Narendra Modi has been an elusive figure for the Indian media, forgoing press conferences and granting just a handful of interviews during five years as prime minister.
But a Bollywood star succeeded where most journalists had failed, by filming an interview with Mr Modi in the garden of his New Delhi residence in the middle of India’s month-long general election. During the one-hour “non-political” conversation, actor Akshay Kumar questioned the prime minister on topics ranging from his fashion tastes to his mango-eating technique.
It was the latest of a series of engagements by Mr Modi with top film stars, each of which created an online frenzy — bolstering the prime minister’s reputation as a canny operator in the social media age.
Meanwhile, the release of a number of politically charged films during this election season has raised concerns about the growing influence on the industry of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party, and its alleged efforts to create a cult of personality around the prime minister.
“We’re a movie-mad country, a star-worshipping nation,” said Anupama Chopra, director of the Mumbai Film Festival. “Bollywood stars are used to sell every product from cement to fairness creams — and now the political world is also using them.”
The worlds of cinema and politics have overlapped before in India, which boasts the world’s largest film market in terms of cinemagoers, with more than 2bn tickets sold each year. Superstar actor Amitabh Bachchan won a parliamentary seat in 1984 with one of the biggest margins on record. Jayalalithaa, an icon of Tamil Nadu’s film industry, served six terms as the southern state’s chief minister before her 2016 death.
But Indian film-makers have tended to steer clear of overtly political themes, a convention that was emphatically broken in the build-up to this year’s election, which is being held in phases between April 11 and May 19.
Recent months have seen a number of political films — most controversially PM Narendra Modi, depicting an inspiring rise from child tea-seller to heroic national leader. After loud protests from the opposition Congress party, India’s Election Commission blocked the film’s release until the end of the election, saying it could “tilt the balance” of the poll.
A similarly themed online drama series, named Modi — Journey of a Common Man, was also blocked by the Election Commission.
But the regulator cleared the recent release of several politically charged films. They include Uri, a blockbuster on the high-profile “surgical strike” ordered by Mr Modi against Pakistani militants in 2016, and The Tashkent Files, which raises questions around a prime minister’s sudden death during Congress’s tenure in power.
“Bollywood has been too comfortable making love stories and mindless comedies,” said Vivek Agnihotri, director of The Tashkent Files, rejecting criticism of the film as anti-opposition propaganda. “I see [the flurry of political films] as a sign of the maturing of a society that is now able to handle political themes in films.”
Others in the industry have a far less upbeat view, complaining of an increasingly chilling environment under a government with close ties to Hindu nationalist groups.
After leading actor Shah Rukh Khan warned of growing intolerance in 2015, senior BJP politician Yogi Adityanath accused him of “terrorist language” and warned that a boycott of his films would leave him “to wander the streets like a normal Muslim”. Mr Adityanath was later appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state.
In 2017, another BJP politician offered a reward for the beheading of the star and director of the historical drama Padmaavat, over reports of a romantic scene between a Hindu princess and a Muslim sultan.
“You can’t say that the government has not created that atmosphere,” said Namrata Joshi, cinema editor for The Hindu newspaper. But despite criticism of his failure to condemn intimidation, she added, Mr Modi has been assiduous in courting the film industry. While both main national parties are fielding several actors as candidates in this year’s polls, Ms Joshi said the BJP has “stolen a march” over Congress, which was long seen as having strong ties to India’s creative industries.
Days after Mr Modi held a meeting with film executives in December, the government sharply cut the tax rate for cinema tickets, drawing gushing praise on Twitter from leading actors. They were then invited to a second meeting in early January. A group “selfie” of a grinning Mr Modi, surrounded by some of Bollywood’s hottest names, went viral online — as had images of him attending the wedding of actress Priyanka Chopra to US star Nick Jonas a few weeks earlier.
“He’s by far the most social media-savvy politician in India, and up there with anyone in the world,” said Vivek Dehejia, senior fellow at the IDFC Institute, a think-tank, noting that appearances in actors’ Instagram feeds would enable Mr Modi to reach a huge demographic of young celebrity-watchers.
The recent film and television series on Mr Modi’s life, meanwhile, appeared to form part of a push by supporters “to cultivate an aura around him, a cult of personality”, he added. He also pointed to the proliferation of promotional billboards bearing the prime minister’s face and a new television channel carrying his name.
“He’s jumping over the heads of the mainstream media, reaching out directly to supporters and potential supporters,” Mr Dehejia said. “This is a project that’s been in the works for a long time, and he’s been perfecting it.”