In his 30s, Suniel Shetty’s rippling muscles made him a South Asian Arnold Schwarzenegger of sorts. In movie theaters during the 1990s, his fans cheered and whistled as he stood up to power and fought against injustice.
Now in his 60s, a successful entrepreneur, Shetty prefers dialogue to achieve the greater good. Especially when dealing with muscular state power. So, this month, Shetty was at his beseeching best when he pleaded with the Hindu far-right to lay off its attacks on Bollywood.
In a meeting between the film industry’s bigwigs and Yogi Adityanath, a powerful far-right monk-turned-politician, Shetty highlighted how Bollywood was reeling from a campaign of hate. He begged Adityanath, who is seen as a possible successor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to make it go away. “It can stop if you say something about it.”
The macho star’s meek entreaties may have felt out of character, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Bollywood has fallen on hard times. Trade analysts are calling 2022 Hindi cinema’s worst year. Most films tanked and the industry is estimated to have lost $250 million.
Various reasons are cited to explain Bollywood’s bad patch: COVID-19 disruption, a slowing economy, viewer fatigue with formulaic “masala” story lines of romance and violence, and growing competition from streaming platforms. All of this makes viewers less inclined to buy theater tickets that Indian films rely heavily on.
But a major, overlooked feature is Hindu supremacists turning up the heat on India’s greatest cultural export. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and allied Hindu supremacist organizations are waging a culture war against Bollywood. The Hindi movie industry’s pluralistic and liberal ethos—Bollywood’s three leading men are Muslims—is resented by India’s current rulers, who aim to remake the secular republic as a Hindu state by rallying the majority Hindus against its Muslim and Christian minorities, and usurp Bollywood’s outsized cultural influence for that purpose.
Read More: Column: Is India Headed for an Anti-Muslim Genocide?
The war on Bollywood
Ever since Modi’s rise to national power in 2014, Muslim stars have been routinely subjected to BJP-backed hate speech in a bid to silence them. Adityanath, the target of Shetty’s longshot plea, is among the BJP’s senior leaders who have compared Bollywood icon Sharukh Khan to a terrorist—a common dog whistle to paint Muslim citizens as violent and disloyal to India—merely for expressing concern about growing intolerance in India.
Hindi filmmakers and producers are now forced to exercise caution in the themes they choose, the way they tell the story, and the religion of the cast, lest their films “hurt Hindu sentiments”—and unleash a mob on them for not keeping with Hindu supremacist tastes. Amazon has had to cut scenes from a television drama depicting a Muslim actor dressed as a Hindu deity. Netflix got hell for an inter-faith kissing scene in one of its shows.
The sky fell when a song from Khan’s new film Pathaan was released last month. It featured Khan cavorting with the Hindu female lead who was dressed in orange, the Hindu monastic color. It was quickly spun as a deliberate slight to Hindu pride and fueled the “love jihad” conspiracy theory that Muslim men deliberately seduce Hindu women so that they convert. Boycott calls ensued, BJP leaders demanded edits. A meek censor board headed by a Modi acolyte suggested “changes” to the film, which was finally released on Wednesday to protests and packed theaters in a deeply divided India.
Unspecified red lines like these had already hemmed the industry in when the death of Hindu actor Sushant Singh Rajput in 2020 triggered a QAnon-style conspiracy theory movement against an allegedly drug-addled movie establishment. A months-long witch-hunt over alleged drug use led to arrests of liberal industry figures, especially actresses. Bollywood again felt the heat the following year, when Khan’s son Aryan was thrown behind bars for nearly a month in a drug bust at a rave party even though nothing was found on him.
In this environment, the industry has bent in order to survive. It has been belting out more films aligned with the government’s Hindu nationalism—such as The Kashmir Files—that villainize Muslims, liberal intellectuals, and past secular governments. A movie released this week on India’s Republic Day even valorizes the Hindu extremist who killed Mahatma Gandhi.
But the problem for Bollywood is that viewers do not seem to particularly like these films, as evident from box office sales.
The southern movie spotlight
Amid Bollywood’s struggles, the southern Indian movie industry has flourished. Hindi pictures have for long been taken as shorthand for Indian cinema despite the huge volume of works made in the country’s other myriad languages. Movies in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada languages—with their robust, high-octane style, grand scale, and free from cultural policing—are increasingly a breath of fresh air compared to an over-cautious Bollywood’s stale offerings. Despite the odd Bollywood success story now and then—Pathaan, for example, may be shaping up to be a big hit despite all the obstacles—this remains the overall trend in recent years.
Outside the BJP and allied Hindu supremacist’s radar, south Indian films now generate three times more revenue than Hindi films. Telugu films in particular have emerged as the largest grosser, accounting for 29% of the total takings in the Indian market (compared with Bollywood’s 27% and Hollywood’s 11%), according to a recently analysis by EY.
Southern films are not only eclipsing Bollywood, they are replacing Hindi movies as default Indian cinema on the global stage. A song from Telugu action epic RRR, with an electrifying dance sequence shot in front of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s official residence, has just won a Golden Globe for best original song and an Oscar nomination. Locked in a reluctant tango with Hindu supremacists, Bollywood, meanwhile, is becoming second fiddle to its more free-spirited rivals.