In an article dated October 30, The Economist says that India’s ruling party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is “menacing the country’s film industry” to turn it into a BJP or Hindu nationalistic bandwagon destroying its traditional secular character.
The article entitled: What does India’s government have against Bollywood? the world-renowned magazine says: If Bollywood is India’s secular religion, then the Khans—Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh—are its holy trinity. The three actors, who are unrelated, have for three decades sat at the top of India’s colossal Hindi-language film industry, their films, their characters and their personas wallpapering the country’s imagination. They are, perhaps as much as the prime minister and the captain of the national cricket team, the most recognisable faces in India. They also happen to be Muslim.
For most Indians, to the extent they think about it at all, that is a source of pride: the Khans’ pre-eminence a sign of the country’s tolerant secularism. But it sticks in the craw of Hindu chauvinists, who are well represented by the government of Narendra Modi, the prime minister, and his Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp). All three Khans have faced criticism from bjp figures in recent years, along with the usual gibes that they should “go to Pakistan”. By the debased standards of Indian political discourse, where even the use of the indigenous Urdu language is seen as “Abrahamisation”, that is not surprising.
What is odd, however, is that the government’s assault on Bollywood has—after a drumbeat of harassment against smaller figures and lesser-known producer-types—reached the very top of the industry. On October 3rd, the Narcotics Control Bureau (ncb), a national law-enforcement agency, arrested several people in a drug bust on a cruise ship off the coast of Mumbai, where the industry is based. Among them was Aryan Khan, the 23-year-old son of Shah Rukh Khan, arguably the best-loved of the trinity. The ncb claimed to have seized lots of drugs, though it has since admitted that none were found on Aryan. He was nonetheless remanded in custody and denied bail until October 28th, even as it was granted to others. News channels have been running blanket coverage. Politicians from across the country have weighed in.
The whole stink has a familiar tang to it. Last year, as cases of covid-19 were rising in India’s first wave and the bjp was preparing for elections in the poor eastern state of Bihar, a young actor called Sushant Singh Rajput—a Bihari—committed suicide in Mumbai. Pro-government news channels—ie, most of them—ran hysterical items about Bollywood’s drug culture, and accused Rhea Chakraborty, the dead man’s grieving girlfriend, of ensnaring him with the demon weed. The ncb arrested Ms Chakraborty, who spent a month in prison before being granted bail.
This time it is in Uttar Pradesh that elections are looming. The bjp’s campaign has spun its own version of a preposterous Bollywood plot, casting the state, one of India’s most backward, as a shining beacon for the rest of the country. Since that is hardly guaranteed to work, it is also relying on its old strategy of stoking tensions. The circus around Aryan’s arrest is a sequel of last year’s drama.
That the target this time is Muslim is only an added bonus. Harassing Bollywood carries more important benefits for the bjp, including annoying the government of Maharashtra, a rich western state of which Mumbai is the capital. That antipathy dates from 2019, when the local Shiv Sena, itself a pro-Hindu party, broke its long-standing alliance with the bjp. Mr Modi and his cronies have never forgiven their erstwhile allies.
Yet there is a more fundamental reason for the bjp’s assault on Bollywood than electioneering, political point-scoring or the sheer joy of bashing Muslims. Since coming to power in 2014, the bjp has demolished the national opposition, co-opted independent institutions, tamed India’s once-vibrant press and obstructed free speech. It is building a cartoonish personality cult around Mr Modi, printing his picture on everything from sacks of government-subsidised rice to covid vaccination certificates.
Bollywood may well be the last independent source of influence in India. It is inherently patriotic, its superstars mostly apolitical and, after the past year, most of its members terrified of speaking in any manner that might attract Delhi’s attention. But that is not enough. The fact that its movies show Hindus and Muslims—and all sorts of Indians—getting along, that it tackles issues of social injustice, and that its characters and the real-life people behind them espouse liberal values, is simply too great a threat to Mr Modi’s narrow vision of a Hindu nation. If ensuring that Indians can imagine themselves only on the bjp’s terms means destroying one of country’s great cultural and commercial successes, that is a price the party and its prime minister seem willing to pay.
(This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “BJP v Bollywood”)