Brahmastra-boycott campaign
The success of Brahmastra has attested to the fact that #boycottbollywood is not an organic social media trend. Pic: Twitter

#BoycottBollywood campaign conceals much more than what it reveals

Ensuring the failure of a film is just a small part of the boycott campaign; its aim is to create so much hate that an industry that has remained secular in the truest sense so far, succumbs to sectarian diktats

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The success of Brahmastra despite vehement boycott calls has brought some respite to the Hindi film industry, which was reeling after the failure of a number of high-budget films. 

The success of Brahmastra thus proved one thing — the earlier box office disasters had nothing to do with the boycott Bollywood calls. It also attested to the fact that #boycottbollywood is not an organic social media trend; it is a well-planned strategy aimed at something much bigger than just ensuring the failure of a Bollywood film or two.

Also read: ‘Brahmastra’ crosses ₹200 Cr-mark at box office, blazes past boycott calls

A cursory look at most of the Twitter handles and Facebook pages – majority of them have come up in the last few months — that have been going hammer and tongs on boycotting the Hindi film industry throws up striking similarities. Right from their names like Hindu Post, The Internet Hindu, Our Hindu Rashtra Group, Eternal Hindu, Kattar (Hindu Valmiki) Samajh and Hindu Security Force, to the language and hashtags they use which are replete with words like Sanatani, Hindu culture, Hindu sanskar, anti-Hindu propaganda, Urduwood and Khanwood, it is clear that they are from the right wing, pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim.

Sushant vs the rest

Another interesting link is between ‘Justice for Sushant’ handles/pages and the boycott Bollywood trend. The two overlap as far as anti-Bollywood sentiment is concerned. While Sushant fan pages call for boycott citing issues like nepotism, drug addiction and loose morals, the boycott Bollywood brigade build up on these to proclaim how the film industry is destroying the country’s culture; and, while saying so, they use Indian culture and Hindu culture as synonyms.

On the face of it, #boycottbollywood started trending after the death of Sushant Singh Rajput in June 2020. But the truth is, it had started much earlier though the periodicity was intermittent. What Sushant Singh’s death provided was an opportunity to take it a notch higher by cashing in on the emotional link.

Controlling cinema

But why such a sustained campaign? The reason lies in the very ‘being’ of cinema. It is no secret that cinema as a medium is one of the most powerful tools of influencing society. Its mass appeal and larger-than-life presence – the big screen and the dark auditorium has the capability to shut the world outside – has shaped thoughts and minds of people throughout the world since the time it was discovered. 

No wonder, dictatorial, totalitarian and authoritarian regimes for more than a century now have tried to control it to further their propaganda.

The ruling dispensation in India since 2014 openly showed its intentions to use this powerful tool for propaganda – as did earlier governments too but no one took it so seriously and with such vigour as the present regime. 

There was yet another reason behind this seriousness. In India, cinema – along with sports – is a field where there had been no overt discrimination in the name of religion, caste and creed. Over the decades, the industry remained secular in the truest sense. Mohammed Rafi sang bhajans and no one was outraged and neither were protests held against Sahir Ludhianvi proclaiming ‘Tu Hindu banega na Mussalman Banega / Insan ki aulad hai, insan banega (You will neither become a Hindu nor a Muslim/ You are a child of a human, you’ll become a human)’. A Yusuf Khan became Dilip Kumar and yet the fans took no umbrage knowing fully well the difference between the real and screen name. And, closer in time, one A S Dileep Kumar converted to A R Rahman and composed Vande Matram which the nation lovingly adopted as its new-age anthem.

Why Bollywood irks right wing

For the powers that matter today — who have met with considerable success in turning secularism into a dirty word and communalising the society to a large extent along with making various arms of governance to kow-tow to their whims and fancies — the film industry stands out as a sore thumb. 

So, since day one of gaining power at the Centre, efforts were made to incorporate the industry into the present scheme of things. The Prime Minister’s ‘selfie events’ with the Bollywood movers and shakers made a big splash.

Also read: Films contribute to nation-building, no sense in boycotting: Akshay Kumar

Filmmakers were nudged towards making movies that allied with the ruling party’s philosophy and programmes. The results were mixed – while Uri: The Surgical Strike struck a chord with the audience, Vivek Oberoi’s PM Narendra Modi, Vivek Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files and Anupam Kher starrer The Accidental Prime Minister failed to click. Interestingly, all these films were timed to release just before and during the 2019 general election.

It is no surprise that it was in 2014 that boycott calls gained strength. Aamir Khan’s PK in 2014 and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavat in 2018 faced boycott calls for ‘hurting Hindu sentiment’. In 2017, Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor faced a backlash on social media for naming their son Taimur.

The Kashmir Files impact

The real force multiplier came this year with the release of The Kashmir Files. Interestingly, in the first week, the film was heading towards being a resounding flop. But then came support for the film from BJP leaders and associated organisations with no less than the Prime Minister leading the chorus. 

The Federal Webinar: Thin line between reality and propaganda in movies

The gloves were off and the ruling party came out in the open to lend its weight to a film that dovetailed perfectly with its worldview. Suddenly, social media was rife with visuals of people in the cinema halls raising inflammatory communal slogans and supporting the film. Most of these slogan-raisers later turned out to be belonging to the right wing and the sloganeering a well-planned stratagem.

The curiosity about the film increased and with it being declared tax-free in BJP-ruled states, the crowds increased and it soon became one of the highest grossing Hindi films in recent times. It was after the success of The Kashmir Times that boycott Bollywood became all pervasive. Hundreds of social media accounts suddenly mushroomed and actively devoted themselves to the single-point agenda. 

Now, it was not just the case of the ‘film hurting sentiments’, the animosity could be for any number of reasons that had to do nothing with the film. Boycott Brahmastra because Ranbir Kapoor had said 10 years ago that he liked beef; boycott Laal Singh Chadha because Aamir Khan had acted in PK and talked about rising intolerance; boycott Hrithik Roshan because he said he liked Laal Singh Chadha, and so on.

South vs North

Another interesting tack was used to belittle Bollywood. The South Indian film industry was pitted against Bollywood – photographs of South Indian stars (mainly from the Telugu film industry) conducting a havan or pooja were put side by side with pictures from Bollywood parties where celebrities could be seen drinking. The tagline: Bollywood is destroying Indian/Hindu/santani culture while it is the South film industry that is preserving said culture. 

The Federal Webinar: In age of OTT, Bollywood losing out to Southern films

But here too, a distinction was made, between Telugu and Kannada cinema on one side and Tamil and Malayalam on the rival side. A few social media posts went on to the extent of openly calling for boycotting Tamil and Malayalam cinema for “being anti-religious and promoting anti-Hindu content.” It is a moot question whether this is because the BJP is failing to make political inroads in Tamil Nadu and Kerala while it is a force to reckon with in Karnataka and is fast increasing its influence in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Also read: Trade report: Bollywood loses its fizz as South films uncork the bubbly

The right wing clearly is working on an elaborate plan to subsume Bollywood into its world view. Therefore, the success or a failure of a film is not going to stop it from continuing, or even intensifying, its efforts. 

Be under no illusion, this is just a temporary break from the extremely malevolent and bordering on abusive campaign that has dominated social media for some time now. The ultimate aim is to bring to the knees an industry that has a pan India presence and that has till now not fully succumbed to sectarian diktats.

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