Hindutva ideology even casts its shadow on Bollywood

Boycott calls by rightwing affects business of movies

New Delhi, October 01 (KMS): Indian film industry, commonly known as Bollywood, is under siege as boycott of some movies by extremist Hindu social media users and politicians has affected their business.

The Hindu extremist call for the boycott of the movies, particularly with Muslim stars or produced by the Muslims. This happened with Laal Singh Chaddha, produced by Aamir Khan, one of Hindi cinema’s trio of Muslim superstar Khans (Aamir, Shahrukh and Salman).

In August this year, a week after the release of Laal Singh Chaddha Bollywood’s adaptation of Forrest Gump, a Twitter account with about 280,000 followers, tweeted: “#Urduwood is trending. Thanks to all who have accepted this term to accurately define the anti-national, anti-Hindu paedophile cabal that takes your money to destroy you.” The tweet received more than 1,700 retweets and about 5,800 likes.

The term “Urduwood” is a pejorative popular among extremist Hindu social media users and politicians. Urdu is an Indian language with a Perso-Arabic script, and the national language of Pakistan; hence it is associated with Muslims and its use is a way to claim the film industry is “Hinduphobic”. For decades, India’s Hindi film industry, known as Bollywood, has been one of the country’s most popular products, for Indians themselves and the world at large. But the consolidation of Hindu nationalism under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has affected it too.

On the release of Laal Singh Chaddha, social-media platforms were flooded with calls for a boycott of the movie. Aamir Khan’s remarks on the rise of “intolerance” in India he made in 2015, as well as clips from his 2014 film PK (which criticised blind-faith belief) were coupled with targeted tweets. Laal Singh Chaddha has fared poorly at the box office, but the calls for a boycott have not stopped. Other movies, such as Vikram Vedha, Dobaara, Shamshera and Brahmastra, are also in the line of fire. Shamshera and Brahmastra witnessed boycott calls owing to the recirculation of the remarks made by the lead actor, Ranbir Kapoor, on eating beef 11 years ago.

The Bollywood actor Swara Bhasker pointed out that Bollywood is an industry where Muslims have had representation and success, which bothers the Hindu right. Bhasker, who herself has repeatedly faced the rightwing ire including a death threat said, if a popular mass-medium of entertainment is so organically secular, pluralistic and diverse, then to further their agenda of a Hindu nation and discredit secularism, they (rightwing Hindus) have to discredit that medium.

Organised trolling has also been deployed against films and streaming series such as Thappad, A Suitable Boy and Bombay Begums, particularly for the last two’s depictions of interfaith romance. After a scene from A Suitable Boy depicted a Hindu girl and Muslim boy romancing, a state-level BJP minister called for a criminal case against Netflix India, which streamed the show. Many politicians, particularly those affiliated to the BJP, also called for “ripping apart” of the Bollywood “ecosystem”. Some of them even alleged that Aamir Khan was “money laundering” and that Laal Singh Chaddha “glorified terrorism”.

Hussain Haidry, noted screenwriter, said these campaigns “directly or indirectly cater to anti-Muslim sentiments or Hindu persecution complex”. Referring to the outrage over the web series Tandav, which depicted a Muslim-origin actor dressed up as a Hindu deity in a now-deleted scene, Haidry added, “This combination of a Muslim presence with supposedly anti-Hindu depictions strikes gold for them.”

A recently published paper by Joyojeet Pal, associate professor of information at the University of Michigan, and researcher Sheyril Agarwal found that tweets with the hashtag #BoycottBollywood were made in an organised manner, with several ghost accounts using hate speech, misinformation and presenting south Indian (particularly Telugu) films as more “traditional” compared with the “degenerate” and “culturally aloof” Bollywood. Their research found that 12,889 out of the 167,989 accounts that sent an anti-Bollywood message had zero followers and were mostly created in the past two years, suggesting collusive behaviour.

How effective have these boycotts been? It is not always clear. Of the 26 big Bollywood releases so far in 2022, about 20 of them (77%) reportedly flopped, losing half or more of their investment.

Taran Adarsh, a movie critic and trade analyst, told the Guardian that film exhibitors he spoke to said that boycott campaigns had affected Laal Singh Chaddha.

The recent success of Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt’s Brahmastra has been held up as a counter-example – despite vicious trolling, it performed well at the box office, though some critics have ascribed its success to its Hindu symbolism that borrows from the Hindu mythology-inspired fantasy style of films such as the globally popular RRR.

Haidry suggests that this made a difference. “The campaign against Laal Singh Chaddha used anti-Muslim motivations, which couldn’t be weaponised against Brahmastra.”

Bhasker says: “I don’t think Bollywood necessarily understands that this targeting is coming from an ideology ruling India. This ideology aims to achieve total control over thoughts and expression. Their cultural project is majoritarian and totalitarian.”

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