On a massive drive to cast Israel as a “normal democracy” and woo audiences in India’s film-crazy population, its war criminal leader Benjamin Netanyahu has just made a whirlwind tour of the subcontinent. He was hosted by fellow right-wing extremist Narendra Modi, who as leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has yet to stand trial for his key role in the 2002 Gujarat massacres. Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat when his party faithful went on a killing spree against their Muslim neighbours.
The brutal anti-Muslim pogrom saw women raped and set alight after being doused in paraffin, whole families mowed down in cold blood and Modi fingered for having allowed the merciless atrocities to continue. Sixteen years later, despite being the leader of India, Modi remains accused as the mastermind of premeditated ethnic cleansing. Many independent probes suggest that the massacre was carried out with the complicity of the Gujarat state government and its security forces.
Having defeated India’s traditional anti-colonial movement, which was the home of most of the country’s well known leaders of the liberation struggle against British imperialism, the BJP has not only turned the clock back, but also revised history to erase the crucial role played by the Indian Congress.
Modi as chief ideologue of the BJP’s divisive sectarianism has thrived by pursuing policies characterised by rhetoric rather than substance. Buoyed by Fox News-type praise and masses of unemployed hopefuls, Modi’s charismatic personality has helped to sustain a veneer of “India First” while the enormous chasm between rich and poor in his country tells a different story.
It is within this context that Modi has an affinity with Israel, striking an overtly friendly relationship with Netanyahu. Some commentators have correctly described it as “birds of a feather…” syndrome; treachery of a kind which refutes India’s anti-colonial history, in particular its pioneering position in the setting up of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
Modi and the BJP leave no doubt that despite India’s previous pro-Palestinian stance, taken in tandem with its opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime, his bromance with Netanyahu and Israel is an attempt to erase that crucial era from the collective memory. What’s more, by assisting Netanyahu to cast Israel as a “benevolent friend of India”, Modi has scripted a role for Bollywood’s mega-rich superstars. Although still shocking, it is not entirely surprising that India’s billion-dollar film industry has willingly rushed to push the likes of hugely popular actor Amitabh Bachan onto the stage; his selfies with child-killer Netanyahu have gone viral.
So what’s in it for Israel? One film magazine reports that Bollywood actors Jacqueline Fernandez and Sushant Singh Rajput touched down in Tel Aviv last month, accompanied by an 80-strong crew, to shoot scenes for “Drive”, the first Hindi film to be set in Israel. “The film, an Indian-style spin on ‘Fast and Furious’, was partly funded by a number of Israeli government arms, including the Tourism Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.” The report claims that when “Drive” premieres on the subcontinent in 2018, Israel’s leaders hope it will provide a priceless advert aimed at tens of millions of potential tourists to the Zionist state. “We’ve done research and we know there is film tourism around the world,” explained Michael Oren. “I taught for a year at Georgetown and everyone wanted to see where ‘The Exorcist’ was filmed.” What’s more, added Israel’s former ambassador in Washington, “There’s a diplomatic benefit to just having their film stars here.”
The report goes on to explain that this India-Israel film collaboration is not a one-off project. “Its model is almost identical to a similar multi-pronged outreach model that Israel honed with China following the 2014 Gaza War, which had temporarily laid waste to tourism.”
In contrast to China’s participation, the bloody slaying of Palestinian men, women and children in Gaza by Netanyahu’s warmonger regime struck a devastating blow to Israel’s efforts to lure American television productions. According to the report, FX’s “Tyrant” and USA’s “Dig” both had to relocate frantically in the midst of the carnage just a few kilometres away in the besieged Gaza Strip, which was both humiliating and expensive for Israel.
With Modi’s direct intervention, it appears that Bollywood is on track to be captured by a settler-colonial regime. “The formula is simple: Israel offers investments and attractive tax rates to productions in exchange for guaranteed footage of the country’s landscapes and cities in the final product that will be shown, on screen, to millions of potential tourists from Asia,” says the magazine. If it has worked with China, so why not with India?
For Bollywood it means rebate structures and cash up front; all that’s required in return is for its stars to pretend that not a single Palestinian is oppressed or living under occupation. If Bachan’s selfie reveals his reckless disregard for vicious human rights abuses by Israel, as an icon of Bollywood his action gives the green light to his peers, colleagues and fans to do likewise.
India currently holds 14 bilateral film treaties, and if Oren gets his way Israel will become the 15th. He hopes for a signed film treaty between the two nations by the spring. It is not surprising, therefore, that Shalom Bollywood featured so prominently during Netanyahu’s trip.
In a further revelation, Oren explained why Indian productions are particularly alluring for Israel. It is not only due to the sheer size of Bollywood’s influence, but also because of the demographic makeup of its vast audience. “This is about how important it would be for Israel to have a Bollywood film shot here [and] watched in Muslim countries.”
The Modi-Netanyahu love match would be a compelling story on the big screen, if the script writers were bold enough to include all the gory details of their respective wars and continuous contempt for international laws and conventions. Just as Gaza demands the lifting of Israel’s crippling, inhumane and illegal siege, so too does Gujarat still demand justice.
Oblivious to the furore, the perpetrators of such crimes against humanity stroll around defiantly and with apparent impunity. Looking on in disbelief, the victims of their crimes must wonder whether any of Bollywood’s producers and stars will ever realise and understand the folly of allying their industry with an apartheid regime. They have betrayed their country’s powerful anti-colonial past to embrace war criminals. It is shameful.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.