With BJP’s might cut down, will India’s film industry rediscover its spine?

A majority of the industry has stayed mum or actively participated in driving the hate peddled by the BJP. If at all they spoke about the government, it was to dutifully parrot lines about “development”.
A still from the film Article 370, featuring actor Yami Gautam holding a gun to a man's neck, is seen on a TV screen.
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Since June 4, there has been a flurry of analyses on what Modi 3.0 will be like, considering this is the first time as Prime Minister that he will be leading a coalition government. The fractured mandate has led many to hope that a strong opposition will force the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to tone down its communal rhetoric, and apply the brakes on its tendency to ram through laws and policies without adequate debate and discussion. 

But what about those who enabled the BJP’s authoritarian style of functioning and normalised its hate politics? Apart from the ‘Godi’ media, there’s also Bollywood and a section of the south Indian film industries that slavishly pandered to the government’s propaganda machine. Will there now be a turn-around?

Political parties across the spectrum have used cinema as a platform to spread their ideology. Many actors too have entered politics by building their votebase through cinema. Actor-politician NT Rama Rao who played several mythological roles – particularly that of the Hindu god Krishna – even dressed up in such costumes when he was the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. In Tamil Nadu, Dravidian ideology was spread through scriptwriters like CN Annadurai and Karunanidhi, who went on to dominate the political landscape of the state. But what sets apart the cinema we saw in earlier decades from the propaganda films after 2014, is the blatant targeted communal hate and disinformation that can’t be justified as ‘creative freedom’. 

For instance, at the closing ceremony of the 53rd International Film Festival of India (IFFI), acclaimed filmmaker and jury chair Nadav Lapid said that Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files (2022) was a “vulgar propaganda” film and that its submission had shocked his fellow jury members. Other than its lone Indian member – Sudipto Sen who later went on to direct the grossly inaccurate The Kerala Story (2023) – the rest of the jury stood by Nadav Lapid’s statement. 

Interestingly, Narendra Modi and the BJP celebrated The Kashmir Files as a masterpiece, and its success went on to spawn other films that were in a similar vein. States led by the BJP government made The Kashmir Files tax free but nobody from the PM’s party condemned the calls for violence against Muslims that rang out in cinema halls. 

In 2017, a BJP politician placed a bounty of Rs 10 crore on the heads of actor Deepika Padukone – married to Ranveer Singh – and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali for their film Padmaavat. Surajpal Amu, the BJP’s then chief media coordinator in Rajasthan, had also threatened to break the legs of Ranveer who was playing the role of the antagonist Alauddin Khilji in the film.

The climate of fear only persuaded most of Bollywood – with a few exceptions like Deepika Padukone, Taapsee Pannu, Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah, Swara Bhasker, Richa Chadha, Anurag Kashyap, Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, and others – to succumb to the pressure. There were also rich rewards to be reaped for pushing the BJP’s agenda. Actor Kangana Ranaut was banned from Twitter (now called X) for her hate-filled dog whistles, but is now a Member of Parliament, having contested on a BJP ticket and won the Lok Sabha polls from the Mandi constituency in Himachal Pradesh. 

The BJP and its supporters heavily targeted Bollywood through campaigns like the spectacle surrounding actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death ahead of the Bihar elections, and calls for boycott of films such as Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha (2022). Many also made attempts to tarnish the industry by labelling it ‘Urduwood’ and a haven for drugs (the arrest of Aryan Khan, Shah Rukh Khan’s son, was part of this). But a visible section of the industry stayed mum or actively participated in driving the hate. If at all they spoke about the government, it was to dutifully parrot lines about “development”, like ‘National Crush’ Rashmika Mandanna – who acts in Hindi and southern films – speaking to ANI about the Atal Setu bridge ahead of the polls in Mumbai. She also starred in an ad lavishing praise on the “development” ushered in since 2014.

Many of these celebrities also used their social media accounts to take the side of the establishment, even in instances such as the 2021 farmers’ protests. From Karan Johar to Akshay Kumar, Suniel Shetty, Anupam Kher, and Lata Mangeshkar, the industry tweeted with hashtags like #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda, as a counter to global reactions to the government clampdown on farmers who were demanding the repeal of the Farm Bills. While the BJP’s supporters encouraged such hashtags, they’ve been quick to condemn and target celebrities who have used hashtags supporting Palestine (#AllEyesOnRafah) though the Indian government has historically shown empathy to the Palestinian cause. Globally recognised actors like Priyanka Chopra Jonas have used their social media accounts to talk about causes such as #BlackLivesMatter, but have stayed silent on what’s happening back home. 

In the south, Telugu films too capitalised on the ruling party’s interest in driving a nationalist agenda. However, barring a few like Razakar: The Silent Genocide of Hyderabad (2024), these films have not been blatantly Islamophobic. Smaller industries like Malayalam and Kannada have also seen attempts to push Hindutva on the audience, but not to the same scale as Bollywood.

Telugu star Prabhas, who became phenomenally popular across the country after SS Rajamouli’s Baahubali films, played the Hindu god Ram in Om Raut’s pan Indian film Adipurush (2023). With the antagonist Ravan (Saif Ali Khan) styled like a Muslim and dialogues on safeguarding “Bharat ki Beti”, Adipurush aspired to fit the Ramayana into the BJP’s mould, but the terrible CGI and writing ensured that the film failed to take off. 

There is now another attempt to make the Ramayana on the cards, with Ranbir Kapoor and Sai Pallavi in the lead. Directed by Nitesh Tiwari and Ravi Udyawar, it remains to be seen if this version will stick to the Ram we know from the epic – a gentle prince who always thought about dharma – or the hypermasculine version constructed by the BJP. Now that Ayodhya has decisively rejected the BJP, and Modi has shifted from ‘Jai Shri Ram’ to ‘Jai Jagannath’, will the film still be welcomed by his ardent supporters?

Along with Bollywood stars, several south Indian stars had also attended the prana pratishtha ceremony at the long-disputed Ayodhya Ram Mandir in January 2024. The temple’s construction is yet to be completed, but the ceremony was held ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, thereby deeply upsetting the four Shankaracharyas. A section of the Malayalam film industry and a smattering of Bollywood and Tamil film industry personalities shared the Preamble of the Constitution to reiterate India’s status as a secular nation. Needless to say, they were abused on social media by the BJP’s supporters. 

Among the stars who attended the ceremony is superstar Rajinikanth who is well-known for his support of Modi across the years. Curiously, a month later, Rajinikanth’s sports drama Lal Salaam (2024), directed by his daughter Aishwarya Rajinikanth, never saw the light of day in the Hindi region though it was announced that the dubbed-to-Hindi version would release on the same day as the Tamil original. The film is about how politicians drive communal hatred, and has Rajinikanth playing a Muslim man. No official reason was given for the cancelled release, though the film’s Hindi trailer came out and its producer tweeted about its Hindi distributor too. 

When the Tamil film Annapoorani: The Goddess of Food (2023), certified by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and screened in theatres, was taken off Netflix over allegations of hurting Hindu sentiments, only a few voices like directors Pa Ranjith and Vetrimaaran spoke up. Freedom of expression under the BJP is a one-way lane reserved for films like The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story. 

Unfortunately, however, the majority of the film industry didn’t see why they had to stand up for themselves and for the audience. With all the privilege on their side, they chose to either stay quiet or become ambassadors of hate themselves. With the results indicating a change in the public mood and the ebbing of the Modi wave, will they suddenly rediscover their spine? 

Even as the cameras flash on Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar, Rajinikanth and others who were invited to attend the PM’s oath taking ceremony, let’s not forget the real heroes who turned the tide and saved Indian democracy from its alarming slide into fascism. The poor and the marginalised, the ordinary, silent masses who speak once in five years with the power of their vote. Heroes who are capable of humbling giants of all sizes, biological or not.

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema.
Views expressed are the author's own.

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