Napoleon Bonaparte had once famously observed, “In politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” Maybe the same observation applies to Bollywood, too, whose haughty gentry has always believed that any publicity is eventually good publicity. More so, if that publicity comes at the expense of anything Hindus hold dear.
The recent statement of Bolly-starlet Kajol is a case in point, wherein she went to town tom-tomming how “We are ruled by uneducated leaders who have no vision.” The target of Kajol’s verbal diarrhea was India’s most popular PM, Narendra Modi, and several political observers consider this the first salvo fired by Bollywood against PM Modi on the eve of the impending crucial 2024 general elections.
Some of you might discard Kajol’s statement as that customary projectile vomit that Bollywood stars indulge in whenever they badly need publicity for their upcoming movie or web series. But if you scratch the surface here, you will unfailingly note how almost every political engagement from Bollywood is about taking a swipe at the Hindu faith, Hinduism, Hindutva, or the popular Hindu leadership. Questions abound on Kajol’s diatribe: Is she highly educated enough to qualify for her ranting about PM Modi’s degree? No, actually, she is a school dropout. Then maybe she comes from a very highly educated and cultured family? Nope, again… Actually, her actor husband, Ajay Devgan’s most stirring and convincing performance happens to be in a tobacco-laced pan masala ad. Perhaps Kajol & Co have also made similar generalizations on the Leftists or anti-Hindu functionally-illiterate leaders like Laloo Prasad Yadav, etc.? No way, her stand – like all other Bollywood celebs before her – has always been on victimizing everything that Hindus revere. Earlier, she had sought similar cheap publicity by pushing for a waterless Holi and posting her videos eating beef… Now, the audience would have certainly given a free pass to Kajol’s fulminations if she had also advocated a bloodless Eid or posted her culinary adventures with pork or lambasted madrasa education in the same breath. Ahh, pigs might fly, but these comments will never be seen in any self-respecting Bollywoodiot’s social media feed. It could be interesting to scratch the surface here and look at Bollywood’s various capers with politics in general and its intended effects.
Bollywood Vs. Politics
Post-independence, we had a Leftist clique of filmmakers who were basically pushing in scripts that were socialist in nature that routinely trashed the Hindu faith. Political references were obviously kept to a minimum, as the dark shadow of the Congress Party and Nehru loomed large over several major production houses. If, by any chance, the Hindi film folk wanted to play a role in active poll politics, the only option was to toe the line of the ruling party, which was Congress then. The import and excise duties on the film raw stock were severe, and the supply was centrally regulated. That fact and the presence of a pliable and iffy Censor Board made sure that the film’s political tone never went against the Congress Party for decades. All of that changed with Indira Gandhi’s apocalyptic Emergency. Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) suffered simply because the leading lady sported an Indira-esque gait, a white strand of hair, and cotton sarees. But the film that made the most political noise was ‘Kissa Kursi Ka’ in 1977 – a low-budget parody made by Janata Party MP Amrit Nahta in which Sanjay Gandhi and the other acolytes of Indira Gandhi were thoroughly lampooned. Incensed, Sanjay Gandhi ordered the prints of this film destroyed, and it was precisely this case that saw him being sent to jail, eventually, for a month.
Indira Gandhi wanted Bollywood to whitewash her Emergency crimes and promptly ordered Manoj Kumar, “a political allegiance-hopping filmmaker”, to make a film glorifying the good side of her excesses, if there were any. He did launch ‘Naya Bharat’ with Salim-Javed, but once the Janata Party short-circuited Indira Gandhi, he tacitly shelved the film and launched ‘Kranti’, hoping to encash on the Sampoorna Kranti wave unleashed by Jaiprakash Narayan. Post-Emergency, many stars, including Dev Anand, went on stage with Janata Party to campaign against Indira Gandhi but were dismayed at how that coalition eventually disintegrated. And it was in this exasperation that Dev Anand launched India’s first political party made up exclusively of Bollywood stars – the National Party of India, to “teach a lesson” to the politicians. Mind you, Dev Anand was truly a maverick who never hesitated on openly chiding Jawaharlal Nehru on his flirtatious dalliance with Edwina Mountbatten and had later refused to praise Sanjay Gandhi, getting him blacklisted on All India Radio.
Subsequently, politics stayed away from being movie subjects during the Dawood Ibrahim heydays, where Bollywood got busy whitewashing Pakistanis and Islamists. Until the late nineties, when Gulzar once again showed up with ‘Maachis,’ and later his mentee Vishal Bharadwaj came out with ‘Haider’… These films are milestones in Bollywood’s bigoted history as they set a template for modifying political history and creating heroes out of villains, wherein the gory perps instrumental for Punjab and Kashmir violence were romanticized and glorified. This same template was copied by ‘Parzania’ and ‘Firaaq’ which portrayed a one-sided view of the 2002 Gujarat riots, and later by ‘Udta Punjab’ which many regard as an outlier film instrumental in forcing Akali Dal out of power in Punjab.
Screen religion reversal as a victimization tool
Most of these movies obviously won awards at various Left-dominated film fests, but almost none had audiences queuing up to watch them in theaters. Bollywood quickly learned its lesson and cunningly pivoted to making movies purportedly based on real-life incidents, but by changing the religion of all perps to Hindus or by substituting an intrepid real-life Hindu hero with an Abrahamic character. A Tamil film, ‘Jai Bhim’ did this successfully by using a real-life tragic case of a tribal woman but changing the villain from a Christian to a Hindu and adding the standard-staple anti-Brahmin tirade that works wonders with die-hard Dravidians. Anubhav Sinha’s ‘Article 15’ repeated the same trick in Bollywood by billing it as a true story based on the Badaun case of alleged upper-caste atrocity, except that there was no upper-caste atrocity as discovered in the CBI investigation. Nevertheless, the film strived hard to portray a Mahant as an evil villain – a sly on UP’s popular CM Yogi Adityanath.
New Platforms = New Parochialism
OTT platforms, too, play this Hindu-vilifying game willingly, as seen with Amazon Prime’s ‘Sherni’ – a movie based on a man-eating tigress Avni. The tigress was killed by a hunter named Asghar Ali Khan, but in the movie, the character who kills the tigress is conveniently portrayed as kalawa-wearing Ranjan Rajhans alias Pintu Bhaiya. Besides, the forest officer KM Abharna, who brought the killer to justice, is portrayed by actor Vidya Balan, but she has been given a Christian name in the movie. Most of the senior forest officers, who happen to be Hindus, are shown to be corrupt and unethical, except for one Muslim character named Hassan Noorani.
Mind you, they are not immune to religion-reversing while portraying popular classical stories, too. Netflix and Epic’s ‘Stories by Rabindranath Tagore’ series by Anurag Basu found it convenient to add a namaz in its ‘Kabuliwala’ story, though the original story has no such reference. In one of the scenes, they have Mini – the little girl in the story, offering namaz because her friend, the Kabuliwala, had not come to meet her for a few days. This scene was obviously inserted with the vile intention of grooming young, impressionable minds, showing a vulnerable Mini praying to the ‘God of Kabuliwala’ so that her friend could visit her soon.
However, Bollywood’s most successful and thoroughly despicable religion reversal happens to be Yash Raj Film’s ‘Chak De India,’ which was based on the real life-story of Mir Ranjan Negi, India’s goalkeeper in the 1982 Asian Games final, where we had horribly lost to Pakistan. Negi received tremendous flak for being the villain of the game. Though after spending years in oblivion, Negi successfully returned as a coach, helping the Indian women’s team to win several accolades. Now, the real story had enough pathos to power a blockbuster. Still, Bollywood chose to twist it completely and make it a propaganda vehicle, with Shah Rukh Khan essaying the role of a Muslim hockey player whose very patriotism was questioned as he failed to convert a penalty shot against India’s nemesis, Pakistan. Several victimhood tropes were used in the film, as his Hindu and Sikh neighbors brand him a traitor while the Muslim hero gallantly swallows all the insults and still pursues glory for his country.
All said, whichever way you look at this phenomenon, there is no simple justification for this narrative-peddling, except that it was meant to guilt-trap the Hindus for their perceived ungratefulness towards their benevolent Abrahamic brethren. This is nothing but a cinematic continuum of Romila Thapar’s falsified Hindu history, showing how the unwashed, unworthy Hindus have been perennially rescued from ignominy by their glorious Abrahamic liberators.
Has the success of ‘TKF’ and ‘TKS’ changed things?
It is an open secret now that Bollywood and its audience don’t see eye to eye as far as movie content goes. So naturally, we see a row of flops after flops gracing the empty theaters near us. The only real success stories lately have been the raw and searing ‘The Kashmir Files’ and ‘The Kerala Story.’ This is despite the old Bollywood ecosystem stigmatizing their success as “Nazi propaganda” while lamenting the failure of their own narrative-based films. Now common sense dictates that the Kashmir-to-Kerala blockbuster collections should have channeled Bollywood in a new direction that respects the faith and traditions of this Sanatan land in the stories they portray. But the ground reality is something else entirely, where we are witnessing big production houses peddle the same Hindu-victimizing narrative to the hilt. You might wonder: Aren’t they afraid of the wrath of their audiences, making them redundant?
As it turns out, the old Bollywood has found a new lease on life. It is called ‘dumb white MNC (multinational corporations) money.’ Yes, Bollywood might have zero traction amongst the regular theater-going audience, but they are now being ably compensated by the US-based OTT giants and their attendant satellite channels. Movies that have failed to stand up in the theaters are still being paid big bucks. In some cases, this money is underwriting a film’s entire risk in advance. No wonder Amitabh Bachchan took the hint and suddenly switched back to mouthing the old Bollywood trope of intolerance in the new Hindutva regime by complaining about how “Questions are being raised on civil liberties and freedom of expression” from the forum of Kolkata International Film Festival, sharing the stage with Mamata Banerjee.
Take the case of Karan Johar’s ‘Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani’ which was recently released. The film had practically zero word-of-mouth amongst the audience and had managed a pathetic buzz despite the presence of the so-called haute star cast. Normally, this would have sent the Producer into a tizzy, except that the OTT-Satellite combine came to their rescue with a deal flow almost covering the entire film budget. Yes, the film is budgeted at Rs 1.6 billion, with an additional Rs 180 million for print and publicity. Even before the movie is released, they have a music deal for Rs 300 million, a satellite deal for Rs 500 million, and a Digital deal sealed at Rs 800 million . Now, this would have looked normal when such films ran for months in theaters, but today, when the audience is shunning the ol’ Bollywood, this dealmaking smacks of a dangerous gamble. But what happens in theaters? For this, too, the ol’ Bollywood has invented a new scheme in corporate promotions, wherein partner brands are supposed to purchase and distribute 50000 tickets to their patrons. This entails that the movie will remain in the theaters even if the audience doesn’t show up.
Now complaining against such surreptitious and deceptive marketing deals could come across as sour grapes till you consider that the same OTT-Satellite combine has kept away from the audience’s favorite blockbuster, ‘The Kerala Story,’ branding it as a propaganda venture. Now that is a loud and clear sign of victimization, which nobody can deny.
Conflicting Censorship on Victimizing Narrative
Let’s face the facts first: Either our censor guidelines are not crystal clear on what is acceptable and what is not, or the members of our censor board are not crystal clear on implementing the code. That must be the only reason why there is no consistency or parity on what gets passed and what gets stuck. No doubt it is a thankless job, but censoring political content calls for a fine understanding of the nuances and subtext of the narrative.
Take the case of ‘The Kerala Story,’ where they deleted the inappropriate references to Hindu gods from the dialogues of the Islamist characters to avoid any controversy while also insisting on deleting a dialogue “via Pakistan, unko paison ki madad bhi America hi karta tha,” [Translation: It is America that helps them with funding too] despite evidence to back it up. Now, while this gesture may come across as deferring and being conciliatory to our good friend America, the question remains: will mainstream America also concede in deference to the Hindu faith at large? Actually, it didn’t, considering that the recent ‘Oppenheimer’ got cleared globally with a sex scene unnecessarily involving Bhagwat Geeta as a prop. Mind you, the Indian version that came to the censors toned down the sexual content but still maintained the Bhagwat Geeta, and this scene somehow got cleared by the Censors and is now raising hackles.
Now we as the audience can certainly stop being prudes and overlook the Bhagwat Geeta prop in a sex scene, except that one key question remains: Would Christopher Nolan have taken the same liberty if the book in question here had been a Quran or a Hadith or a Bible? And would the American and the Indian censors show the same bold outlook in clearing the scene if that was the case?
We all know the answer to that one, don’t we?!
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