(Bombay) Released in May, The Kerala Story is one of those Indian films that vilifies Muslims and disseminates fake news about them, raising fears that the Bollywood industry will become a tool of propaganda ahead of the elections. next year.

“Inspired by many true stories” immediately promotes the trailer for the anti-Muslim film about “innocent girls, trapped, trafficked into terrorists”.

The Hindi fiction, which tells the story of a Hindu woman who converts to Islam and then becomes radicalized, is the second highest-grossing Hindi film of 2023.

Its critics believe that this film, like others recently released, peddles lies to pit communities against each other in the run-up to national elections in 2024.

“I would suggest to all political parties to take advantage of my film […] that they use it for their political purposes,” director Sudipto Sen told AFP when asked about his own political color.

The world’s largest democracy has a long history of film censorship, but many critics are concerned that Bollywood is producing more and more films, tinged with the Hindu nationalist ideology advocated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party.

Indians love cinema, an unrivaled medium for addressing the masses, says journalist and author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

Under Mr. Modi’s tenure, multiple films have aired divisive messages reinforcing prejudices broadcast by political leaders, he told AFP.

“Like them, these films instill hatred in the population […] mounted against religious minorities,” he adds.

The release of The Kerala Story in May coincided with elections in the southern state of Karnataka.

The results, hotly contested by Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sparked clashes in the state where one person was killed.

Mr Modi relied on the film during a meeting, while accusing Congress, the main opposition party, of “supporting terrorist tendencies”.

According to its detractors, the low-budget film plays on the so-called “love jihad”, these stories telling of Muslims seducing Hindus to rally them to the Islamist terrorist cause.

The production has since gone back on the false claim that 32,000 Hindu and Christian women from Kerala were recruited by the jihadist group Islamic State.

BJP members had organized free screenings of the film, which party spokesman Gopal Krishna Agarwal said was part of a “communication plan”.

“How do you communicate your ideology? How do you communicate about the life and history of your leader and his activity? This is our way of doing it…Party teams do it individually,” Agarwal told AFP.

To promote the film, two BJP-led state governments reduced ticket taxes.

According to the director, his film “sounded a chord” in India, home to one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, about 14% of the 1.4 billion people.

“I believe in the power of truth, the truth that we told in the film, and that’s what people want to see,” he told AFP.

His film breaks away from traditional Bollywood musicals, following a recent trend.

Now, Bollywood studios are releasing detective, war and spy films, exalting the nationalism of usually Hindu heroes battling enemies outside or within India itself.

“Movies have always been used as propaganda, doesn’t Hollywood do that?” recalls director Sudhir Mishra, quoting the Rambos with Sylvester Stallone, “I really think Bollywood is being attacked and blamed.”

The Accidental Prime Minister, a critical biopic of Mr. Modi’s predecessor and rival Manmohan Singh, was launched just months before the 2019 election. the Electoral Commission until after the ballot.

Conversely, the upcoming film Godhra revisits the real-life story of a 2002 train fire in which 59 Hindu pilgrims perished. The tragedy sparked interfaith riots that left more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead. The trailer for the film suggests it was a “conspiracy”.

A recent BBC documentary on Mr Modi’s role in the violence has been blocked in the country as “hostile propaganda and (collected) anti-Indian rubbish”.