It’s a crucial year for India as the world’s largest democracy votes in what could be a tight race between the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the center-left Congress party. Regional parties also are rallying together, mostly in opposition of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But Modi is finding another, unlikely set of people moving toward him: the icons of Bollywood, the most prolific film industry in the world.
Over the past couple of years, the who’s who of the Hindi film fraternity has hobnobbed with the prime minister. In December 2018, a delegation of veteran producers and actors, including Aamir Khan, Ajay Devgn, Rakesh Roshan, Ronnie Screwvala and Karan Johar, met with Modi to discuss issues plaguing the industry — high taxes, rampant piracy and difficulties in getting clearances for shoots. The government quickly slashed tax rates on movie tickets from 18 to 12 percent. In January, another delegation of actors and producers, including top stars like Ayushmann Khurrana, Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal and Ranveer Singh met Modi, clicked a groupfie with him and posted it online, almost like the politician’s fanboys and fangirls.
This publicized kinship with Modi is problematic, given the Indian film industry’s broad silence — barring a few individuals — on multiple instances of lynching of Muslims, attacks on churches, patriarchal and caste-based rhetoric, fake news and economic mishaps under the current regime. Bollywood has always deeply influenced Indians, and for the industry’s stars to portray Modi — under whose watch as chief minister of Gujarat state in 2002, more than 1,000 Muslims were killed in religious attacks — as India’s hero on the brink of the 2019 elections is dangerous. Millions of social media followers — only U.S. President Donald Trump has more Twitter followers than Modi, among politicians — will construe this as tacit support for the premier.
But if you look deeper, this tilt of Bollywood biggies toward the government has a strong economic rationale — whatever the politics of individual stars. So, don’t be surprised if these same stars queue up to click photos with Congress leaders if that party comes to power.
There’s a near-absence of ideology in Bollywood.
Rasheed Kidwai, author and analyst of politics and Bollywood
On the surface, the Indian film industry seems an untouchable mammoth. Consulting firm Deloitte and the Motion Picture Distributors Association (MPA) of India in 2018 projected that the Indian film industry will grow at an annual rate of 6 percent to touch $3.1 billion in 2022. The industry is dominated by Bollywood or Hindi films, which contribute 40 percent of the total domestic box office revenue and employ nearly 250,000 people. But the industry remains relatively unorganized. It lacks “institutional support and streamlining,” says Rasheed Kidwai, author of Neta-Abhineta: Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics. That leaves it vulnerable to pressures from the dominant politics of the day.
“Large parts of the industry still thrive on black [unaccounted] money, and informal relationships are the norm,” says Kidwai.
Lack of security for cast and crew is another major concern for filmmakers. In 2017, the set of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus Padmaavat — produced at a cost of $2.15 billion — was vandalized and set on fire. The incident followed rumors of an intimate scene in the film between a revered queen and a Muslim king, which angered Hindu groups, even though Bhansali clarified that no such scene existed. Protests that delayed the film and the violence, which largely went unchecked by the police, only added to the film’s costs.
In 2016, after terror attacks in India’s Uri that New Delhi blamed on Pakistan, the industry succumbed to mass outrage and invoked an informal ban on Pakistani actors. Johar, the filmmaker, had to publicly apologize for casting Pakistan’s Fawad Khan in a film, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, just so theaters could run it without fearing attacks.
To be sure, Hindi films have encountered opposition earlier too. The release of the 1974 classic Garam Hawa, a film on the post-Partition struggle of a Muslim Indian family, was held up by the country’s censors for months amid fears that it could set off interreligious tensions. Theaters that showed the 1996 film Fire, which celebrated a lesbian relationship, were firebombed. Most recently, India’s Daughter, a documentary on the horrific 2012 gang rape of a medical student on a bus in New Delhi that grabbed global headlines, was banned in India.
Still, individual filmmakers and stars have continued to test boundaries. “We have a long history of suppressing popular culture if it challenges the status quo, but we’re also a young country with a strong, democratic, multicultural DNA,” says Alankrita Shrivastava, whose globally acclaimed film Lipstick Under My Burkha was denied release by the censor board in 2016 because of its sexual content.
But that’s harder when there are billions of dollars and thousands of jobs at stake, as is increasingly the case with India’s big-budget films. Where Hollywood exists on its own strength and enjoys separation from the nation-state, Bollywood sits on far shakier ground and can’t afford to alienate those in power. It’s quid pro quo for stars, says Kidwai. “There’s a near-absence of ideology in Bollywood,” he says.
Modi understands the appeal and vulnerability of Hindi cinema. Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, a 2017 film that touched on open defecation and the lack of sanitation, became a publicity vehicle for Modi’s Clean India campaign. Uri: The Surgical Strike — 2019’s first Indian blockbuster, on its way to $3 billion in earnings — celebrates the Modi government’s self-proclaimed tough stance on terrorism. In the film, the lead character, an army officer, motivates his soldiers with the chant: How’s the josh [mood]?
In Bollywood in 2019, the josh is decidedly political.
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