Something is rotten: Understanding the Bollywood boycott phenomenon
Policemen deployed at Lucknow’s Novelty Theatre for the screening of Padmaavat amidst protests by Hindu rightwing activists in January 2018.
| Photo Credit: RAJEEV BHATT
Despite limited impact on the box office so far, the danger to livelihoods cannot be downplayed.
The idea of “boycott” was born in Ireland. Charles Cunningham Boycott was a British land tax collector whose ways were so despotic that peasants and farmers rose against him in the 1880s and, in “woke” parlance, they cancelled him, giving birth to the word “boycott”. Boycotts have since been used worldwide as an effective method of protest and as a tool for better collective bargaining.
Cut to contemporary India, and the spectre of boycott is haunting cinema in a very different way, changing it from a tool of protest to a toxic tool of bullying and intolerance. “Boycott armies” are on a rampage on trigger-happy social media. This year, as the film industry slowly limps back to normal after being bruised by COVID-19 and the lockdowns, dozens of films have met with calls for a boycott. The latest of these trending hashtags was #BoycottBrahmastra, targeting Brahmastra: Part One – Shiva, an adventure-fantasy film written and directed by Ayan Mukerji and starring Bollywood heartthrob Ranbir Kapoor.
Well before its release on September 9, Brahmastra witnessed intense online campaigning urging people to boycott the movie for a range of far-fetched reasons, including that it promoted nepotism and hurt religious and nationalist sentiments. Right after Brahmastra was released, cyberspace was split between those who claimed the film had failed to draw in enough crowds and those who said it had, so much so that the CEO of cinema chain PVR Pictures, Kamal Gianchandani, who is also the president of the Multiplex Association of India, took to Twitter to debunk the flop claims. “Happy to confirm,” he tweeted, that PVR Cinemas collected Rs.9.64 crore (all languages) net box office collection on day two (Saturday, September 10) versus Rs.8.18 crore on day 1 (Friday, September 9). That’s a “jump of 18%, all trends pointing to a very LONG RUN for #Brahmastra at the box office,” said Gianchandani.
Understanding box office numbers is a tricky business, as the movie industry is notoriously opaque about success as well as failure figures. Still, according to media reports, Brahmastra has done amazingly well. Reports say the Rs.410-crore film collected an opening weekend haul of around Rs.225 crore worldwide. Clearly, it will recover the production money and then some.
But the past few months saw nearly a dozen films slapped with cancel calls, all of which did not go the Brahmastra way. They included heavyweights such as Aamir Khan’s Forrest Gump remake Laal Singh Chaddha, Akshay Kumar’s Raksha Bandhan and Samrat Prithviraj, Liger by Telugu star Vijay Deverakonda, Dobaaraa, directed by Anurag Kashyap and starring Taapsee Pannu, and Kangana Ranaut’s big-budget experiment Dhaakad. Shah Rukh Khan’s upcoming Pathaan is already under fire.
Films have faced boycott calls by the moral police earlier too—Deepa Mehta’s Fire and Water come to mind—but the trend appears to have gone into overdrive in recent years. There is a particular response to fictional treatment of history that affected Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat and Gangubai Kathiawadi. Others affected for a variety of reasons include Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name Is Khan, Aamir Khan’s PK, Lipstick Under My Burkha,Sadak 2, Toofaan,Vikram Vedha, the list goes on. Of late the intensity, scale, and spread of boycotts have gone up.Taran Adarsh, film trade analyst and social media influencer, said this was a social media creation. “In the past, if you had differences with a film, you wrote an article that appeared much later. Today, people come out of cinemas and instantly give their reviews. It is a different scenario,” he said.
A culture of intolerance has gained momentum in the past decade. “There are layers to this problem,” said Cheshta Arora, a researcher with Bengaluru-based Centre for Internet and Society, who studies online violence. “The boycott campaigns follow the general trend of misinformation, of trying to influence perceptions. The echo chambers are already in place on online platforms and people are simply exploiting them,” she said. These echo chambers are tuned into communalist, supranationalist, jingoistic, and misogynistic messaging and are apparently being pressed into service for the #BoycottBollywood movement.
But how effective are these boycott calls? Industry spokespersons downplay the impact, pointing to the minuscule universe they influence. Recent numbers from the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology show that WhatsApp has more than 53 crore users, YouTube about 45 crore, Facebook nearly 41 crore, and Instagram, 21 crore. Twitter, where much of the boycott calls originate and go viral, has a user base of only 2.3 crore. “Boycott’s impact on the box office is an unsubstantiated story,” said Gautam Jain, partner in Ormax Media, a media analytics and consultancy firm in Mumbai. “All kinds of films have faced boycotts; some worked and some didn’t.”
“People have gone to see Brahmastra, and that is not changing. That is not going to change in India anytime soon,” said Gautam Thakker, CEO of Everymedia Technologies, a digital media agency. “As long as the content is appealing, it is always going to make money.”
The boycott calls were able to make an impact on some films like Laal Singh Chaddha, pointed out Sreedhar Pillai, entertainment industry analyst and critic, but said that they are not “strong enough to leave a significant dent on the overall movie industry.” A senior executive in one of the studios that produced Brahmastra, said: “As things stand now, we don’t need to worry about the economic impact but given the power of social media, things could get worse if we don’t act now.”
The danger cannot be downplayed because of the sheer size of the industry. A recent report from consultancy firm Deloitte noted that it is the largest in the world in terms of number of films produced; an estimated 2,000 films a year in more than 20 languages. According to a recent PwC report, the Indian media and entertainment industry is likely to reach Rs.4.3 trillion in revenues by 2026. The movie industry alone is expected to garner revenues of Rs.16,198 crore by 2026. Of this, Rs.15,849 crore would be box office collections.
According to a PwC report, in 2021, India sold nearly 380 million cinema tickets. This was the year of the pandemic. In 2019, India sold 1.9 billion tickets. Given this context, industry analysts believe intense social media campaigns against a movie—in a country with 1.2 billion mobile subscribers (in 2021), of which nearly 750 million are smartphone users (according to a Deloitte report)—can inflict significant damage.
“Movie-making involves big budgets, and boycott calls may prompt at least some producers to rethink their budgets, which will impact jobs and the quality of content,” said Pillai. Telugu superstar Vijay Deverakonda, whose film Liger was also targeted, reiterated this aspect in a recent interview that went viral.
He urged people to realise the widespread damage the boycott trends could do. “Other than the actor, director, and actress, there are 200-300 actors working on a film … a film gives employment to many people and is a source of livelihood for many. When Aamir Khan sir makes a Laal Singh Chaddha, it is his name that stars in the film, but there are 2,000-3,000 families being provided for,” he said.
Content is king
Adarsh places his faith in content. “If the content is good, people will watch, and nothing, no IPL matches, no exams, no weather conditions, or boycott calls can work against it,” he said. “When Hum Aapke Hain Kaun was released in August 1994, Mumbai saw a heavy downpour, but that didn’t deter people from stepping out to watch the film, which became one of the landmark films in the history of Bollywood.”
Joy Bhattacharyya, partner and chief business officer at Pippip Media, an independent production house, agreed. “We should forget the trolls and focus on making strong content that can withstand the boycott storms of social media,” he said. “Take Padmaavat, which met stiff resistance from political groups that called for its boycott. But look at the collections. The film was not affected.”
And therein lies the rub. Many critics have pointed out that Laal Singh Chaddha, for instance, is a weak film to start with. The boycott call probably only hastened its demise. As Adarsh said, “When the merits of the movie are not strong enough, other factors come into play.” A senior executive in a production house that backed Brahmastra was also sanguine. “Trolling increases awareness. If the content is good, it is actually a shot in the arm as it helps gain publicity. So we don’t really bother about boycott calls.”
Brahmastra ﬁlm star Ranbir Kapoor (centre) and director Ayan Mukerji with director S.S. Rajamouli (left) during a promotion in Visakhapatnam on May 31. The ﬁlm was a box office success, unaffected by the recent social media boycott trend aimed at Bollywood ﬁlms
| Photo Credit: V RAJU
That might not be entirely true. Today, theatre going is an expensive affair, especially in the cities. And, as Pillai pointed out: “OTT platforms are offering good content today, and in many cases the same film can reach a streaming platform in a matter of two or three weeks.” This means boycott calls can confuse and pull back some audiences and dent the initial collections, which are crucial to a film’s takings.
Cinema critic Rahul Desai pointed out that there is no hard data to show that initial collections have been hit. He said that trends would have to be observed over a longer period to figure out the real impact. “For now, it seems to be a social media phenomenon.”
Critic and editor of Galatta Plus, Baradwaj Rangan, seconded this. “The trend is mainly Twitter-driven,” he said. “We watch from our social media ivory towers and expect people to boycott their entertainment. But films are our most accessible form of entertainment. People are not going to boycott movies just because someone said so. It is not going to work that way in our society.”
If that is the case, then one needs to question the motive behind the #BoycottBollywood movement. What does it hope to achieve? Interestingly, the campaign comes at a time when Uttar Pradesh is powering up efforts to build a film city project in Noida. One must examine therefore if the movement is agenda-driven and a political move deliberately created to destabilise and disparage Bollywood. The organised troll armies seem to get their directions and messaging from a central source, which indicates a concerted move to create a certain atmosphere of fear and thus impose self-censorship on critical voices and films. And to encourage an approved brand of filmmaking.
According to sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, a larger malady might be at work. “You can see the decline of Bollywood here. Bollywood has an imagination that the likes of Manto talked of as an attempt to capture the unity of India. That imagination has now gone parochial. Bollywood always had swaraj and swadeshi. Take a Raj Kapoor movie; it would emphasise the local but will also focus on the cosmopolitan. But not any more.” That, Visvanathan says, is the bigger danger. What is happening now is a “sadness of democracy, because Bollywood was a myth of Indian democracy”.
Bollywood has been facing a barrage of boycott calls of late
“Boycott armies” are on a rampage on trigger-happy social media
This happens when the ﬁlm industry slowly recovers from the COVID19 shock
Boycott calls haven’t made a significant dent on the movie business yet
Still, content is the king. Good, engaging content beats the haters
But a culture of intolerance has gained momentum in the recent past
Coupled with the increasing influence of social media, it can inflict damage