Commentary: Why Bollywood is going against the Indian political establishment
Movie stars have often been used to further the Indian government’s agenda but now many have found their own voice, says Nazneen Mohsina.
SINGAPORE: The recent protests in India against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and police brutality against dissenters have sparked nationwide outrage, including unprecedented condemnation from Bollywood artists.
Notably, some of India’s top actors and filmmakers have spoken strongly against the violence and the current political climate of the country, despite vicious threats from trolls, the possibility of being excluded from government awards and the prospect of being dropped from film projects.
The CAA, enacted recently, is regarded as discriminatory against Muslims by religious minority immigrants – namely Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs - from neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, a fast-track citizenship process.
Coupled with the NRC, which states that those Indians whose names are not on the register are non-citizens, critics say that this could render India’s Muslims stateless. This has sparked nationwide demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people in states and cities in all four parts of the country, where more than 25 have been killed in clashes with police.
BOLLYWOOD WADING IN
Film personalities like Swara Bhasker, Richa Chadha, Anurag Kashyap, Tapsee Pannu, Zoya Akhtar and Dia Mirza have been stridently opposing the CAA-NRC through not only their social media handles but also by participating in rallies and protests in Mumbai.
Most recently, Deepika Padukone, India’s highest-paid female star, became the biggest name to get involved when she turned up at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to express solidarity with protests against violent attacks on staff and students on campus – widely believed to be perpetrated by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is ideologically affiliated.
Her appearance sparked a social media war between those wanting her new film boycotted and others applauding her courage.
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Her participation buoyed more of her colleagues, like Sonakshi Sinha and Varun Dhawan, to join the condemnation against the recent incidents through their social media accounts.
ACTORS TURNED POLITICIANS
It is not new though that Bollywood celebrities have gotten involved in Indian politics. As a matter of fact, many Bollywood stars have joined politics at some point in their careers.
Many top stars of the 1970s and 80s such as Amitabh Bachan, Vinod Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha, Hema Malini and Dharmendra have had stints as politicians.
More recently, the BJP has courted actors Sunny Deol and Smriti Irani to devastating effect. Deol, despite being a newcomer to politics, defeated a more seasoned rival in last year’s election while Irani trounced Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in the polls.
Buoyed by its success of courting film stars and leveraging on them for political gain, the BJP adopted a similar strategy with the CAA-NRC too but it was perhaps in for a surprise.
BACKLASH FROM BOLLYWOOD
The BJP had intended to host a private meeting where it invited more than 100 Bollywood celebrities to discuss the CAA. However, the meet was reportedly skipped by many of the top stars, with most of the 70 who attended not from the industry’s A-list.
Overall, the industry’s position on this legislation marks a shift from Bollywood’s tendency to appease power. The industry had grown increasingly compliant with the political agenda of the ruling right-wing party in recent years.
That could be out of fear - because Bollywood celebrities have had a history of being targeted, both personally and professionally, for taking political stands against the government in the past.
Dissenting actors and filmmakers often face public protests or political harassment and are forced to remake, delete or apologise for scenes and comments.
For instance, when Naseeruddin Shah, one of India's most distinguished actors, spoke about the hate culture being propagated in the country in a video for Amnesty India, he was trolled by right-wing supporters and activists.
Similarly, when superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan criticized growing intolerance in the country, they faced harassment and were accused by BJP leaders of being "anti-national".
However, as civil activism rises among Indian youth, Bollywood also seems to be slowly finding the courage to be the spokespersons of justice and equality, unafraid of speaking truth to power.
THE BJP’S CHARM OFFENSIVE
But it is not as if all of Bollywood has suddenly turned against the government. As in across India, the CAA-NRC is also a highly divisive topic in Bollywood with some stars speaking up in favour of the legislation.
A day after Padukone visited JNU, the BJP released a video with statements from celebrities endorsing the BJP’s stance on the CAA-NRC.
The video, shared on social media, featured singer Shaan, actor Ranvir Shorey and director Anil Sharma, among others.
Relying on the star power of celebrities is a familiar theme from the BJP’s playbook. This is because it recognises that films are powerful tools that shape ideas, attitudes and social norms. Likewise, the Indian film industry plays a significant role in shaping young minds and propagating political narratives.
As such, movies directly channelling the BJP’s positions, policies and rhetoric have surged since the Modi government’s previous term.
For instance, the movie Commando 2 appeared to favour the benefits of demonetisation – an economic policy the Modi government had carried out to wide criticism.
Likewise, the film Uri was criticised for its guts-and-glory propaganda about the already over-hyped “surgical strike” against Pakistan that represented the BJP’s patriotic muscularity and valour in defending the country.
Also, The Tashkent Files, which was released weeks before last year’s general election, and The Accidental Prime Minister, portrayed the Congress party – the BJP’s main opposition - as weak and divisive and unable to lead the country.
In recent years, the BJP has also increasingly used celebrities as force multipliers in their campaigns to increase appeal among the public. In return, media personalities benefit from political patronage and protection.
Last year, just three months before the elections, a photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi surrounded by some of Bollywood’s biggest celebrities including Karan Johar, Ranbir Kapoor, and Ranveer Singh, was widely shared by these celebrities and BJP-controlled social media accounts.
It was an image-building exercise for the prime minister ahead of the elections to score propaganda points and influence young voters.
It seems that the ongoing high-spirited demonstrations against a controversial CAA, led largely by young people across India, might have been the catalyst for Bollywood personalities to stand up against the government.
Like Mumbai-based novelist and commentator Shobhaa De said: “Stars today understand that their constituency is young India, and young India respects people who speak up.”
The question is how far Bollywood is willing to go knowing that the backlash from the government and its supporters could be costly.
Nazneen Mohsina is a Senior Analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.