India’s pro-government television news channels have trained their guns on an unexpected target: Bollywood. The $2.6bn film industry has been accused of nepotism, drug abuse and even murder in the aftermath of a young actor’s suicide during lockdown.
“All the perfumes of Arabia cannot take away the stench and the stink of this filth and scum of the underbelly of Bollywood,” Shazia Ilmi, a spokesperson for Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party, fumed in a recent Republic TV debate called “Bollywood Muck & Stink Exposed”.
After relentless vilification, Bollywood is fighting back. This week, box office superstars Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, as well as 31 other celebrities and unions representing actors, directors, producers and writers sued Republic, its rival Times Now and four primetime anchors, for defamation.
In their lawsuit, the celebrities accused the channels — to which authorities allegedly leaked stars’ private WhatsApp messages — of invading their privacy and “painting the entire Bollywood as criminals, steeped in drug culture”.
The case, according to film stars, critics and political analysts, has laid bare the tension between an influential and liberal cultural industry and a rightwing ruling party determined to tap the power of film.
“There is no other political party in the country today that understands the power of the image as much as the BJP,” said Shubhra Gupta, author of 50 Films that Changed Bollywood.
Since 2014, she said, the ruling party had both wooed and put pressure on Bollywood to “fall in line” and promote the cult of Mr Modi as well as emphasise historic Hindu-Muslim tensions.
“If you are not going to fall in line, everything they have in their power will be done to make that happen,” Ms Gupta said.
Suhas Palshikar, editor of the journal Studies in Indian Politics, said that “what is happening against Bollywood is part of a larger pattern of cultural warfare. I’m not sure whether Bollywood is aware of it, or ready”.
In its finest films — and in the personal lives of its biggest stars — many of whom are Muslims, Bollywood has long symbolised independent India’s founding ideals of secularism, inclusivity, tolerance, individual freedom and interfaith amity.
“They represent a different kind of India, a less puritanical India,” said Rachel Dwyer, professor emerita of Indian Cinema and Culture at Soas, University of London. “It’s also one of the few places where you have a significant Muslim elite.”
It is that cosmopolitanism that has put the industry on a collision course with the BJP, whose rightwing base views Muslims with hostility and believes interfaith marriage — especially between Muslim men and Hindu women — is a “love jihad”, a plot to erode Hindus’ demographic advantage.
Superstars Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan were both subjected to a nationalist backlash and boycotts in 2015 after expressing concerns about the growing climate of fear and intolerance after Mr Modi took power.
“Bollywood has been one of the most vociferous voices for the constitutional values of secularism and Hindu-Muslim unity,” actress Swara Bhasker told the Financial Times.
“These values stand exactly against the ideals of the Hindu nation, as imagined by Hindutva ideology, which is all about the primacy of the Hindu faith and the Hindu citizen.”
After India’s independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, appealed to filmmakers to help unify a society traumatised by the violence of partition. Hindi films were traditionally stocked with heroes who saw humanity beyond religious identities and villainous extremists driving people apart.
“The need of the hour was to create cinema that would look at India as a composite nation rather than in bits of pieces of people who were in perpetual conflict,” said Ms Gupta.
But the ruling party is deeply hostile to love between people of different faiths. The 2018 film Kedarnath, depicting a romance between a Hindu priest’s daughter and a Muslim boy, was accused of promoting “love jihad” and banned in the BJP-ruled state of Uttarakhand, where it was set.
Bollywood has tried to reach some accommodation with Mr Modi’s regime. It has made films that glorify Mr Modi (PM Narendra Modi), praised his assertive policies towards Pakistan (Uri) and mocked Manmohan Singh, his predecessor (The Accidental Prime Minister).
Recent historical epics have reinforced the BJP’s version of India’s past, which was characterised by Muslim aggression against valiant, noble Hindus. In the 2018 film Padmaavat, Ms Gupta said, the Muslim invader, Alauddin Khilji, is depicted as “a monster . . . with no redeeming features at all”.
Despite the industry’s concession, the deeper tension between New Delhi and Bollywood is unlikely to ease soon. “No government has understood the soft power of Bollywood the way the Modi government has,” said Ms Bhasker, “and no government has used Bollywood the way the Modi government has.”