Hindu nationalism coming to Bollywood films?

Hindu nationalist themes and plots are finding their way into an increasing number of Indian film productions, reports the New Yorker (October 10). Known as “Bollywood,” the global Indian film industry has long featured more traditional themes in its standard and ornate song and dance productions compared to Hollywood, but lately films critical of Hinduism and its political expressions have come under strong censure, reports Samanth Subramanian. Bollywood has previously been a place in India “where caste and religion don’t matter. The most piously presented proof of this is the fact that, in a Hindu-majority country, a Muslim man named Shah Rukh Khan has been the supreme box office star for decades.” The change can be most vividly seen in the controversy surrounding the Indian political drama Tandav, which is produced by Amazon Prime. The series has come under increasing pressure in India for some of its depictions and dialog, accused of profaning the Hindu god Shiva as well as being “anti-BJP,” referring to the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party headed by Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi. The show has seen bitter legal battles and eventual suspension of its second season, leading Amazon Prime to put edgy film and TV projects into cold storage and to self-censure, such as by discouraging the creation of characters who share their names with Hindu deities. Other filmmakers try to cater to BJP tastes, such as with historical epics that “glorify bygone Hindu kings [or] action films about the Indian Army…These productions all draw from the BJP’s roster of stock villains: medieval Muslim rulers, Pakistan, Islamist terrorists, leftists, opposition parties like the Indian National Congress,” Subramanian writes.

A scene from the Bollywood movie “Dabangg 2 » (ARBAAZ KHAN PRODUCTIONS / Album, NTB scanpix. (https://ndla.no/article/15868). CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The BJP censors began with small moves, such as refusing to certify films containing profanity and references to sex. Such government censorship was nothing new to directors over the years, but they could always appeal to a tribunal to make their case against such restrictions. Last year, however, the government abolished the tribunal and now the only recourse available to censored filmmakers is the lengthy and expensive process of litigation. Subramanian adds that the BJP also relies on and encourages a base of “its Internet bruisers, rank-and-file cadre, and ideological allies” to agitate and protest against offensive productions. For instance, rumors that a film depicting the legend of the Hindu queen Padmavati’s attempted abduction by a Muslim sultan contained a love scene between them were enough for a BJP politician to call for the beheading of the lead actress and an angry mob to attack the director and burn down part of the set. While the BJP often describes such events as the acts of fringe element of Hindu “patriots,” there have been more high-level cases of government and police pressure against well-known actors and their families. All this has convinced filmmakers not to risk offending the government and their increasingly Hindu nationalist audiences. Subramanian adds that, along with the actions of the BJP, the overtly Hindu nationalist RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) has established a media liaison to “nudge filmmakers toward subjects close to the RSS’s heart.”