Cinematic Media as a means of Soft Power Projection: A case study of US, India & Pakistan

Print and electronic media were traditionally used for the propagation of soft power or more specifically, for psychological operations. The rise of cinema brought it to a whole new level. These mediums contributed to the propagation of culture, values and norms and thus played a significant role in shaping the perceptual worldviews of entire populations.

Everything is in a state of evolution. From living organisms, tangible technologies to intangible thoughts, ideas and concepts; all evolve with the passage of time. An innate feature of humans is the urge to acquire and enhance power and influence & the same feature is reflected in their collective institutions such as the nation-states. The urge has been present throughout the history, but the nature of power has evolved, giving rise to the classification of hard and soft power.

Professor Payne of The University of Sydney defines power as “The ability to get others–individuals, groups, or nations–to behave in ways that they ordinarily would not”

The concepts of hard and soft power have been in action for quite some time, but terms related to this concept were coined by the American Political Scientist- Joseph Nye in 1980s. While hard power is the use of coercive means to influence others, soft power is rather, the use of persuasive and indirect means to achieve the same ends. Nye terms soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion.”

War was once considered as a normal, legitimate and the only means to achieve political ends. For centuries, states have used the instrument of warfare to project and enhance their power. But with the evolution of the means used to dispense information, new means of power projection emerged, giving rise to what Nye calls ‘Soft Power’. These means include economic assistances, cultural exchanges, increased people to people contacts, narrative-building and using the mass and cinematic media for propagation and legitimization of ideas.

Print and electronic media were traditionally used for the propagation of soft power or more specifically, for psychological operations. The rise of cinema brought it to a whole new level. These mediums contributed to the propagation of culture, values and norms and thus played a significant role in shaping the perceptual worldviews of entire populations.

As a means of psychological operations, Posters were used by the governments in World War I to demonize the enemies, to increase recruitment of soldiers and to shape the public opinion. Furthermore, during the World War II, Posters, Advertisements, Comic books, leaflets, Radio, Newspapers, movies and even animations were used for the same purpose and to persuade the public to contribute to the war efforts in their respective capacities.

Hard Power continued to matter as well, but an interesting development was the use of cinematic media as a means of Soft Power. World War II witnessed the use of films as a means of propaganda rather than just entertainment. All the states fighting this war used this new medium for propaganda, but it was the United States which was able to harness its full potential.

Cinematic Media & Propaganda in the World Wars:

The Office of War was the focal point for coordinated efforts between government, semi-government and private entities engaged in the production of movies. Hundreds of movies were made which affected all Americans, one way or the other. There were five main themes of US propaganda films:

  1. The Nature of the enemy (Movies such as ‘Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo’ and ‘Destination Tokyo’ depicted Japanese as cruel and movies such as ‘Education for Death: the making of the Nazi’ depicted Nazis as power-hungry tyrants who were controlling and brainwashing innocent Germans)
  2. The Nature of the allies (Movies such as ‘Why We Fight: Prelude to War’ were aimed to unite American public with the allied countries and to influence the people to think of war in terms of Allied Vs Axis and not in terms of USA vs Germany or Japan)
  3. The Need to work (Movies such as ‘Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo’ and ‘Women in Defense’ encouraged women to take up jobs in factories that men had left behind so that the goods and weapons necessary for war could be produced)
  4. The need to fight (Movies such as ‘Why We Fight: War Comes to America’ encouraged men that it was an honor to fight for their country. As a result, over six million American men volunteered to fight in a war that spread across Europe and in the Pacific, even though they knew that there were very little chances of them coming back home safely)
  5. The need to sacrifice (Movies such as ‘Destination Tokyo’ shaped the public opinion that the luxuries they are sacrificing for the sake of war is for a greater good of their country and such circumstances are not going to last forever)
  6. The reasons why USA is fighting (Movies such as ‘Destination Tokyo’ established that USA is not fighting for the sake of defeating its enemy but for higher causes such as freedom and democracy. Such movies boosted the morale of fighting soldiers by making them believe that they are fighting to make the world a better place)

As a result of these propaganda films, men were willing to fight, women were willing to work in the factories, general public was eagerly buying war bonds and families were more than happy to ration food. All this would have been quite difficult if hard power had been applied instead. The US realized the importance of cinematic media and hence a relationship between Pentagon and Hollywood evolved.

Pentagon and Hollywood:

The relationship between Pentagon and Hollywood was not developed in the backdrop of World War II, rather it dates back to the 1927 film Wings and even before that. But it was 1947 when a formal Film Liaison Office was established at the Department of Defense and a similar Entertainment Liaison Office was set up at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1996.

The relationship between US national security and Hollywood is quite deep. Whenever a film depicts any military service, it contacts the liaison office, in order to request assistance, which reviews the script and suggests changes as well. In the words of Former Director of Entertainment Media at the DoD, Phillip Strub “Most filmmakers are willing to sit down and negotiate with us and it’s often a process of accommodation. We have to give up something, they might have to give up something. But we try to provide suggestions to increase military realism that doesn’t — that interferes minimally to a character and to plot.”

According to some declassified files, more than 800 feature films and more than 1100 television titles received support from Department of Defense from 1911 to 2017. CIA has also assisted in around 60 film and television shows since its establishment in 1947. All these films and shows played a significant role in portraying soft image of USA and the sophistication and capacity of other national security institutions throughout the world.

Cinematic Media leaves a deeper impact in the minds of viewers and the acceptability of the ideas and events being shown is quite high. Any cinematically depicted historical event would reach wider audience as compared to written literature and no matter if it’s true or not, it would be widely embedded in the hearts and minds of people. This makes this medium prone to manipulations, propaganda, misinformation and even distortion of facts. As Adolf Hitler had said “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”.

Subsequently, the significance of cinematic media as soft power for nation-states cannot be ignored. It can in fact be considered as one of the most efficient tools to advance national interests, similar to what US did during the World War 2 and has been doing till date. Requiring less resources, its impacts are deep and long-lasting.

Case Study of India:

However, United States is not the only country to have employed such means. We have the example of India as well. It has one of the biggest film industries in the world which produces over 1000 movies per year. Most of them are action, comedy, romantic or family entertainment in genres. But in the past few decades, India has now started to use Bollywood as a means of propaganda and projection of its soft power. Several movies have been produced over time such as Border (1997), LOC Kargil (2003), Ek Tha Tiger (2012), The Attacks of 26/11(2013), Phantom (2015), Tiger Zinda Hai (2017), The Ghazi Attack (2017) and many more to distort the facts and to promote a negative image of Pakistan. Recently Uri (2019) was released, which is based on the Indian-claimed so-called Surgical Strikes, and it was a mere propaganda at its best.

Indian leadership has realized the potential of films and this was the main reason why a number of movies were made prior to the recent elections to shape public opinion. Such as The Accidental Prime Minister (2019), RSS Founder Bal Thackeray’s biography Thackeray (2019) and Narendra Modi’s biography PM Narendra Modi (2019) – whose release was delayed by Election Commission of India prior to the 2019 elections.

Not all Bollywood films have anti-Pakistan themes. Many movies have storylines depicting only the strong areas of Indian nation and its institutions. Such movies include ‘Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran (2018)’ which is based on India’s Nuclear Program & ‘Mission Mangal (2019)’ based on ISRO’s journey to Mars.

Case Study of Pakistan:

Due to the enduring rivalry between India and Pakistan, one would naturally assume that such Indian attempts would be met with counter-measures from Pakistan, however, the latter has shown little or no interest at all. Pakistan’s Lollywood is not as developed as Hollywood or Bollywood and has historically been focusing on traditional genres of entertainment. There have been limited or no efforts to utilize the potential for the portrayal of soft power, or for the sake of validation of true historical events.

Major efforts in this regard have been undertaken by Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) – the media wing of Pakistan Armed Forces. ISPR has produced a number of patriotic songs, drama serials, magazines and documentaries in this regard, but the impact is not the same as industry-level efforts. Hence there is a lot of room for more enhanced efforts.

Moreover, as the film industry has just revived in the past decade, so there have been some efforts that should not be neglected rather should be encouraged. Movies like Waar (2013), O21 (2014), Yalghar (2017), Parwaz Hai Junoon (2018), Project Ghazi (2019) and Sherdil (2019) have made some room for a much needed genre in the industry. But more coordinated efforts need to be made both by the concerned civilian government ministries and the ISPR to harness the potential of this untapped realm.

ISPR should consider the establishment of a formal Film Liaison Office to facilitate the film industry in making movies that debunk the current misperceptions and depict the true reality of Pakistan. Government should devise new strategy to utilize such means for the depiction of soft power. And the film industry should also play its role in producing and promoting such movies.

Evolution demands learning and adoption to new concepts, ideas and means. And only by observing the effective use of movies as a means of ‘soft power projection’ by other states and by following the course, we can excel in this evolved and untapped realm of power.

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Saadain Gardezi

Written by Saadain Gardezi

Saadain Gardezi is an Editor at Global Affairs. He is a graduate in the field of Strategic Studies, from National Defence University Islamabad. He tweets at @saadain.gardezi & can be reached at

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