At first glance, it seems like another overtly ambitious spy-show trailer, gone horribly awry. It comes with all elements controversial enough to warrant a reaction from the public: a desert situation; some sinister-looking sword-wielding ‘Muslim guys’ in robes; ample jeep action; burqa-clad women; dismal dialogue delivery; and a predictable plot, of course, shown to be set somewhere in Pakistan. Produced by Shahrukh Khan’s company Red Chillies Entertainment, Netflix’s upcoming sensation Bard of Blood is a show many an entertainment buff is looking forward to, but not necessarily for the same reasons.
Propaganda, be it propagandist literature or cinema, strikes a chord only when the public’s sentiments have been whipped up by political events and commercial art realises the market. It does seem that Bard of Blood’s recently released – and much controversial – trailer would not have achieved this huge reaction on social media had it not comein the midst of escalating Indo-Pak tensions.
The trailer does not herald a new era in cinema, propaganda films have been around for as long as one can remember. Both Pakistan and India have been taking an eager part in producing them and making them a success. “Pakistan has produced dramas like Angar Wadi about Kashmir and Panah about Afghanistan in the past,” says film critic and columnist Nazir Mahmood. “Pakistani films like Khak aur Khoon, Waar, Yalghar, and even Maalik are nothing but propaganda,” he says. “Even before these films, PTV produced dramas based on Naseem Hijazi’s novels that were meant to eulogise Muslim mujahids and demonise the infidels”.
Mahmood adds that some Hollywood films like Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) and The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl (2006) also mention Pakistan, but these cannot be termed as propagandist.
“If you go back to the days of silent cinema, there was Birth of the Nation which was almost a promotional film for the Ku Klux Klan (KKK),” says film critic and academic Mira Hashmi, “In the 1930s, we had The Triumph of the Will which was a propaganda film for the Nazis.”
It is said that lying is the most human trait. Humans do lie in order to get what they want. So could it be that the purpose of these films is not widespread propaganda, but personal gain? Culture journalist/film critic for The Express Tribune, Rafay Mahmood thinks it might just be true. “I think Bollywood’s major incentive for producing such films could just be a box-office success,” Mahmood says. “We must realise that Bollywood is the biggest medium in India and caters to the lowest common denominator. This means it always subscribes to popular tropes and popular themes, in order to bring people to the cinema houses,” he continues. “Everyone wants huge movies, part of why Pakistan has also made films like Waar”.
A devastating example of this was found in Hitler’s propagandist Mein Kampf. He put forth the idea that for propaganda to be effective, it must appeal to “the primitive sentiments of the broad masses”. As the world witnessed during his fascist regime, he whipped up hatred to enable the Holocaust.
So does this mean that propaganda can be used to significantly influence general discourse, whether overtly political or not?
According to Hashmi, this may only work to a certain degree. “Films, or in this context, propaganda cinema only preach to the converted, they aren’t really about shaping new points of view. Those who know what propaganda or agenda is about are not really affected by such cinema,” she says.
There was an immediate reaction on Pakistani social media following the release of the trailer for Bard of Blood. Many criticised the caricatures in it relating to Balochistan, and the biased portrayal of Muslims in general. “Pakistanis react more to propagandist films by Indians than they do to films like Waar, simply because we, as an industry, are incapable of competing with them,” says Mahmood.
Pakistan has tried to counter Indian propaganda with movies like Waar, among others. But despite being blockbusters at home, these movies did not have any notable impact internationally. Perhaps, this also has to do with the global image of Pakistan which is still largely of a state struggling with terrorism and religious extremism.
“As long as capitalism works the way it does, people with money will have the authority to say whatever they want to,” says Hashmi. “I don’t think that any kind of meaningful ideology is going to beat out the capitalist powers that be”. Hashmi says that instead of churning out movies like Waar and going ballistic on social media, we should try to create cinema that’s worthwhile. “Why don’t they make quality tv for once and see if they can get a deal with Netflix?”
However, she maintains that she does not approve of propaganda or anything that has an agenda. “Art by its very nature is political, but being political and having an agenda are two completely different things,” she adds.
“The biggest thing to have come out of Pakistan in the last twenty years has been Coke Studio, and that is about it”, says Mahmood. “How do you think you can compete with an industry as big as Bollywood? The makers of Namaloom Afraad have announced two more films but that is not going to do the trick.”
Mahmood says that the biggest medium in Pakistan is still television and that it should be tapped to tell ‘our stories’.
“Maybe you could try something with that [tv]. But will it have the same impact as a Bollywood production? My answer would be: No”.
According to Mahmood a number of factors are at play. “Let’s assume we make a good counter-narrative film. My problem is that our language and our culture are so similar to India that globally we do not stand any chance [to forge a different identity]. Pakistani cinema is perpetually fighting an identity crisis – as it is considered just an extension of Bollywood all around the world,” he adds.
However, film critics concede that regardless of what your identity is, if you believe that your story is being misinterpreted on a global platform, you have the right to protest.
“This is how movements start in a cosmopolitan world, a world without boundaries,” says Mahmood. But, he says, that he believes that it does not make sense for Pakistani cinema to try to churn out propagandist films in competition with Bollywood.
“The difficult truth is that our cinema cannot survive without Indian cinema. We actually need their cinema for us to be able to make our own films. But we’re still hell-bent upon trying to make films that are against India. It’s just nonsensical,” he adds.
Bard of Blood is just a two-minute trailer right now. Nothing definitive can be said about how propagandist (or not) it will be, before the series is officially released. However, it is the speciality of propaganda to utilise turbulence and mayhem to warp the already murky perceptions. It does not have to convince, as it can easily add to the confusion. Good propaganda can succeed in polluting sources of understanding. As George Orwell once said, history stopped in 1936, after that… there was only propaganda.