Bollywood and the politics of hate

The Indian film industry has displayed remarkable bias in favour of the ruling BJP ahead of this year’s elections.

Sunny Deol
Bollywood actor and BJP candidate Sunny Deol waves to the crowd during an election campaign road show at Dinanagar in the northern state of Punjab on May 2, 2019 [AP Photo/Channi Anand]

On April 23, just as India was commencing the third phase of its general elections, all major Indian TV channels aired an exclusive interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The interviewеr, Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar, followed a familiar script: He immediately made it clear that he will not be asking “political questions”.

So as the country was voting in one of the most important elections of its history, embroiled in increasing political polarisation, growing social discontent and serious economic problems, the Indian prime minister was being interrogated about his penchant for mangoes, movies and jokes.

Of course, it was expected that Kumar would be asking only the questions Modi wanted to answer. After all, he is not only an ardent supporter of his but in recent years has also made a number of films focusing on “patriotic” themes very much in line with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) hyper-nationalistic ideology. That he gave up his Indian citizenship in favour of a Canadian one a few years back appeared not to bother his interviewee.

That was perhaps because Kumar’s latest nationalistic film, released just a month before the elections began in April, reflected so well the BJP’s main electoral strategy: the demonisation of Muslims.

In the two-hour feature called Kesari, meaning saffron – a colour associated with the ruling party and the right wing in India – Kumar plays Havildar Ishar Singh, the commander of a Sikh regiment within the British imperial army which fought to death against rebelling Pashtun tribesmen from Afghanistan. Based on the historical battle of Saragarhi in 1897, the film portrays the Sikh soldiers as brave patriots and the Muslim Pashtun as fanatic jihadis, all as the context of colonial oppression is almost completely erased.

Kumar is not the only Bollywood star to have so ardently supported Modi and the BJP. Over the past five years, the Indian film industry has grown increasingly compliant with the political agenda of the ruling party, while many of its best-known actors have come out in full support of its members. Those few who have dared speak out against the threat that Hindu nationalism poses to the cohesion of Indian society have faced severe public harassment and little support within the industry.

Making films the BJP likes 

Another recent blockbuster which served BJP’s nationalism-themed electoral campaign quite well was Uri: The Surgical Strike released in mid-January this year. The film is based on events that took place in 2016, when India launched a “surgical strike” against Pakistan in response to a deadly attack on the Indian army base in Jammu and Kashmir state the same year.

The motion picture of course portrayed Modi in a positive light, as a patriotic strongman bound on pursing revenge against the enemy state (Pakistan) for harbouring anti-Indian terror groups. With its nationalistic narrative and feel-good revenge theme, it became so popular that it topped the box office with spectacular earnings of 2.4 billion rupees ($34m). Cinemas across the country reverberated with chants like “Bharat mata ki jai!” (Glory to the motherland!) during screenings.

A short exchange between a commander and a soldier in one of the scenes even coined a now widely used patriotic phrase – “How’s the josh [energy/enthusiasm for defending the country]?” In the weeks following the release of the film, the prime minister, the defence minister and almost every other member of the Indian cabinet used the popular phrase in official tweets and government events to boost its image of a resolute leadership.

A month after the film was released, the public josh for revenge was re-ignited once again after a rebel group attacked an Indian military convoy killing dozens of soldiers. Staying true to his cinematic image, Modi immediately ordered another “surgical strike” against Pakistan, targeting a military camp allegedly belonging to the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM) armed group. “How’s the josh” filled Indian social media yet again, as Indians celebrated the valour of their prime minister who “saved” the country and its pride.

Apart from Uri, a number of other recent films have pandered to BJP’s political agenda, particularly its smearing of the opposition. Both The Tashkent Files and The Accidental Prime Minister, released just ahead of the elections, portrayed the Congress party as weak and divisive and unable to lead the country in the right direction.

But Bollywood’s increasingly noticeable political bias is not limited to writing scripts that propagate certain political ideologies. In January, just three months before the elections, the BJP released a photo of Modi surrounded by leading lights from the film industry including Karan Johar, Ranbir Kapoor, and Ranveer Singh, which, according to the Huffington Post, was an image-building exercise for the prime minister ahead of the vote and was widely shared by BJP-controlled social media accounts.

Other Bollywood luminaries have gotten directly involved in BJP’s campaigns. Actor Anupam Kher, for example, who plays the lead role in The Accidental Prime Minister and is married to Kirron Kher, a member of Parliament from the BJP, has been actively endorsing the candidature of the Indian prime minister and quite busy campaigning for his wife in Chandigarh in the state of Punjab.

Another superstar, Sunny Deol, who joined the BJP in April this year, is contesting the election in the province of Gurdaspur, Punjab. Unsurprisingly, Deol also released a film ahead of the elections which appeared to support BJP’s political agenda. His feature Blank focuses on Islamic terrorism and the threat of jihadis roaming around the country as “normal Muslims” plotting deadly bombings.     

Speaking truth to power?

Under the leadership of the BJP, India has witnessed a systematic campaign of othering Indian Muslims, frequent lynching, communal riots, farmers’ protests, growing impoverishment due to failed fiscal policies, etc. Yet those in Bollywood who have not openly endorsed the BJP have remained remarkably silent on these issues. 

In fact, leading lights of the Indian film industry who have expressed admiration for Hollywood stars speaking truth to power (specifically against the Trump administration) in the United States have had nothing to say about the hate crimes and bigotry raging in their own country.

There has also been a conspicuous silence in Bollywood when some brave actors have been hounded for expressing views critical of the government. When Naseeruddin Shah, one of India’s most prolific actors, spoke about a culture of hate being propagated in the country in a video for Amnesty India, he was trolled and attacked, and none of his colleagues came to his rescue. When Indian superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan criticised intolerance in the country, no one defended them within the industry, as they faced harassment and were accused by BJP leaders of being “anti-national”.

That Bollywood has swayed between silence and praise of the BJP is perhaps not surprising. After all, the Indian film industry has historically had a rather compliant relationship with politics. Actor Amitabh Bachchan, for example, who helped Modi whitewash his image while he was still being accused of complicity in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, also campaigned in the past for Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of the Congress party. Another Congress prime minister, Indira Gandhi, who imposed a state of emergency on the country in the 1970s, ruling by decree and curbing civil liberties, was a favourite of the film industry which would clamour around her for group photo-ops.

The important difference is that today India is at a crucial juncture where the multiculturalism and secular nature of the state is being put to the test. The Indian film industry plays a significant role in shaping young minds and propagating certain political narratives. By throwing its weight behind the BJP and its ideology, it contributes heavily to the normalisation of hate politics and the promotion of Hindu nationalism. 

If Bollywood does not stop and reconsider, it risks not only losing whatever creative independence it has so far enjoyed, but also going down in history as an industry that displayed remarkable sycophancy and cowardice in supporting a destructive ideology.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.