Changing perception of Bollywood: From global soft power to 'murky den of substance abuse and criminality'
While the vilification of Bollywood started on social media, it has slowly but surely trickled into real life.
Bifurcated by the international border between India and Myanmar, Longwa is a tiny village in Nagaland. It is possibly the most remote part of India I have travelled to. A few years ago, when I visited the village headman’s home I was ushered into the kitchen. None of the ladies there spoke Hindi or English, and I didn’t know a word in the Konyak languages so they used the Indian sign of welcoming a guest and thrust a cup of black tea into my hand. They went back to completing their chores for the day — cooking, cleaning, and smoking meat. The soundtrack for that afternoon was provided by All India Radio — Kishore Kumar’s 'Chalte Chalte Mere Yeh Geet Yaad Rakhna' was followed by Badshah’s 'Abhi Toh Party Shuru Hui Hai.'
Bollywood unites this very diverse country as few others do. And this exalted position reflects in the love and respect the audience showers the actors with. In 1975, actors like Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar organised an event in Mumbai’s (then Bombay) Shivaji Park to raise funds for the Prime Minister’s Famine and Flood Relief Fund. Every significant face in Bollywood at the time attended the event, including the reticent Lata Mangeshkar. After the event, the stars piled up in trucks that drove through the bylanes of Dadar, where fans thronged to make their contributions. There were even stories of women throwing their jewellery onto the trucks.
A few years later, when Amitabh Bachchan battled for his life after the accident on the sets of Coolie, fans kept a vigil outside the hospital. There were hoardings, posters, and newspaper advertisements praying for his recovery. Prayer meetings were organised in the city’s famous Siddhi Vinayak temple to invoke blessings for him. It is said that a rumour of his death led to the closure of almost every shop in Singapore’s Indian neighbourhood.
Internationally, Bollywood is one of India’s best-known brands. For decades, Hindi films have been popular in Europe, South East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Mother India, which was dubbed in several international languages, was a hit even in countries like Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Aamir Khan’s Secret Superstar was China’s biggest international film in 2018, and Germany is the second largest market for Hindi films in Europe.
Through the decades, the government and various political parties have used this soft power that film stars enjoy. They are roped in to be the government’s mouthpieces for everything from agriculture schemes to health PSAs. Actors are even summoned to add the glamour quotient when important foreign dignitaries visit the country. Come elections and film stars are courted to capitalise on their charisma, and appeal to their fans. Remember that grin-and-share-it-moment from that meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and industry A-listers Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor, and Rohit Shetty among others, just weeks ahead of Modi’s re-election campaign in 2019?
Something has changed, though, both in the audience’s perception of our films and our film stars, and also in the relationship between politicians and actors.
In the last six years, there has been a steady rise of hate against Bollywood. In 2015, when Aamir Khan publicly talked about the growing sense of fear, insecurity, and despondency in the country, the then-Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) MP and now-Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, said nobody would stop him from leaving, and that the move "will reduce the country’s population." He was not the only BJP leader to weigh in. Kiren Rijju, who was at the time the junior Home Minister, said Khan’s comments "bring down the image of the country and the prime minister." The backlash against Khan was swift and brutal. It was just a sign of things to come.
Around the release of Padmaavat in 2018, a fringe political group announced a one crore reward for anyone who chops off Deepika Padukone’s ears and nose. Actresses like Swara Bhaskar, Richa Chaddha, and Taapsee Pannu, who are quite vocal online, get regular rape and death threats. While this started on social media, it has slowly but surely trickled into real life.
Sushant Singh Rajput’s untimely death in mid-June has only escalated this unprecedented attack on Bollywood. In Rhea Chakraborty, a young actor still finding her feet in the industry, the powers-that-be found the perfect scapegoat. And the witch-hunt immediately got underway.
A week ago, the Producer’s Guild of India released an open letter that said, “The last few months have seen relentless attacks on the reputations of the Indian film industry across all media. The tragic death of a promising young star has been used by some as a tool to defame and slander the film industry and its members. A picture has been painted of the industry as a terrible place for outsiders to aspire to; a place that treats those who dare to enter it with contempt and derision; a murky den of substance abuse and criminality. This narrative is salacious enough for the media to exploit to great effect in order to boost its rating, readership, and page views."
Interestingly, this is not very different from what is happening in Hollywood, which is seen as largely being liberal. QAnon, the right-wing conspiracy group has been spreading the narrative about Hollywood elites like Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey being a part of a global paedophile ring. The only difference is that there are checks and balances in the media there, so the attack is not as vicious as the one Bollywood is experiencing.
There have been rumours of substance abuse and amorality in the film industry for time immemorial, and even more rumours of these among the political elite and industrialists. Nepotism has always existed in the industry, but you would be hard pressed to find any industry that does not suffer from nepotism. People speak of destroying dynastic politics, but you just have to look at who is heading the country’s richest sports body to know that nothing has really changed. Since June, news channels beaming straight into people's living rooms are cementing the ideas that 'everyone in Bollywood does drugs,' 'everyone is amoral'.
There is no denying that like any industry, this one too has its share of problems, but the daily vilification of the industry is taking on proportions of being the current national pastime.
Which begs the question, why? Why now? And, who stands to benefit?
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