On April 16, 2022, violence broke out between the Hindu and Muslim communities on the outskirts of the northern Indian city Roorkee. The Hindus claimed that a procession to celebrate their festival Hanuman Jayanti, marking the birth of their deity Hanuman, had been pelted with stones by Muslims.1 The incident was not isolated – throughout the month, violence had been reported from at least seven states across India as Hindu festivals and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan overlapped.2 What was unique in Roorkee, however, was that several Hindu leaders felt mobilised by the Hindi film The Kashmir Files (Vivek Agnihotri, 2022).

 Released in March, 2022, The Kashmir Files claims to depict the plight of Kashmiri Hindus (commonly referred to as Kashmiri Pandits) who had to leave the troubled region in northern India in the early ’90s after being targeted by Pakistan-backed Muslim terrorists. While Kashmiri Pandit organisations and the Indian government claim that a few hundred were killed during the peak of the separatist movement, the film claims it was a genocide. Soon after its release, videos started circulating on social media of filmgoers calling for the ostracisation and killing of Muslims. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi encouraged constituents to watch the film, while several states ruled by his Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gave The Kashmir Files tax waivers.

 Film critics have called out the virulent Islamophobia in the film, with one even comparing it to Nazi anti-Sematic films such as Jew Süss (Veit Harlan, 1940) and Die Rothschilds (The Rothschilds, Erich Waschneck, 1940).3 Writing for Time magazine, journalist Debasish Roy Chowdhury described The Kashmir Files as a marker of India’s descent into bigotry. “The more ‘truth’ that films such as The Kashmir Files discover… the more civil conflict the country risks. Climaxing with cries for the extermination of Muslims ringing out from the dim theatres, the film marks a major milestone in India’s rapid descent into darkness,” claimed Roy Chowdhury, who is also the co-author of To Kill A Democracy (2021).4

 There have been other intellectual interventions by journalists and scholars to note such milestones, exploring the relationship between the rise of ethnic majoritarianism5 in India and the billion-dollar Mumbai-based Hindi film industry, Bollywood. Nandini Ramnath of Scroll.in and Kamayani Sharma of The Caravan have pointed to a series of pictures released on social media by Modi and Bollywood personalities in the run-up to the 2019 national elections.6 While Ramnath described the pictures as “peak propaganda artefacts”7, Sharma felt they revealed the “supporting role” the industry had played for Modi’s government.8 While all these attempts are empirical, I would suggest that a better way of analysing how Modi has influenced Bollywood is by looking for trends – and not moments.

 Genres of nation-building

 One of the most significant trends in Bollywood since 2014 – when Modi was elected as prime minister – is the rise of certain genres, such as political biopics, sports films, historical dramas, war films, and social message films. None of these genres – except historical dramas – have received much journalistic or academic attention, possibly because it is often difficult to classify them neatly. Uday Bhatia, the film critic for Mint, tries to understand how the historical dramas were rewriting Indian history – a core Hindu right-wing project ­– in his award-winning essay.9 Journalist Bhavya Dore focusses, in brief, on the social message films in her feature-length profile of Akshay Kumar,10 the Bollywood superstar who has acted in and produced many of these films, and I wrote on sports films11 and political biopics12 for my weekly column. Philosopher Samir Chopra also looked at Hindi war films in his book Bollywood Does Battle (2020).

 In this essay, I focus only on the social message films that promoted different policies of the Modi government. These films have received even less attention than the other genres, possibly because it is difficult to identify them as a genre in the first place. In fact, I have borrowed the term from an interview of Akshay Kumar, where he claims that this is his way of giving back to the country.13 While sports films, historical dramas, and biopics have a long tradition in Indian and international cinema, feature films promoting government policy are rare. One obvious example of such a cinematic tradition is Soviet cinema, which has been the subject of several excellent studies, but in recent years it would be difficult to find another similar tradition. Also, these films might seem less harmful than obviously Islamophobic movies such as Padmaavat (Padmaavat, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2018), Panipat: The Great Betrayal (Panipat: The Great Betrayal, Ashutosh Gowariker, 2019) or The Kashmir Files. This is perhaps another reason for the lack of research on these films. However, as I shall show, the social message films surreptitiously purchase legitimacy for government and social policy, affecting millions of lives.

 I limit my study to the 2014-2019 period – Modi’s first term as India’s prime minister. As journalist Aakar Patel has shown in his book Price of the Modi Years (2021), this was a period of immense socio-economic roiling in India, with backsliding democracy, a shrinking economy and ballooning unemployment. Acche din ­– or good days – as Modi had promised became increasingly elusive, but Modi’s own popularity remained undiminished as he continued to win election after election.14 In fact, the BJP won more seats (303 out of 545) in the 2019 elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower House of the Indian parliament, than in 2014 (282). How did Bollywood help? This is another question my essay addresses.

 Towards a national cinema

 Before we analyse how India’s Hindu right wing is using popular Hindi cinema, it is important to chart a genealogy of films that have, directly or indirectly, served as vessels of official ideology since India’s independence in 1947.

 The importance of popular cinema as a medium of nation-building was recognised by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1949, he appointed the Film Enquiry Committee chaired by S K Patil, a member of the Constituent Assembly, to examine the state of cinema in the country and suggest developments along desirable lines.15 The committee suggested, among other things, setting up an award to recognise cinematic achievement and developing a source of funding for good cinema. Following these suggestions, the National Film Awards was instituted in 1954 and the Film Finance Corporation was set up in 1960.

 Nehru’s government also organised India’s first international film festival in 1952, where the prime minister invited filmmakers to help with nation-building:

 Film has become a powerful influence in people’s lives. It can educate them rightly or wrongly… I hope that films which are just sensational or melodramatic or such as make capital out of crime, will not be encouraged. If our film industry keeps this ideal before it, it will encourage good taste and help pave its own way in the building of a new India.16

 Several filmmakers – Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, B R Chopra – began making films that reflected, in the words of one critic, the “maudlin optimism of a new-found national independence and the social reflection of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s idea of state-led economic transformation and modernisation”.17

 Some examples of Nehruvian cinema are Do Bigha Zameen (Two Acres of Land, Bimal Roy, 1953), Shree 420 (Mr 420, Raj Kapoor, 1955), Naya Daur (New Age, B R Chopra, 1957), and Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957). These films were often saturated with images of modernising, such as hydro-electric dams. Nargis Dutt, who played the titular lead in Mother India, identified dams as synonymous with modern India in an interview.18

 It was also in the first decade after Independence that the Bombay-based Hindi film industry emerged as a pan-Indian cinema – or, as film critic Chidananda Das Gupta called it, “all-India film”. Das Gupta claimed that the song and dance spectaculars that the Bombay film industry routinely produced drew from Indian folk theatre forms and Hollywood and produced an entertainment formula to overcome regional and linguistic boundaries.19 Such claims to pan-Indian influence of Hindi cinema would be challenged in subsequent decades by film industries in different languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, and Bengali.20

 The optimism of independent India’s first decade would be dealt a shattering blow by the debacle in the border conflict with China in 1962.21 The humiliation of the Indian army was a personal defeat for Nehru as well. His daughter and India’s third prime minister, Indira Gandhi, would turn to cinema to resurrect her father’s image.22 During the Emergency (1975-77), a period of 21 months when Mrs Gandhi would suspend democratic process, imprison opposition leaders, and rule by decree, she used a combination of censorship and patronage to control the film industry. Popular Hindi films such as Kala Patthar (Black Stone, Yash Chopra, 1979) advocated her policies such as the nationalisation of coal mines.

 As film scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha reminds us even Shyam Benegal – the leading director in India’s “new cinema” – would make films promoting government policy such as Manthan (The Churning, 1976) on milk cooperatives in the western state of Gujarat, Arohan (The Ascent, 1982) on the land redistribution programme of a leftist government in the eastern state of West Bengal, Susman (Essence, 1987) on handloom cooperatives, Yatra (The Journey, 1986) on Indian Railways, and the 53-episode TV series Bharat: Ek Khoj (The Discovery of India, 1988), based on Nehru’s The Discovery of India (1946).23 Benegal’s 2010 film Well Done Abba (Well Done Dad, Shyam Benegal, 2010) also promotes India’s Right to Information Act, 2005.

 Modi’s socials

 Thus, it is easy to see that there is a long tradition of popular Hindi cinema consciously promoting government policy. In Figure 1 below, I map films made since 2017 to the policies they promote:

 It might seem that there have only been a few films promoting government policy in the first five years of Modi’s tenure as India’s prime minister. However, when we think of all the other propaganda films – historical dramas, sports films, war films – along with these, we find that it is quite a significant number. Also, there are films, which I have not included in my list, that promote policies indirectly. For instance, Sooryavanshi (Rohit Shetty, 2021), a cop drama, engages with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 – the Modi government’s contentious citizenship law24 – and India’s decision to abrogate the special status previously given to Kashmir25 without directly referring to it. Similarly, Toilet: A Love Story supports Modi’s decision to demonetise high-value currency notes in 2016, which several economists claim led to widespread job loss and slowed down the country’s economy,26 with a throw-away dialogue.

Toilet: A Love Story

From our list, it is not difficult to prove that the first two are, in fact, propaganda films, despite Akshay Kumar, the leading actor of Toilet: A Love Story, claiming it isn’t one.27 Their producer, the short-lived production house KriArj Entertainment, released several films with social messages between 2016 and 2018 before shutting down because of financial problems. Besides the two films listed above, these included Pad Man (R Balki, 2018), a biopic of social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham who made low-cost sanitary pads widely available, and Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran (Atom: The Story of Pokhran, Abhishek Sharma, 2018), a period drama on India’s 1998 nuclear tests when a BJP government was in power in New Delhi. One of KriArj’s founders, Prernaa Arora, said in an interview: “It’s a very deliberate and conscious move (to take up subjects with a social message). I would want KriArj to be a pioneer in making films that are socially relevant.” She added that she was inspired by the films of Bimal Roy (to whom I referred in the previous section of this essay).28

 Let us take a closer look at Toilet: A Love Story, which was the first of the social message films, and very successful at the box office, earning Rs 134 crore ($17.5 million USD).29 The film, as I have noted earlier, promotes the government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission. Launched on 2 October 2014, months after Modi was elected as prime minister, Clean India is an ambitious project to eliminate open defecation and improve solid waste management in the country through the construction of toilets. The mission also aimed at preventing manual scavenging, the practice of removing human excreta from sewers or septic tanks by hand. Though the practice (traditionally carried out by Dalits who are at the bottom of India’s brutal social hierarchy of caste) is banned in India, it continues unabated, often resulting in the death of manual scavengers.30

 The film focuses only on the first part, dramatising the struggles of its protagonist Keshav Sharma (Akshay Kumar) to build a toilet at his home for his wife, Jaya (Bhumi Pednekar). He faces opposition from his father (Sudhir Pandey), his neighbours, the entire village, and even the government bureaucracy. It seems to suggest that the construction of a toilet at one’s home is the panacea to the cleanliness problem in India. However, as research by journalists and scholars shows, the construction of toilets is not enough to make India open-defecation free. Even the data provided by the government on toilet construction is suspect.31

 In the film, a dichotomy is set up between soch (one’s thinking or preconceived notions) and sauch (cleanliness). However, as media studies scholar Pallavi Rao argues, “proclamation of Brahmin identity by [the film’s] characters are explicitly connected to the national reappearance of Hindu pride and nationalism enabled by Modi’s aggressive brand of Hindu politics.”32 The film makes no attempt to address issues of cleanliness and scavenging that are inseparably linked to caste, unlike other contemporary films such as Court (Court, Chaitanya Tamhane, 2014) or Article 15 (Article 15, Anubhav Sinha, 2019). Instead, it seems to draw its legitimacy for constructing toilets at homes from Manusmriti, an ancient legal text that Dalits and feminists have identified as codifying casteism and patriarchy in Hindu society.33 In a scene in the film, Keshav confronts the village head (Rati Shankar Tripathi), who quotes the Manusmriti to argue that people should defecate far away from their homes. Keshav calls out the village head for only quoting half the sloka or couplet – the full shloka, which he knows because he is a Brahmin, urges people to not defecate in the open or near sources of water.

B R Ambedkar, the president of the committee that drafted India’s constitution and the most influential Dalit leader, had publicly burned the Manusmriti to declare his rejection of caste ­– an act performed even now by Dalit leaders and activists. By ignoring Ambedkar (who appears in a framed picture behind Akshay Kumar in a court scene in the film) and focussing on Manusmriti, the film renders the Dalits of Keshav’s village invisible and silent. Scholars have argued that the BJP has tried to appropriate Ambedkar without taking sufficient steps for the uplift of Dalits.34 This accusation seems accurate in the context of the Modi government’s refusal to conduct a caste census and its opposition to affirmative action for Dalits.35 In fact, Bollywood also seems to have been roped into the project to delegitimise affirmative action, with films such as Hurdang (Hullaballoo, Nikhil Bhat, 2022) attacking reservations in government jobs for Dalits and Other Backward Classes.

 The links between Bollywood and the Hindu majoritarian project of the BJP are evident from films such as Sooryavanshi, The Kashmir Files, and Hurdang. These films are obviously harmful, demonising India’s caste, religious and socio-economic minorities. Naturally, they have received considerable scrutiny. However, as I have shown in this article, the “social message” films, though not harmful in the same way or degree, are also deeply problematic. There are two reasons for this. First, films such as Toilet: A Love Story provide legitimacy for the government’s policies without any critical engagement that is essential for holding it accountable for governance. Second, these films reproduce social attitudes of caste, religion, and patriarchy, creating a simulacra of what a Hindu nation would look like. Both need to be interrogated and interpreted through scholarly and academic engagement so that the makers of these films can be held accountable for the effects of their projects. My article is a beginning in this direction – a lot remains to be done. 


  1. Sumedha Pal, “Influenced by ‘Kashmir Files’, Hindutva Workers Threaten to Remove Muslims From Roorkee Village”, The Wire, 19 April 2022.. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  2. The Quint, “Violence in 7 States on Ram Navami: One Dead in Gujarat, One in Jharkhand”, The Quint, 11 April 2022. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  3. Imaad ul Hasan, “Kashmir Files is a Reminder of Cinema’s History with Hate”, NewsClick, 23 March 2022. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  4. Debashish Roy Chowdhury, “The Kashmir Files: How a New Bollywood Film Marks India’s Further Descent Into Bigotry”, Time, 30 March 2022. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  5. French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, who has studied the rise of the Hindu right wing in India since the late 1980s, describes India under Modi as an “ethnic democracy” in his book Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy (Chennai: Context, 2021).
  6. Scroll Staff, “Bollywood delegation meets Narendra Modi, discusses nation-building”, Scroll.in 10 January 2019. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  7. Nandini Ramnath, “Bollywood and the BJP: One year after splashy photo-op with Modi, a quiet dinner with his minister”, Scroll.in, 6 January 2020. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  8. Kamayani Sharma, “Supporting Role”, The Caravan, 1 April 2019.. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  9. Uday Bhatia, “How Bollywood is rewriting history”, Mint, 1 December 2019. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  10. Bhavya Dore, “The Player”, The Caravan, 1 February 2021. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  11. Uttaran Das Gupta, “Medals for ‘New India’”, Business Standard, 8 August 2021. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  12. Uttaran Das Gupta, “Supermoms and supervillains”, Business Standard, 3 October 2021. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  13. Komal R J Panchal, “Akshay Kumar: After doing films with a social message, I now want to do a horror comedy”, The Indian Express, 30 November 2017. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  14. Aakar Patel, Price of the Modi Years (Chennai: Westland, 2021).
  15. Aruna Vasudev, The New Indian Cinema (New Delhi: Macmillan, 1986).
  16. Mridula Mukherjee (ed.), The Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, India, 2009) 311.
  17. Anand Vardhan, “Hindi cinema: Being political in the Nehruvian era — Part I”, Newslaundry, 4 August 2017. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  18. Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Indian Cinema: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) 91.
  19. Chidananda Das Gupta, Talking About Films (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1981)
  20. See: Sharmistha Gooptu, Bengali Cinema: An Other Nation (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2010) and M K Raghavendra (editor), Beyond Bollywood: The Cinemas of South India (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2017).
  21. See: Neville Maxwell, India’s China War (London: Cape, 1970); Bertil Linter, China’s India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2020); and Shiv Kunal Verma, 1962: The War That Wasn’t (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2016).
  22. Uttaran Das Gupta, “Music for Tragedy”, Business Standard, 19 June 2020. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  23. Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Indian Cinema: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) 115-16.
  24. Angana P Chatterji, Mihir Desai, Harsh Mander, and Abdil Kalam Azad, Breaking Worlds: Religion, Law and Citizenship in Majoritarian India, Center for Race & Gender, University of Berkley, September 2021.
  25. BBC, “Article 370: What happened with Kashmir and why it matters”, BBC, 6 August 2019. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  26. Uma Kapila (editor), Demonetisation: The Economists Speak (New Delhi: Academic Foundation, 2017).
  27. Priyanka Sharma, “Bringing social issues to forefront isn’t propaganda: Akshay Kumar on Toilet Ek Prem Katha criticism”, The Indian Express, 18 August 2017. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  28. Lata Jha, “How KriArj has made an impact by producing movies with a social message”, Mint, 2 March 2018.. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Sanjana Bhalerao, “What is manual scavenging, and why is it still prevalent in India?”, The Indian Express, 12 March 2022. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  31. See: Sneha Alexander, “Swachh Abhiyan: Why India’s toilet data is too good to be true”, Mint, 9 January 2019, and Santosh Mehrotra, “Is India Really 96% Open Defecation Free?”, The Wire, 8 January 2019,. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  32. P Rao, ‘Soch Aur Shauch: Reading Brahminism and patriarchy in Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’, Studies in South Asian Film & Media, 9:2, pp. 79–96.
  33. P B Sawant, “The Manusmriti and a Divided Nation”, The Wire, 16 November 2020,. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.
  34. Sukhadeo Thorat, “Dalits in Post-2014 India: Between Promise and Action”, in Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India, edited by Angana P. Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen, and Christophe Jaffrelot (Noida: HarperCollins India, 2021), pp 217-235.
  35. Shoaib Daniyal, “India urgently needs a caste census – so why isn’t the Modi government allowing one?”, Scroll.in, 30 July 2021. Last accessed: 27 April 2022.

About The Author

Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He has published a book of poems (Visceral Metropolis, 2017) and a novel (Ritual, 2020). He also writes a weekly column, Frames per Second, for Business Standard, New Delhi. Das Gupta teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat.

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