Bringing 'Brand Israel' to Bollywood

Will Israel succeed in its charm offensive in Bollywood?

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    Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan takes a photo with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and other Bollywood personalities during 'Shalom Bollywood' event in Mumbai on January 18 [Reuters/Shailesh Andrade]
    Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan takes a photo with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and other Bollywood personalities during 'Shalom Bollywood' event in Mumbai on January 18 [Reuters/Shailesh Andrade]

    During his visit to India, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to mark his last evening in the country with a special event for the Indian film industry establishment. "Bollywood Shalom" was held in Mumbai and Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan and actress Aishwarya Rai were in attendance.

    It ended with an Oscar-style selfie and Netanyahu's declaration: "We want Bollywood in Israel. We are putting our money where our mouth is."

    Throughout his visit, Netanyahu and the Israeli delegation made it clear that they are trying to push the "anti-terror cooperation" narrative onto Indian-Israeli relations. In his address at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi, Netanyahu said: "Indians and Israelis know too well the pain of terrorist attacks. We remember the horrific savagery in Mumbai." It did not come as a surprise then that the venue chosen for the Bollywood Shalom was the Taj Hotel, which in 2008 was the city of a major terror attack.

    Despite all the grand declarations, the forced symbolism and the media limelight, it was hard not to notice that a number of big names from the Indian film industry did not attend the event.

    If Bollywood so aspires to be apolitical, it should know that by opening itself up to Israeli propaganda, it will become embroiled in politics.

     

    But Israel is quite keen on the prospect of having a multi-billion-dollar industry on its side. Tel Aviv has been trying to attract Bollywood to invest in Israel for a while now. Last year, they were successful in bringing the crew of the upcoming Bollywood film "Drive" to Jaffa and Tel Aviv for a short shoot. The shooting trip was partially paid for by the Israeli Prime Minister's Office and the foreign and tourism ministries. The film is to be released in March this year.

    The Israeli charm offensive on Bollywood did not stop with this film. In October last year, Michael Oren, head of public diplomacy at the Israeli prime minister's office, visited Mumbai to invite Bollywood producers to invest in Israel. He then took to Twitter to declare the "goal" of his visit - "create Israeli jobs and fight BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement]".

    In December, the Israeli tourism, foreign and culture ministries sponsored a visit of five Bollywood directors and producers to Israel, to show them possible shooting locations. Potential tax breaks for Indian productions in Israel have also been discussed.

    After Netanyahu's visit, it is quite clear that Israel is intent on having Bollywood help sell "Brand Israel"and assist in its cynical use of arts and culture to whitewash its settler-colonialist regime, occupation and apartheid over the Palestinian people and lands.

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    With a budget running into millions of dollars, the Israeli political propaganda machine aims to take the attention away from its repression and human rights violations, for which it has been condemned by the United Nations, various governments around the world, civil society organisations and grassroots movements.

    At the same time, as Mr Oren pointed out in his tweet, Israel is desperately trying to curb the spectacular growth of the BDS movement.

    Over the years, noted artists across the world have joined this campaign, which aims to isolate Israel on the academic and cultural fronts until it starts respecting international law and the demands of the Palestinian people. Artists such as Roger Waters, Lauryn Hill, directors Ken Loach and Mira Nair and many other artists have refused to perform or work in Israel and contribute to its propaganda campaign. Most recently, famous singer-songwriter Lorde cancelled her performance in Tel Aviv.

    Netanyahu and his ministers are hoping that the support of the current Indian government that they are enjoying could help them woo the Indian film industry.

    It is important to remember that the bonhomie with Bollywood is emerging in a context when there is a decisive rightward and pro-Israel shift in the Indian polity. Narendra Modi was the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in July last year. India is the biggest importer of Israeli arms. Israeli companies have found a huge market in India's water and agriculture sectors. And although imports within both sectors are to the detriment of India's indigenous economy, the government is still encouraging them. This can only mean one thing: that the growing cooperation between the two right-wing governments is becoming highly ideological.

    But, despite the close political affinity between Netanyahu and Modi, Israel's break into Bollywood might prove harder than they imagine.

    The Indian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel has, for years, worked on building cultural resistance against Israel's oppression of Palestinians and the propaganda with which it tries to cover up its crimes. Indian writers, artists, actors and others have already taken a principled position on Israel.

    Most recently, Mallika Taneja, an Indian theatre artist, refused to participate in the Israel Festival, declaring: "As I read about the history of the State of Israel in using culture as a tool to distract from the violence in Palestine, I asked myself how I could stand for freedom and justice on one stage, and promote quite the opposite on another?"

    Although Netanyahu's push for the "anti-terror" narrative fits in with the current right-wing government rhetoric, it is difficult for Israel to sell its settler-colonial project in a country that still grapples with the legacy of colonialism. The Indian people have gone through a peaceful struggle, themselves, against an occupier in the not-so-distant past.

    The curious thing about Bollywood is that, in its post-liberalisation period, it has taken a decisively apolitical turn. Even when Bollywood films come under repeated attacks of right-wing stormtroopers, the industry continues to stay silent.

    If Bollywood so aspires to be apolitical, it should know that by opening itself up to Israeli propaganda, it will become embroiled in politics. Israel wishes Bollywood to be its political tool. It is now upon the members of the Indian film industry to decide which side of history and politics they want to be on - the side of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid, or the side of the struggle for freedom and justice.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 

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