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How Bollywood's silence proved convenient for India's Right Wing

Even Shah Rukh Khan remains unspared

Bollywood is courting controversy again, and this time it is because Aryan Khan, the son of superstar Shah Rukh Khan was arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) in early October 2021 for allegedly doing recreational drugs while on a cruise ship from Goa to Mumbai. He was bailed out after numerous failed attempts on October 28 having spent three weeks in jail. The arrest of the son of Bollywood’s heartthrob has understandably made headlines with running commentary on the privileged lives of Bollywood stars’ children to the supposed drug haven that the industry harbours.


Not too long ago, in 2020, following on the heels of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide, his girlfriend, actress Rhea Chakraborty was subjected to a witch hunt by the media. She too was arrested by the NCB on the grounds that she procured drugs for Rajput and was part of a drugs syndicate. So, are Bollywood and drugs hands in gloves with each other or is there more than what meets the eye. 


Bollywood’s history is replete with censorship and admonishment, and its relationship with both state and national governments ebbs and flows depending on the political party in power, which is why the current censure, derision and attacks on Bollywood are not new. For example, when the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) and Film Finance Corporation (FFC) were established in 1960, it was under Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist ideology. Worried that films were too busy with trivial and escapist plots and narratives, films funded by NFDC and FFC were meant to emphasise India’s socio-economic realities, moral dilemmas and lessons. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also actively courted the Bollywood industry for economic gains, resulting in the now (in)famous selfie.



Film historian and critic Chidananda Das Gupta has explained that mainstream Indian cinema has unconsciously always performed a nationalistic function, incorporating elements from both Indian theatre genres and Hollywood, eventually coalescing into an ‘All India film’ that could overcome regional and linguistic barriers. Kaushik Bhaumik further writes that cinema was a public secret that was left by the British government to be governed by the public. Post India’s Independence, the film industry was treated with vexation by the Indian government. Indian cinema has thus, since the outset, been a communal, public good. The chagrin by both the then colonial government, and the Indian government now has meant that the public has come to not only govern this public secret, but also own it, which is why public outrage over films carry a lot of weight.


As a consequence, several films and directors have come under political and public scrutiny and censure, if not directly, at least indirectly, especially on moral grounds. This aspect is important because even if the ruling national government explicitly does not control the film industry, the masses' opinions are. And currently, the opinions are being deliberately manipulated and misinformed by Hindu right-wing trolls, bots and hashtags. Recently, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee and whistleblower, has made public how Facebook has been knowingly adding fuel to the fires of misinformation, disinformation and fake news in the interest of company profits. And in the case of India, the Facebook papers have revealed how Facebook has grappled with the problem of rampant posts that dehumanised Muslims and marginalised groups in India. Most of the posts were circulated by groups supporting Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its ideologies, a Hindu right-wing nationalist organisation with close ties with the national ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Let us rewind a bit to the time when Rajput and Chakraborty were dominating the news. While the criticisms on the existence of cliques and the struggle for someone without a film family background to make it into Bollywood were valid, the narrative soon became polarised. Hashtags like #BoycottBollywood #JusticeforSushant #BlockedbyBollywood gained traction with online groups claiming to seek justice for Rajput.


In the study titled Anatomy of a Rumour: Social media and the suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput, the researchers analysed Twitter hashtags from June 14 to September 12, 2020 and according to them, the outrage transitioned from suicide and mental health to murder, and politicians, particularly from the ruling party BJP had a key role to play in the shift of the debate. They also note that in the initial days of the actor’s death, there was very little activity on social media, until it got picked up aggressively online, which the authors suggest indicated an organised movement and coverage. 

Similarly, the vilification of Khan’s arrest is also symptomatic of the privileges of Bollywood star kids. His arrest is notwithstanding the seizure of 3000kg of heroin in September 2021 by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) at Mundra Port in Gujarat’s Kutch that is managed by Adani Ports. Gautam Adani’s support for the Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no secret, and Adani is India’s largest private ports operator. The timing of the discovery of heroin and arrest of Khan has not been lost on observers. Much like the manipulation and misdirection of outrage in Rajput’s case, the debate has now been diverged, with Whatsapp chats being unearthed to somehow pin the blame on Khan.

Khan and Chakraborty’s cases are thus not isolated events, rather it is part of the pattern wherein Bollywood, its actors and its productions have increasingly come under attack for supposedly depicting anti-Hindu elements or propagating Hinduphobia. There exists a concerted effort by the Hindu right-wing forces to continuously discredit and target the Bollywood film industry, and one of the arsenals for attack are drugs and existing nepotism.


Adding to the cauldron of debate above, Khan’s Muslim identity enables the Hindu right-wing to bolster their arguments on how Bollywood is “Urduwood”, given that the industry for long has been dominated by Muslim male actors (Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan). Twitter accounts, bots and trolls regularly pinpoint how the dialogues, depiction of Hindu Gods and rituals are a result of embedded Hinduphobia in the film industry. Buttressed by the implicit support by BJP leaders, the wave of outrage and indignation on how Hindus and Hinduism are in danger or given the short end of the stick has increasingly gained momentum. The apparent “attack” on Hinduism has now also spilled onto ad commercials, the most recent being the cancellation of Manyavar, Tanishq and FabIndia advertisements. 


With the rise in Hindu right politics in India since 2014, there has been a steady stream of Bollywood films that appear to toe the line of the dominant political ideology of the ruling national government.


For instance, films that glorify India’s scientific and social achievements in the 21st century or those that espouse the need to be united and patriotic under one Indian national identity umbrella have increased in numbers; and if not explicitly, implicitly the undertones of nationalism are pervasive. So, not surprisingly, the past years have seen a line up of films that espouse nationalism and allegiance to the Hindutva idea of what is India. Examples include Airlift, Uri: The Surgical Strike, Mission Mangal, Parmanu: The Story of Pokhra, Raazi, Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi, The Ghazi Attack and Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior.


However, it is not because the Indian national government has outrightly censored Bollywood, rather, caught up in a wind of hypernationalism and the industry’s ownership by the public, in order to ensure its survival, the industry is forced to become a tacit accomplice to BJP’s Hindutva ideology.  

About the author

When not overdoing her caffeine dose, Anubha Sarkar can be found teaching Global Cultural and Creative Industries. After a stint in the Netherlands, she moved to the unpredictable pastures of Melbourne to pursue her PhD in Bollywood and Soft Power. She binges on Kdrama and is currently learning Korean and Mandarin. She is South Asian Today's in-house Film and TV Expert and writes a monthly column, Anubhanama. Instagram: @anubhanama




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