Bollywood and Indian Soft Power – How and why are they linked?

Last updated on Sep 2, 2020

Posted on Sep 2, 2020

Any nation’s power dynamics in global geopolitics is essential to how that nation’s society engages in the world.  Movies and the Soft Power of a nation are inextricably linked!

If the art of a nation is aligned to the national objectives with respect to international relations, then that art will get an additional push in more places.  However, even if art from a country is great and amazing but the power of that nation minimal in global affairs, the artists and their work from that nation will not get many opportunities.

The relationship between national interest, government geopolitical strategy, and the narratives in the art forms that emanate from that society is very critical.

In fact, this combination brings together hard and soft power to create both, a market and dominance for that art industry outside the country; and use art to bring the government’s message home to the global audience in a fun way thereby empowering its geopolitical hand.

These days Bollywood is at the center of a debate on how the artists have taken stands and created narratives in the movies which are often anti-India and even show hate for Hinduism and Hindus quite openly.

There are allegations and even indications, for example in the case of Aamir Khan’s meeting with Turkey’s Erdogan, that the Indian artists may actually not be averse to collaborating with forces that are antagonistic to India’s national interest.

But is this idea of national interest and alignment of movies and art with the nation’s geopolitical objectives mere jingoism?  Let us look at it with concrete examples.

Impact of movies on British Economy

A 2002 report on The British Film Industry, commissioned by the UK House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee made a very interesting claim.

“…Of the 23 million people who visited the UK in 2001 — spending approximately £11.3billion — VisitBritain (formerly the British Tourist Authority) estimates that approximately 20% visited the UK because of the way it is portrayed in films or on television. The flow-on effect from film (i.e. the use of services and purchase of goods by the industry) is thought to be that for every £1 spent on film, there is a £1.50 benefit to the economy.”

This kind of direct hard quantified correlation isn’t an abstract idea of how movies that talk positively to a nation’s society impacts its well-being itself.

Did the Indian leadership ever understand this relationship?  Surprisingly, this was understood from the very beginning.

Nehru on Power of Movies

And, this kind of impact of cinema on society was understood in India as well.  A report for the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1963 had looked at the Indian Cinema and the nation’s culture.  And the author quoted India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru to underscore the power of cinema:

“…the influence in India of films is greater than newspapers and books combined.”(Source: Indian cinema report in pdf)

Even at that point films were being watched by 25 million people a week.

Nehru’s understanding of Indian cinema’s soft power was spot on!  The movies and art of Raj Kapoor, for example, was not just connecting with folks in the hinterlands of India but also across Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran, and the Caribbean islands!

Much like the people who visited Britain due to its portrayal in the movies, so many Russians had taken to learning Hindi, practice Hinduism, learn Sanskrit, travel to India – for only one reason – Raj Kapoor and his movies.

Personally, I know of so many people from different nations – often cab drivers in North American cities – Calgary, New York, Toronto, San Francisco – who have often discussed India from the viewpoint of its cinema.  They break into songs, talk about actors, and remember the movies they loved.  One Guyanese lady could listen to an old song and name the music director, lyricist, singer, and the movie at a moment’s notice.

Now, let us go to the Holy Grail of movies and geopolitics – the US and Hollywood.  How does Hollywood work with the US government?  Are they aligned?  What mechanisms have been used over the years?

Hollywood, Soft Power and US Geopolitics

Hollywood has always understood its power and place in the world with respect to the soft power that the US wants to portray.  (To learn more about Soft Power, please read our article “Soft Power: What is it and Why is it important“)

In an article for Foreign Affairs at the outbreak of the World War II, film producer Walter Wanger referred to Hollywood movies as ‘120,000 American ambassadors’. The preeminence of Hollywood in presenting US ideology to the world has been asserted ever since. (Source)

Hollywood’s role around the globe in terms of soft power was understood by the US State Department as early as 1916!  The US embassies around the world were sharing information on the opportunities for Hollywood back to the State Department, specifically for economic and political impact.  And, in turn, the State Department was relaying this information to the Hollywood studios.

The objective was to establish the complete dominance of Hollywood globally.

With its financial advantage confirmed, the Department of Commerce, led by Herbert Hoover, sought to capitalize on its cultural reach. Hoover had appointed Dr Julius Klein as head of the department’s Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce (BFDC), which provided commercial attachés to US embassies, and by 1926 Klein had established a Motion Picture Section managed by Clarence Jackson North.(Source)

This department became an important part of the US embassies and became a “conduit between the consulates and Hollywood’s commercial interests.”

This became the basis of further, more pointed interventions during World War II.

During the war, the state became a censor and partner to Hollywood.  The US State Department came out with a paper in 1944 titled – ‘American Motion Pictures in the Post-War World.’

This paper asked the US ambassadors to engage with the Hollywood studios and provide them assistance going forward.  Because it said, the State Department ‘desires to cooperate fully in the protection of the American motion picture industry abroad.’

It was not just a “one-way” street.  There was a clear quid-pro-quo.

In return, the memo’s author, Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs Adolf A Berle Jr, requested that ‘the industry will cooperate wholeheartedly with the government with a view to ensuring that the pictures distributed abroad will reflect credit on the good name and reputation of this country and its institutions’

This set the tone, nature, and depth of relationship between Hollywood and the US government.

After World War II, one of the important points and bone of contention between the deal between US and Britain was the controls against foreign movies that UK had.  Such was the urge for the US to push Hollywood that they assured the British that Hollywood would unleash a strong anti-British propaganda if the Hollywood movies were restricted there.

Actually, Eric Johnston as the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) trade body personally negotiated the deal along with Don Bliss, the Commercial Attaché at the London embassy. (Source)

Wikileaks brought out classified material out in the open.  When one writer did a search on the Cablegate site for material on movies and Hollywood, he was shocked.

There is a vast amount of material – a search for ‘Hollywood’, for example, retrieves 207 cables, and a search for ‘cinema’ 390. While some cables stretch back to 1966, the majority are from 2002 onward, and while this is partly due to the limitations of the tranche released, the tone of the cables suggests that there was an increase in the frequency of documents referring to films and filmmaking in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Cables discussing cinema were sent from most major industrialized countries, to varying degrees. Cables from the Middle East and Australasia tended to focus on more cultural concerns and were less frequent than the cables originating from South America and Europe, where economic issues, mainly regarding intellectual property rights (IPR), appeared to be more pressing. (Source)

Sometimes overtly and most of the time behind the scenes – movies have been strongly aligned to the national interest and even war objectives.

To ride the power horse, help creating it!

You cannot run down and cripple the very society that you create art for and from.  To have marketability of your art form globally, you need a strong national identity.  If you are the greatest actor the world has seen but sitting on a beach in Brunei, the chances are that you will keep sitting on that lovely beach and pass quietly into oblivion.  A much inferior actor sitting in a studio in Hollywood but making a movie like Avatar, where a White American somehow saves the world or many other such “End of life” movies with only American as a savior will be known as world’s greatest actor.

You can choose to remain the greatest actor sitting on the beach and dissing your society and bringing it down and reducing your own negotiating power in the world.  Or you can participate in nation-building.

By doing the latter, you create the vehicle (strong national identity) which will help the government machinery promote your industry to global viewership.

Let us be honest – no one likes a loser.  Or someone from a society of losers.

To a Karan Johar or Priyanka Chopra, it might seem that they create greatness for themselves by creating a negative image of India or Hindus and thinking they have distanced themselves from those “bloody lowly Indians” (quiet like the Rai Bahadurs of the British Raj would do), but outside of India; they ARE those very Indians and Hindus that they have painted black all along!!

What their narrative does is to create a global opinion that paints themselves in the very color they use to paint the others in the country.  Which they kept doing just because the people who funded the color wanted them to do so.

A buck now may look lucrative.  Self-obsessed negationism of the facts and spiritual ethos of this civilizational culture may seem rebellious and exhilarating, but it is a spectacular way to commit suicide.

Raj Kapoor used the power of his craft that he was bestowed with and created an image of India that was truly transformational for at least two generations of people internationally.  Every actor, every director has that capability with him.

Either she or he can create a winning horse or a losing mule out of the society she or he is born in. What you give to the society will decide what it gives to you.

You cannot escape the Karma of treason.  It does come back to bite you.

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