Beyond Politics: How Sushma Swaraj Rescued Bollywood

The youngest cabinet minister of a state, the first female spokesperson of a national party, the second female Leader of Opposition, Sushma Swaraj held many a distinction in her life. The one that best defined her, however, was accorded to her by the US daily Wall Street Journal. It called her India’s “best-loved politician”.

Wherever Swaraj went to give a speech, a small wooden stool was kept handy. It would be placed just behind the podium. Petite and diminutive, at less than five feet, Swaraj would have to stand on the stool to be seen behind the podium. She would then begin speaking, and the hall would instantly fall silent. No one would miss listening to one of India’s fiercest orators.

In March 1998, as the second Vajpayee Government was sworn into power, Swaraj was given charge of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. She inherited, what was at the time, a crippled, mismanaged field of film production.

Film production in Bombay was reeling under crises of arranging institutional finances, copyright violations, piracy and years of government apathy. It was neither recognised nor supported by government policy. Film financing, in particular, had become a notoriously dubious area of speculation, risk and even violence.

Government after government, however, seemed unwilling to act.

It was Swaraj who stepped up to the challenge. She called for a national conference on ‘Challenges Before Indian Cinema’. Film personalities – actors, directors and producers – from all over the country were in attendance. Here, she made the announcement that would decisively transform the face of Indian cinema. She announced that for the first time, the state would recognise India’s prolific field of cinema as an “industry” in its own right.

This industry status would make film production all over the country eligible for bank loans, provide for setting up a fund to promote regional cinema and help offer retirement benefits to artistes and crew.

India’s film industry, as it could finally be called, had been changed forever. From the murky stigma of the underworld, Indian cinema rose as a major employer, revenue generator, and an indispensable tool of the nation’s soft power and influence.

Today, cinema is one of those things that has permanently caught the imagination of India, along with cricket and politics. The Indian film industry wouldn’t be where it is, if not for the announcements made by a petite leader on a stool, just about reaching the lectern.

In her world, Sushma Swaraj stood among India’s tallest leaders.