India’s Bollywood Turns to Hindu Nationalism
Concerns grow that the film industry is in the grip of the far right
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
India’s famed Bollywood film industry is freezing out Muslim actors and turning away from entertainment to serve the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s right-wing political goals, critics say, including culturally purifying Indian society and systematically marginalizing minority groups, especially Muslims, driven by a string of Twitter boycott campaigns run by BJP activists against some of the industry’s biggest stars, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan (above).
The growing right-wing influence in the film industry mirrors increasing concern over Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism across the country as the Bharatiya Janata government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi increasingly circumscribes the space for other religions and ethnic groups. Modi himself very frequently interacts with Bollywood, an industrial entertainment giant with worldwide influence, as a vital means of political support, leaving its opponents – the secular Indian National Congress – with no such comparable means and forcing them to undertake India-wide tours to attempt to recover and spread their message to revive their politics.
When Aamir Khan’s movie Laal Singh Chaddha – an official rip-off of Tom Hank’s Forrest Gump – was released last year, it became a target of what is now known as the #BoycottBollyood campaign, leading the actor to a defensive reiteration of his love for his country. “I want to assure everyone,” he said. “I really love my country, so please don’t boycott my films.” The boycott campaign was successful, however, with the movie, which was distributed worldwide, failing at the Indian box office. One right-wing campaign, in ugly language, said its aim is to destroy the “anti-national anti-Hindu pedophile cabal that takes your money to destroy you.”
Right-wing netizens linked the campaign to a 2015 interview of the actor in which he had expressed his feelings about growing “intolerance” in India and that he and his wife even considered settling abroad, although he is still living in India and has, since the failure of his movie, announced a temporary withdrawal from the industry.
An activist of the Hindu nationalist Sanatan Rakshak Sena said that since Aamir mocks Hindu gods – a reference to his previous movie called PK, directed and produced by Hindu filmmakers – his movies must be boycotted.
Shah Rukh Khan – who is making a comeback after almost four years – is also facing the boycott campaign, with his movie Pathaan becoming the latest target. As one enthusiastic right-wing campaigner wrote on Twitter, Bollywood – especially those films featuring Muslim actors – “shows the terrorists [Muslims] as victims & blames the real victims [Hindus/Non-Muslims] instead.”
Nor are Muslim actors the only targets in a darkening atmosphere. “Many Bollywood actors are also criticized for their liberal lifestyle and political views going against the ideals of Hindutva,” according to the India-based Civic Media Observatory. “Pressure groups have been demanding that government should intervene and closely monitor the content shown in films, television and streaming services.”
Hindu actors such as Hrithik Roshan, who criticized the campaign and praised Aamir’s movie, have seen their own movies become the target of the same boycott campaign. According to a recent article in the UK-based Guardian, “organized 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 kissing, a state-level BJP minister called for a criminal case against Netflix India, which streamed the show.”
But the far right’s ability to influence Bollywood is not limited to running a concerted boycott campaign. Over the past few years, Bollywood has become a producer of movies that reproduce – and glorify – India’s Hindu past, often presenting a Hindu version of reality to establish a new version of political and historical truths.
For instance, The Kashmir Files, released in 2022, has been praised by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said, “This is the truth, and everyone must see it” although it mainly served – and reinforced – the Hindu nationalist position on the formerly autonomous province of Kashmir.
Arundhati Roy, India’s award-winning novelist and activist who frequently criticizes the far-right turn in Indian society and politics, said: “The film is not about Kashmiri pundits in the end; it’s about Kashmiri pundits standing in for Hindus in India, and all the Muslims are evil butchers who slaughter and kill. Whereas, in truth, there are Kashmiri pundits who continue to live in Kashmir, who continue to maintain relationships with their Muslim friends and neighbors. And their figures are that in 30 years, 619 people were killed. But in the film, it’s like the whole population was either slaughtered or driven out.”
In other words, as far as politics and geopolitics are concerned, including Pakistan’s position on Kashmir, the Kashmiri people’s own version of events was effectively challenged, as the majority Muslim population – which sees itself as the victim of Indian occupation and has been seeking independence since 1947 – became the sole perpetrator of violence.
When seen in combination with the 2019 changes in the Indian constitution which made Kashmir a regular state of India and allowed non-Kashmiris to buy property/land there, the movie presents a historical context that made these changes necessary and justifiable. Roy, however, in public statements called the film “radioactive” insofar as it served to spread a specific political and historical narrative targeting a specific community.
The right-wing narrative is not limited to shaping India’s internal narratives only. In fact, as is evident from a massive wave of movies targeting Pakistan – for instance, the 2023 movie Mission Manju – whereby the latter is often projected as the regional perpetrator of religious extremism and even an irresponsible and weak nuclear power, Bollywood appears to have uncritically embraced geopolitics as well, serving the Modi administration’s policy of ‘isolating’ Pakistan regionally and globally.
Bollywood, the Mumbai-based entertainment colossus which turns out scores of movies every year, is a powerful tool of mass entertainment and education worth more than Rs140 billion (US$1.8 billion) annually, that can play a political role. It is a cinema watched regionally – including in Pakistan – and globally. Since most Bollywood movies are released internationally – including in North America, Europe, and China – they become a feasible means of right-wing religion and politics worldwide.
The much smaller film industry in Pakistan (‘Lollywood’) is seeking to respond with films that project India as a sponsor of the terrorist Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the country’s chief source of instability. Increasingly, on both sides of the border, filmmaking is turning into a competition of, to borrow from Singaporean scholar Cherian George, hate spin.
Member of dacoit, rapist, murderer cult is rattled by the rising power of Hindus :)
This wasn't even a long time coming; it was always coming, from the moment the fascist Hindu nationalist racist began to vie for "national power" by pitting Hindus against Muslim evil-doers in India in a replay of Partition in the lead up to Partition. It's the standard ploy by Modi and his rightwing thugs, playing on the blithe ignorance and lack of education of the mass of India's Hindus. But it's vile nationalist ideology like Modi's that is not any different from Nazi-Hitlerism and the termination of the Jews. The slow persecution of India's Muslims, blamed for everything that is manifestly wrong with India, every wrong manifested by Hindus themselves over the decades, including the slaughter of Communists and their sympathizers to the Dalits to even the Sikhs, who suffer from their own racism against Hindus and but more so the Muslims. Modi must be off his old rocker if he thinks his spiteful racist brand of Hindu nationalism will solve the multifaceted problems facing the entire Hindu population that Partition and every regime since 1947 has failed, miserably, to resolve. Even if Modi manages to grow the economy, it won't feed the entire population of Hindus. It won't cater to equality among Hindus. It will be subsumed by the rich, corrupt and Modi-crony Hindus who will, to be sure, leave their own Hindu countrymen to die miserable deaths. Watch Modi become the new Hitler.