Since the early decades of the 20th century, the mass circulation of cinema around the world has made it one of the most powerful and contested forms of popular entertainment. Movie magic may have different meanings at different times in history, but few will deny its larger-than-life ability to coexist as a social and cultural layer of feelings in the lives of people. Given its powerful presence, it is not surprising that in moments of social and political turbulence, a space opens up for the most vicious attacks on film culture, if it has not already come under the control of authoritarian regimes. We have seen this in the case of Weimar cinema just before the Nazis came to power, Hollywood during McCarthyism, Iranian cinema after Khomeini, and Latin American cinema cultures under military dictatorships. The regulation of political and cultural content via censorship norms has been the most prevalent practice, working primarily through institutional mechanisms of control.
Cinema has been at the centre of major controversies in recent Indian history. These include the government’s decision to appoint Gajendra Chauhan as director of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), one of the country’s premier film institutes, despite widespread opposition. Controversies were also generated by the support extended by the government to Vivek Agnihotri’s The Kashmir Files, revealing how Bollywood is now the site of major battles over representation. Institutions like the Central Board of Film Certification, FTII, the Directorate of Film Festivals, the National Awards and their juries are now swarming with political appointments to control the movement of film culture. While we may have seen some of these manoeuvres under previous governments, they are dwarfed by the phenomenal scale of interference today.
There is, however, another type of control that operates primarily through the creation of micro-media events that feed the 24-hour news cycle, and satiate television audiences and Internet users. Media events are intense experiences that play out in compressed time. The events can combine the experience of spectacle and fascination with shock, fear, a sense of loss and vengefulness. In the Indian context, the media events around cinema can sometimes threaten the box-office performances of particular stars, directors and production houses, sending a signal to the powerful film industry that either they toe the line or be prepared to face losses.
It is important to understand the orchestration of these events as they create a sense that they are beyond the purview of the government, arising out of an amorphous mass of ordinary citizens and their passionate, emotional, and “committed” outbursts. Public opinion is channelled via trolls to ensure that a discussion persists and gets a lengthy afterlife online. Television draws on this online vitriol to frame new stories for its news cycle, and a network of information is thus constituted. These micro-events, extensively circulated across multiple media platforms, create noise around us on a daily basis. Online trolling is newsworthy only if stars and celebrity figures are the targets. How did we get to this situation?
Let us take a quick look at the different kinds of pressures that celebrities and stars have faced in the recent past. Shah Rukh Khan was criticised for supporting the inclusion of Pakistani players in the IPL matches in 2010. The Shiv Sena at that time threatened to disrupt the release of his film My Name is Khan. Then, in an interview with Barkha Dutt in 2015, the actor drew attention to the growing intolerance in the country and this led to a spate of vitriolic abuse online.
Aamir Khan faced a similar attack when he remarked on rising intolerance in an interview. The sudden formation of a trolling crowd led to the actor losing some of his major endorsements. Aamir Khan’s older statements were fished out just before the release of his recent film, Laal Singh Chaddha, and trolls demanded its boycott.
Both these incidents show a direct targeting of two of India’s most successful stars, both Muslims. Opinions aired against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the protests that followed also faced the ire of trolling mobs. Director Anurag Kashyap was trolled for taking strong public positions against the CAA and the police attack on students of Jamia and JNU. In all these incidents, the events had an extended afterlife linked to the loop of information between different media forms: print, television, cinema and the Internet.
There is another kind of mob violence that seeks to regulate social and cultural values. This is something we saw in the controversy surrounding Padmaavat and in the attack on Rhea Chakraborty after Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. In the first instance, members of Karni Sena, an outfit based in Rajasthan, threatened to cut off Deepika Padukone’s nose and behead Sanjay Leela Bhansali for portraying their queen in provocative clothes and for “falsifying history”. This was viewed as an insult to the dignity of Indian women, and the noise created against the film’s “objectionable content” spread to other parts of India.
The key issue was a rumour about a dream sequence between Rani Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji—the director had to deny ever having made it in a video he released. During the production, the film sets were vandalised and the controversy took a heated turn in States like Gujarat. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was directly involved in several of these altercations, claiming a need to take control of India’s history. These events reveal how censorship was operating well beyond legal and institutional sites.
Chakraborty’s case was more complicated since it became linked to the lifestyle and choices of an actress in the early stages of her career—her involvement with a star whose death by suicide captured the imagination of the country in the middle of a pandemic. Rajput’s death and the stories about substance abuse fed the media cycle of stories on what was wrong with Bollywood. Chakraborty faced the heat in a way that was persistent, targeted and shameful. Her only fault was that she asked for a CBI inquiry into Rajput’s death while Rajput’s family blamed her.
A frenzied narrative of illegal supply chains and the film industry as a wild, crazy place circulated across television and the Internet. Television channels went into overdrive unearthing the ‘secret’ lives of film stars. Salacious stories of parties, drugs and affairs became a daily potion for people surfing the Internet while confined in their homes by the lockdown. Responsibility was deflected and it did not matter how this could affect public discourse and Chakraborty. As she was dragged through muck, cruelty became normalised since it allowed 24-hour news channels to trend and make money.
In October of 2021, when Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan Khan was arrested on false drug-related charges levied by the Enforcement Directorate, the film industry started trending again. The arrest of a young man, the son of India’s biggest superstar, without a shred of evidence, and the extraordinary restraint displayed by SRK and his family brought to light another type of contest possible in the realm of popular culture. This time, fans were galvanised into action as they stood with the star at a time of personal crisis. There was a great outpouring of sympathy for SRK. The media events that unfolded through the days of Aryan Khan’s imprisonment turned into a moment where poems on SRK’s secular image and his popularity with women circulated alongside legal opinions and the drama at Mumbai courts.
What has normalised all the attacks on cinema? Why is popular culture, for all its messiness, contradictions and ambivalence, still so important? What is it about popular mass culture that makes it so threatening to the right wing?
Historically, popular Mumbai cinema’s nerve centre has been a desire to present utopian solutions to social conflicts related to class, caste, religion and region. The right to love across divisions was staged in film after film as a way to address underlying social conflicts. It kept in check the language of prejudice to offer itself as an alternative social and cultural arena for debates. This was its success and power, and it created a pan-Indian community of dedicated followers. Some of this advocacy was led by purely commercial considerations of getting the widest possible audience, while some of it came from a genuine feeling articulated by practitioners, especially writers who penned some of the most memorable dialogues, songs and scripts that continue to have a rich afterlife. This was an industry that, on screen, spoke for ordinary people and staged their dream of a future of equality. If the right wing is protesting it is because Mumbai cinema’s legacy is an obstacle to the socially divisive project of today’s rulers.
Surviving on fear
With globalisation in the 21st century, new media technologies ushered in new forms of writing, performances and themes. It is this intersection of the complex role and utopian possibilities of popular culture, a changed media infrastructure, and the rise of right-wing populism that has made micro-media events linked to the film industry an almost routine affair. Through these events, certain political values are aggressively projected and a culture of adjustment to fear is normalised. The Right wants to control the way India is portrayed; it also wants to seize the opportunity to bring down the co-habitation of creative forces from all religions in the film industry.
“Rhea Chakraborty faced the heat in a way that was persistent, targeted and shameful. ... It allowed news channels to make money.”
However powerful the political strain might seem, we must recognise that it appears louder through the amplification made possible by the new media infrastructure. The film industry too needs to reckon with this changed reality and find ways to hold on to its utopian nerve centre with some conviction. Of course, money is involved in everything, and in a competitive environment, the Hindu-Muslim debate takes on a whole new dimension. The fact that the three reigning superstars of India are Khans only attests to the complex terrain of popular forms and suggests why right-wing populism is threatened by their presence.
As media emerges as the site of political communication, Bollywood is going to face targeted attacks from without and within. Cinema will be a battleground, and new modes of censorship will come into operation. When there are large sums of money at stake in a film, the trolls know they can instil fear. How can commercial cinema reconcile financial risk management with the belief that utopian urges are still possible in the realm of popular culture? We need to reflect hard on these difficult questions in the days to come.
Ranjani Mazumdar is Professor, Cinema Studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
- Boycott calls can sometimes threaten the box-office performances of films, sending a signal to the powerful film industry that either they toe the line or be prepared to face losses.
- Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan have faced attacks in recent times.
- There is another kind of mob violence that seeks to regulate social and cultural values, as we saw in the controversy surrounding Padmaavat and in the attack on Rhea Chakraborty after Sushant Singh Rajput’s death.
- What is it about popular mass culture that makes it so threatening to the right wing?
- If the right wing is protesting it is because Mumbai cinema’s legacy is an obstacle to the socially divisive project of today’s rulers.