The rise of propaganda films in the Telugu states and the impact on elections

Propaganda films, right before the elections, is not a new phenomenon in the Telugu states. Before Andhra Pradesh was divided, actor turned politician NT Rama Rao (NTR) was well-known for using his films to woo voters.
Characters from Telugu propaganda films
Characters from Telugu propaganda films

There is an ominous background music anytime Jagan Mohan Reddy visits his uncle YS Vivekananda Reddy along with his family in the film Vivekam (2024) - a biopic on Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy’s uncle Vivekananda Reddy. Vivekananda Reddy was murdered in 2019 just a few days ahead of the Andhra Pradesh Assembly elections. The film claims to have been based on the CBI’s chargesheet.

In the film he is seen engaging in a power struggle with his nephew Jagan. In the course of the movie, which has been termed speculatory, there is rivalry between Jagan and Vivekananda but with elements like music and placement of cameras, Vivekam seems to hint there is something more sinister. Even though the film does not point fingers with regards to who murdered Vivekananda, there seems to be a concerted effort to portray the YSRCP and Jagan’s family in a negative light. 

Vivekam is one of the many propaganda films that have cropped up in the Telugu states right before the elections. Vivekam did not have a theatrical release and is accessible on YouTube for public viewing. The film was uploaded on the channel - TDP Activist, which makes the intention of the film very clear.

However, such films are not a new phenomenon in the Telugu states, especially at the time of elections. They generally ride on invoking nostalgia for regional leaders, turn them into towering personalities, and take digs at the Opposition. While these films neither perform wonders at the box office nor have considerable sway over Telugu voters, industry insiders and scholars believe that they serve an interesting purpose. 

Before Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated into Andhra and Telangana, actor-turned-politician NT Rama Rao (NTR) was well-known for using his films to woo voters. According to a report in the Frontline, during his first-ever election campaign between 1982 and 1983, several older films of NTR were screened in theatres, and smaller components of his films like songs and dialogues were sold on the streets as audio cassettes. The report also mentions that mimicry artists would use his monologues from a popular film titled Dana Veera Sura Karna (1977), dubbing them into anti-Congress speeches. 

NTR’s election campaign set the stage for the use of cinema as a tool for campaigning in the Telugu states. In more recent times, however, films like Yatra (2019), Yatra 2 (2024), Vyooham (2023), and Vivekam (2024) to name a few, deal more directly with politicians, their parties, and electoral politics. 

The timing of the release of these movies is also quite convenient as most of them have been released in the run-up to the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Andhra Pradesh, both of which are scheduled on May 13, 2024. The subject of Yatra and Yatra 2 follows the legacy of YS Rajasekhara Reddy, the rise of his son Jagan Mohan Reddy, and the formation of the Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP), which is now headed by Jagan. While there is considerable support for Jagan and his party in Andhra Pradesh, films like Yatra 1 and 2 are perhaps made in an attempt to invoke nostalgia among the audience about YSR, his legacy, and elevate the personality of Jagan who formed the government after conducting a state-wide walkathon.

Like Yatra 2, Ram Gopal Varma’s Vyuham also follows Jagan’s odharpu yatra (condolence yatra) following his father’s death but focuses more on the rivalry between YSRCP and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) headed by former Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. The film was released after Chandrababu Naidu’s son Nara Lokesh submitted a petition to the Telangana High Court against the certification for the film claiming that it was made to defame the TDP and his father. The film was released in November 2023, but did not do well commercially. 

Vivekam revolves around the murder of Vivekananda Reddy, former Minister and brother of YSR. He was found murdered on March 15, 2019, at his residence in Pulivendula, the constituency which is now represented by Jagan. 

The CBI has accused Jagan’s cousin and incumbent MP from Kadapa YS Avinash Reddy for his alleged involvement in the murder of Vivekananda Reddy. Avinash Reddy’s father Bhaskar Reddy has already been arrested in the case. Jagan’s government has been accused of hindering the CBI investigation. This political murder has become one of the talking points of the Opposition against Jagan, to portray him as a ruthless ‘goonda.’ 

Vivekam was released as a counteraction to Ram Gopal Varma’s Vyuham, and other films which served the YSRCP’s agenda

Though the content of propaganda films is mostly tilted in favour of those it tries to support, most of them have very low commercial success. Despite this, these films continue to be made, raising questions about who funds them, who watches them, and most importantly, whether they have any impact on votes.

Why are propaganda films made despite low success rates?

Filmmaker and producer Bharadwaja Thammareddy explains a possible reason as to why propaganda films are made despite low success rates. “I think the primary purpose is to use clips from these films on social media for election campaigns. Even if the respective parties do not do it on their official social media handles, their followers and ‘fans’ might do it. Even the target audience for these films are party workers and loyalists and not the general audience,” he said.

SV Srinivas, a professor at Azim Premji University, echoes Bharadwaja’s views. He also mentions how the films purposely include moments of “mass appeal” so that they can be repurposed later during campaigns. “These films are not going to be watched or become box office hits. They were meant to be sliced up and circulated as clips on social media,” Srinivas explained. 

However, both Srinivas and Bharadwaja agree that Yatra was a bit of an outlier as it was commercially successful, and featured big names like Mammootty and Jeeva in lead roles. 

In movies like Vyuham and Yatra 2, Jagan is seen to be facing off with Congress, especially after Sonia Gandhi refuses to let him continue his odharpu yatra. Portrayals of Sonia Gandhi being an autocratic leader who has the final say over things are common in these films.

While the YSRCP might not have to face the Congress electorally, this type of portrayal seemed to have worked in favour of the party, especially in light of YS Sharmila’s rift with her brother Jagan, and her subsequent departure from the party. She went on to form the YSR Telangana Party in 2021 and pledged her support to the Congress ahead of the Telangana Assembly elections in November 2023. She later merged her party with the Congress shortly after. At present she is the president of the Andhra Pradesh Congress unit. She is also contesting for the MP seat from Kadapa challenging her cousin and murder accused Avinash Reddy. Vivekananda’s daughter Sunitha Nareddy, who is fighting for justice, has extended her support for Sharmila. She has also appealed to the people to reject Jagan. 

Characters from Telugu propaganda films
Father YSR’s legacy, rift with brother Jagan: Tracing Sharmila’s political journey

Srinivas says that the rather negative portrayal of Congress in light of Sharmila’s departure is a coincidence. “The filmmakers could not have foreseen political events that led to her departure or what transpired afterward. But it worked because of YSRCP's history with the Congress and Sharmila’s subsequent alliance with the same party. In the Telugu states and Tamil Nadu, where there is a strong film industry and has ties with politics, such propaganda films or hagiographical biopics are made more often before the Legislative Assembly elections than the Lok Sabha elections. The Yatra films and Vyuham, and Thalaivi in Tamil Nadu are examples of this,” he said.

While different propaganda films may serve different agendas, there is little proof to substantiate whether they are bankrolled by political parties or politicians. Addressing propaganda films in the Telugu states, the Frontline report said that these films in the past have been commissioned by “supporters of political parties, their family members, ticket aspirants, and those holding nominated [party] posts.” But there are also more honest declarations of party affiliation by movie producers like Gudur Narayana Reddy, a BJP leader who bankrolled Razakar. Meanwhile, the producer of Vyuham, Dasari Kiran Kumar, is a supporter of the YSRCP, according to Frontline. 

Despite the money and the efforts that go into the making of propaganda films, there is a question of how effective they are in garnering votes for the respective parties and politicians.  

Do propaganda films translate into votes? 

 Bharadwaja believes that propaganda movies rarely materialise into votes. “A politically neutral person will not watch these films. Even if they do, I do not think these movies might influence their vote. The number of votes a party like YSRCP might get because of propaganda movies is very minimal, though not absent,” he said.

Most Telugu propaganda films are used to build public opinion in favour of politicians and parties, rather than precisely pushing them to vote by depicting election issues. They focus on boosting public persona by glossing over the mistakes of leaders and presenting political events with mass appeal elements like energetic background music, and slow-motion shots, among others. Such elements have been incorporated in the Yatra movies in scenes showing Jagan’s (Jeeva) entry and his departure from the Congress to form the YSRCP. Since the task at hand for these films is to amp up Jagan, there is little mention of Sharmila’s rift with him and why she decided to leave the party. 

Meanwhile, Srinivas also says that propaganda films are not made with an intention as simple and direct as garnering votes, but with more complex objectives. “Propaganda films in general like Kashmir Files, and The Kerala Story are quoted in politicians’ speeches. They are often used as a resource to create a narrative to serve a party’s political ambitions,” he said.

There is an attempt to spread Hindutva ideology with propaganda films like The Kashmir Files (2022), The Kerala Story (2023), and Article 370 (2024), to name a few. Much like the Telugu propaganda films, these were also released in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections. While Telugu films have steered clear of right-wing propaganda for most part, Razakar: The Silent Genocide of Hyderabad is an exception. Perhaps Razakar was made to provide talking points to BJP leaders vying for power in the Telugu states. 

Characters from Telugu propaganda films
Razakar is a rabid Hindutva project that uses horrifying violence to peddle hate

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