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THE VERTICAL

Saffronizing Bollywood

An anthropologist explores Bollywood creatives to trace BJP's carrot-and-stick strategy with Bollywood creatives: both controlling and regulating Bollywood in order to create a consistent and normative film culture that perpetuates Hindutva ideology.
VOL. 2
RESEARCH

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Watching You Watching Me. Oil on wood. 36″ Tondo. Shyama Golden (2023).

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Watching You Watching Me. Oil on wood. 36″ Tondo. Shyama Golden (2023).

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15 Apr 2024
Research
Bombay
Research
Bombay
BJP
Bollywood
Sushant Singh Rajput
The Kashmir Files
Films
Cinema
Hindutva
Kashmir
Shakuntala Banaji
Kunal Purohit
Censorship
Shah Rukh Khan
Rachel Dwyer
Aryan Khan
Samanth Subramaniam
Love Jihad
Box Office
Commercialization
Tejaswini Ganti
Fascism
Ethnography
India
Advertising
Bhuj
The Kerala Story
Priya Joshi
Article 370
Yami Gautam
Ien Ang
John Hartley

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In 2022, India’s Hindi film industry was in the throes of a crisis. Bollywood, as the industry is colloquially known, was still bucking from a pandemic which had injured film industries worldwide. Multiple mainstream movies, helmed by some of the industry’s biggest stars, from Aamir Khan to Akshay Kumar to Ranveer Singh, were failing miserably at the box office. Since the tragic suicide of an actor named Sushant Singh Rajput in June 2020, a rabid social media movement in India had been calling for people to #BoycottBollywood for its alleged complicity in Rajput’s death and painted it as a hotbed of elitism, drugs, and moral bankruptcy. This was coordinated “collusive behavior”, one study suggested, to engineer a frenzy of conspiracy theories. Members affiliated with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), another study found, especially pushed the narrative of Rajput’s death being a “murder”, driving the hashtag #JusticeForSSR to receive over 65 million active interactions in just six months.


Amid this political powder keg and socioeconomic crisis, one film gained unprecedented success. A film with no stars, no popular songs, and none of the typical, crowd-pleasing conventions of mainstream commercial Hindi cinema. Released on 11 March 2022, The Kashmir Files claims to depict the 1990 Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) exodus, but through crucial omissions—of the Indian army’s pervasive presence, unlawful detentions, and rapes of women across religions; well-documented cases of Kashmiri Muslims risking peril to protect Hindu friends; and the thousands of Kashmiri Muslims who also died and fled Kashmir—creates a dangerously one-sided representation of Muslim violence against Hindus. In one scene, the menacing, kohl-eyed Muslim antagonist Bitta compels a Hindu widow to eat rice soaked in her dead husband’s blood. In yet another, he shreds open a bright saffron kurta off a Hindu woman and publicly brutalises her. The film uses shock value to incite Hindus towards collective anger, humiliation, and anti-Muslim hatred.


The Kashmir Files opened to a modest figure of INR 3.55 crores. The following day, however, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally met with its makers and took a picture with them that was widely circulated on social media. “More such movies should be made,” Modi publicly said three days later, praising the film for showing “the truth which has been suppressed for years”. Other BJP leaders also endorsed the film – they organised special screenings and events, while the BJP’s information and technology cell and copious sympathetic media outlets provided incessant buzz and press coverage. The film was also given the coveted tax-free status in several exclusively BJP-ruled states. Though made with a modest budget of only INR 25 crores, with a little bit of “help”, The Kashmir Files eventually collected a whopping INR 247 crores domestically. It was a certified blockbuster.


The BJP and Hindutva


Founded in 1980, the BJP functions as the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindutva organisation active since 1925. Hindutva—the ideology of Hindu nationalism—conceives India as a Hindu nation, relegating Muslims and other minorities to second-class status. Historically, its ideologues drew inspiration from German Nazism and Italian fascism, while its closest ideological counterpart today is Israeli Zionism. The BJP has independently governed India since it won the national elections in 2014 by interlacing Hindutva with populist rhetoric under the leadership of Modi, a former RSS worker who oversaw an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 when he was the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. His purported victory, according to political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, ushered in a new era for the nation, characterised by weakened state institutions, a distorted electoral process, and sanctioned violence against minorities, transforming India into an authoritarian Hindu state. 


The Bollywood industry is ultimately highly decentralised, commercially driven, and blockbuster-oriented. Politics seems peripheral to the eternal quest for the elusive box office hit. Then how has the BJP succeeded so profoundly?

The Modi government has particularly weaponised the media to fuel Islamophobia. It has widely spread misinformation, enabling what media scholar Shakuntala Banaji has called the “mainstreaming” of intolerance. In his new book H-Pop (2023), independent journalist Kunal Purohit examines how the wider Hindu Right has harnessed popular culture forms such as music, poetry and books to disseminate and entrench Hindutva in popular and mass imagination. In this vein, Bollywood is a crucial fourth frontier. As India’s most prolific and powerful media industry, it is a key source of soft power and plays a crucial role in defining dominant conceptions of nationhood, belonging, and culture. As anthropologist Tejaswini Ganti writes in Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema (2013), Bollywood is also “perhaps the least religiously segregated place in India today where Hindus and Muslims work together as well as inter-marry”. Some of its most successful stars, directors, and other key members are Muslim. Many of its biggest hits over the years have celebrated Indian secularism and interreligious harmony, according to film scholar Rachel Dwyer, from Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), to Veer-Zaara (2004), PK (2014), and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015).


Today, a slew of at least 10 brazenly Hindutva propaganda films are swamping Indian voters ahead of the upcoming national elections in May 2024. It is the outcome of many years of moulding and steadily saffronizing India’s Hindi film industry, most aggressively since the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the subject of my master’s dissertation, for which I conducted three months of fieldwork in Mumbai in the Summer of 2023, and conducted several interviews with prominent writers, directors, producers, actors, and journalists of Bollywood. All names have been anonymized in this essay.


The BJP has used a carrot-and-stick strategy to control and regulate Bollywood’s influence: a combination of bullying, along with promoting films that most brazenly perpetuate their Hindutva ideology. Yet for the most part, members of Bollywood have continued to eschew political binaries between left and right, instead seeing themselves as existing outside of the realms of politics and ideology. “The only God,” a veteran film critic and journalist told me, “is the box office.” The Bollywood industry is ultimately highly decentralised, commercially driven, and blockbuster-oriented. Politics seems peripheral to the eternal quest for the elusive box office hit. Then how has the BJP succeeded so profoundly?


Fear and Censorship


Alongside its elaborate army of online trolls, the BJP has not hesitated to use its hard power on Bollywood. They have incited mobs, engineered police cases, and orchestrated arbitrary arrests. When the Amazon series Tandav released in January 2021, for example, members of grassroots Hindu nationalist organisations filed police complaints against a Muslim actor Mohammed Zeeshaan Ayyub and the showrunners in four different Indian states, alleging offence to Hindu religious sentiments. The crime? A character named Shiva, played by Ayyub, uses profanity while portraying his namesake Hindu deity in a student play. When Amazon petitioned the Supreme Court to protect the showrunners from arrest while these cases were sub judice, this was denied.  


In another incident on 3 October 2021, inspectors of the Narcotics Control Bureau arrested Aryan Khan, the superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s then 23-year-old son, in a Mumbai port terminal. Despite lack of evidence, the agents imprisoned him for nearly a month before granting him bail, finally dropping all charges in early 2022. “Had a government agency really imprisoned Aryan Khan without proof, as pure intimidation?” questioned journalist Samanth Subramanian in The New Yorker. “The rest of Bollywood, meanwhile, absorbed the news as the most cautionary tale of all: if they could do this to the king, imagine what they could do to us.”


In January 2023, the mammoth success of Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Pathaan, despite widespread calls for its boycott, not only revived Bollywood’s box office slump but was also touted as a victory over the Hindu Right. The social media boycotts, many in the industry concluded, were all bark and no bite. Subsequent consecutive successes of several Hindi films in 2023—Jawan, Animal, Gadar 2—compounded upon a palpable sense of triumph, with proclamations that “Bollywood is back”. But beyond boycotts and the habitually extreme ebbs and flows of the box office, the BJP has remained successful in its attempts at stoking fear and a pervading atmosphere of censorship, one that has now become naturalised in the industry. 


“You don't just deal with these issues when your film or your show is coming out,” one writer-director-producer said to me. “You're dealing with them while you are writing. There is a psychological aspect to it.” Many key Bollywood members I interviewed shared how their creative process now includes several additional considerations, like avoiding depicting green and saffron colours and any religious symbols and erasing any critiques of the police or politicians in the narrative. This was not the case before even 2020. A screenwriter named it the “chilling effect” – a perpetual state of cowering invoked in the face of the BJP’s “bullying tactics.” 


“You just have to stay in line,” he reflected, “ That builds a self-censorship inside you.”


The New Blockbuster


While the BJP suppresses, it also amplifies. In the case of The Kashmir Files, the party’s vigorous promotion of the film created a replicable template for a new kind of unabashedly bigoted blockbuster. In 2023, it was recreated by Sudipto Sen-directed The Kerala Story. Early promotions of the film claimed to tell a “spine-chilling, never told before true story” of 32,000 girls from Kerala who’ve been converted to Islam, manipulated into joining ISIS, and “buried in the deserts of Syria and Yemen”. This claim is demonstrably false, with the makers themselves later backtracking and saying they were showing the “true stories of three young girls from different parts of Kerala”. However, in the film, one character passionately declares to a policeman: “More than 30,000 girls are missing, sir. The unofficial number is 50,000. We all believe that, sir”.


Simplistic and unsubtle, The Kerala Story cherry-picks and distorts disparate, extremely rare “true stories” and manipulates them to peddle the Hindu nationalist “Love Jihad” conspiracy theory and construct a heightened sense of fear and distrust of Muslims. In one scene, the protagonist Shalini’s (now Fatima) husband rapes her, using Islam as justification, and later slaps her for protesting as she cries. In another, a bearded Muslim man lays out the plan for love jihad: “Start giving them medicine, get close to them, make them estranged from their families, ... [and] if need be, get them pregnant”. By the end of the film, this plan results in the pregnancy, suicide, and gang rape of these Hindu girls. Like The Kashmir Files, then, The Kerala Story also uses shock value to arouse disgust and hatred towards Muslims in a Hindu audience. Similarly, the film was profusely praised by Modi and several other BJP ministers and declared tax-free in multiple states. Produced with a modest budget of INR 30 crores, it collected a whopping INR 242.2 crore in India, making it another bona fide blockbuster. 


Bollywood and literature scholar Priya Joshi argues in her book Bollywood’s India (2015) that since the 1950’s, blockbusters have “vitally captured dispersed anxieties and aspirations about the nation” and are a “testament to some of the public fantasies that accompanied the national project”. In essence, she writes, “Bollywood’s blockbusters have conducted a dialogue over the idea of “India””. As India’s new contemporary blockbusters, The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story reflect a nation engulfed in Islamophobia and Hindutva rhetoric. “The only trend that seems to work,” a prominent writer-director-producer admitted to me, “is an anti-Muslim trend.” 


According to culture studies scholars John Hartley and Ien Ang, audiences for films and any large-scale culture industries are “literally unknowable”, forming what Tejaswini Ganti calls “the ultimate site of unpredictability”. To cope with the inherent uncertainty of the business, members of Bollywood use what Ganti terms “production fictions”—“fluid and flexible discourses” made mostly in hindsight to explain commercial outcomes. Production fictions, for Ganti, primarily function to rationalise inherently random, unpredictable, and inexplicable box office events. Commercial outcome, she explains, functions as a “form of imperfect communication between audiences and filmmakers”—a dialectic of sorts. 


Riding the Saffron Wave


The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story’s unprecedented success has created new production fictions that audiences actually want to watch more anti-Muslim, Hindutva stories, that consumer demand has simply swayed in that direction, and that such films are simply more likely to do better at the box office, not least due to possible, legitimizing promotion by the BJP. Many filmmakers, my interviewees claimed, “are riding on this whole saffron wave”, and many more, they expect, will “jump on the bandwagon” in order to achieve elusive box office triumph. It may be tempting to exceptionalize these films and view them as existing out of the scope of mainstream Hindi cinema, but this is misguided. These movies are only more extreme, brazen versions of an increasingly ubiquitous trend. From historical fiction films about Islamic invaders to cop and war films about fighting Islamic terrorism and Pakistan, Hindutva themes are dominating India’s cultural production and national consciousness. 


This type of cinema exists on a spectrum. There are those high on testosterone and muscular nationalism, like Uri (2019), Bhuj (2021), and recently, Gadar 2 (2023) and Fighter (2024), which involve masculinized army narratives, enforcing national borders, fighting “invaders”, espionage, violence, and the like. Then there are the rarer, more nuanced films on similar topics, like the female-centred Alia Bhatt-starrer Raazi (2018). Where there are explicitly propagandist, anti-Muslim examples of cinema like The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story, there are also more subtly Islamophobic films peddling a quieter poison, like Sooryavanshi (2021), Mission Majnu (2022), and Indian Police Force (2023). Cumulatively, the hard ubiquity of these protecting-the-nation-state-narratives and the pervasive uber–Hindu-patriotism at their core reflects what scholars Edward Anderson and Arkotong Longkumer refer to as the mainstreaming of Hindu nationalism. By making Indian-ness synonymous with Hindu-ness, they normalise Islamophobia in public discourse. 


The BJP has evidently harnessed the uncertainty endemic to the film industry to push it to perpetuate its Hindutva ideology. They are ultimately succeeding at saffronizing Bollywood, not by turning its largely apolitical members into Hindu nationalists, but by influencing market forces to make Hindutva stories more profitable and marginalising dissenting or “deviant” voices. This new political order is increasingly being internalised, naturalised, and taken for granted by industry members, who appear, from my research, all too willing to compromise on their ideals for commercial success.


In January 2019, the year of the last Indian national election, a group of Bollywood A-listers, none of whom were Muslim, were invited to meet Modi. They then posted a selfie of all of them together, which instantly went viral on social media. Later that April, Modi sat down for a sanitised, scripted, and avowedly “apolitical” interview with Bollywood superstar Akshay Kumar, known for being Hindutva’s poster boy. The same year saw the release of a slew of Hindutva propaganda films, many of which were officially promoted by the BJP, from hagiographic biopics of Hindutva figures like Thackeray and PM Narendra Modi to a film denigrating the opposition Congress party like The Accidental Prime Minister, to a pro-war, ultranationalist action film like Uri.


With India heading towards another round of national elections this May, there is a lineup of propaganda films that peddle Hindutva conspiracies, celebrate Hindutva figures, and glorify the BJP while vilifying all its opponents: the Congress, academic institutions, activists, and of course, Muslims. These films share similar conventions: no A-list stars, lower budgets, saffron colour text in their trailers and posters, sensationalist hashtags hinting at conspiracies, and a neo-realist style colour grade. More importantly, they all seek to recreate the template created by The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story, with the BJP and Modi’s promotion, tax-free status, and if they’re lucky, virality and box office glory. 


The first, Article 370, exalts the Union Government for removing the eponymous article that conferred special status on Kashmir. Like clockwork, Modi praised the film even before its release. “I have heard that perhaps a film on Article 370 is going to be released this week,” he stated while addressing a rally in Jammu on 20 February 2024. "Good, it will be useful for people to get correct information." 


The film’s lead actor Yami Gautam shared a video of the speech immediately. “It is an absolute honour to watch PM @narendramodi Ji talk about #Article370Movie,” she wrote on X. Eventually released on 23 February, the film has made nearly INR 80 cr in India and is declared a super hit. More carnage is to follow.

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