year become crucial for attracting young volunteers for campaign work and to ensure that they vote as a block for a certain political party.

‘Group Think’ and Direct Communication

The benefit (to the concerned parties) of using movies as a tool to deliver a political message is what psychologists term as ‘Group Think’. The phenomenon of ‘Group Think’ states that, your pre-conceived notions might get modified or further reinforced based on your desire for conformity within large groups.

Therefore, community viewership of movies forces people to probe their own notions, and a certain section which otherwise would not have behaved or made decisions in a certain way, starts conforming to the group norm.

Earlier, political parties had to be depend on the turnout at movie theaters to have their message / propaganda spread through political films, but now, thanks to online platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, films can be accessed through even our mobile phones. The reach of cinema has increased manifold, leading to political parties investing heavily in communicating the ‘right message’ through the world of film stars and movies.

Propaganda Masquerading as Entertainment

Contemporary trends in content consumption clearly indicate that short, edited, audio-visual content is the flavour of the season. Given an exponential explosion in free data and cheap Internet, crisp and curated content is being consumed by the public in large volumes on the go.

Given this context, effective dialogues and scene sequences addressing important political narratives, have become the perfect fodder for the spin doctors to push customised content onto the personal devices of the public. Such videos are low on cognitive load and also deliver political messages masquerading as entertainment.

This becomes even clearer if we look at the data of the most-viewed videos in India compiled by Vidooly. The top 10 most-viewed videos of 2018 in India contain a majority of film and music-related videos with no presence of political content on the list. Therefore, movies, apart from being a potent medium of communication, also provide an advantage in terms of penetration and reach of the videos among the masses. Add to this the fact that the message is being delivered by some loved and respected actors, and you have a winner. Therefore, even if you haven’t seen Uri, you, in all probability, will have come across relevant snippets on social media and been influenced by the same one way or another.

The Bollywood-isation of Politics

In conclusion, it can be safely opined that movies and film stars are gradually becoming an indelible part of the democratic ecosystem in our country. This fact is clearly evident by the increasing number of actors who are regularly entering Parliament, in turn, attempting to assist their party’s narrative by making movies to suit the party’s agenda.

Politics is being increasingly ‘Bollywood-ised’, whereas Bollywood is increasingly becoming politicised; what used to be a largely South Indian phenomenon is gradually engulfing the entire nation and impacting our political choices in a major way.

Having said all of the above, it is safe to presume that when it comes to the general elections 2019, an attempt is being made for ‘art to influence real-life’; I think I have managed to solve the conundrum for now, albeit, in a limited context.

(Alimpan Banerjee is a corporate lawyer-turned-political consultant based out of Hyderabad. He tweets at @AlimpanBanerjea. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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