The Mumbai-based Bollywood film industry is in a crisis with a spate of big-budget films proving to be commercial and critical disasters.
While industry insiders and prominent personalities are repeatedly denying any effect of the social media-driven online boycott calls against some recent Bollywood films, they are largely quiet on what the actual reasons for the films’ failure might be.
Amid this, another online boycott trend against upcoming film Brahmastra: Part One – Shiva began a week ago.
Slated to release on 9 September, Brahmastra is co-produced by Star Studios and Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions.
It features Rishi and Neetu Kapoor’s son Ranbir and Mahesh Bhatt and Soni Razdan’s daughter Alia in the lead, besides the supporting cast of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan (cameo).
Most commentators analysing the online trend to boycott Aamir Khan’s latest film Laal Singh Chaddha lazily attributed it to an ‘anti-Muslim sentiment’. However, this theory has not explained why boycott calls were also given for Shamshera that featured Ranbir Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt and Vaani Kapoor in lead roles, and why Brahmastra is now under fire.
Many industry experts are insistent that the boycott trend is restricted to social media and hence does not impact them in any way. If the protest against the Brahmastra team in Ujjain yesterday is any indication, then probably it is already showing affect on ground.
If the boycott trend is any cause of concern for Brahmastra’s producer, director or actors, they have not publicly stated it. But here is an analysis of the reasons behind the trend, as revealed by an observation of social media posts.
Original script was different
In an Instagram post made in 2019, director Ayan Mukherji revealed that in Brahmastra, the lead character of Shiva, played by Ranbir, was originally named Rumi and the film’s title was Dragon.
After the post went viral last week, people speculated that the names and themes in the film were probably changed after the success of Bahubali, for commercial reasons.
The fact that the original character was named Rumi, made people angry. Jalaluddin Mohammed Rumi was a 13thcentury Persian poet and a known hater of Hindus. He regarded Hindus as ugly, black, of evil omen and a mean servant of the Turkish emperors.
Mukerji’s recent statement that his film is as “attempt… to celebrate Indian spirituality” seem hollow to people. The thematic shift from Dragon to Brahmastra, and from Rumi to Shiva, seem like an opportunistic appropriation by those who have displayed no particular respect for Hindu ideas in the past.
Ranbir’s beef confession
Ranbir Kapoor has been facing flak online for a resurfaced interview in which he is seen saying that he is a “big beef guy” and has “roots in Peshawar”.
In another video, he is seen jokingly using the phrase “apna haath Jagannath” to refer probably to masturbation.
In light of these comments, Kapoor’s visit to temples to promote Brahmastra is being seen as an insincere cash grab.
People are angry not only because of his beef love, but also the fact that even after four generations of his family’s stay in India, he continues to identity himself with Peshawar, a city which went to newly created Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947.
Peshawar has been a hotbed of communal violence for the last hundred years, and known for brutal persecution of Hindus. It was here that the infamous slogan ‘Maro Hindu ko’ was popularised in 1910.
Any celebration of beef and Peshawar together is bound to trigger anger among those who had to migrate from Pakistan to India to save their lives.
Angry at this comment, a group of Bajrang Dal members protested against Ranbir and wife Alia for entering the Mahakal temple in Madhya Pradesh’s Ujjain yesterday, and faced police’s batons for it.
Kapoor also featured in PK, one of the most Hindumisic films from Bollywood. He cameoed as an alien from PK’s planet who visits Earth, after which PK slaps stickers of Hindu deities – and only Hindu deities – on his face for ‘protection’.
That the film did not show PK pasting stickers of revered figures of other religions on Kapoor’s cheeks was strange given that the younger alien was supposed to have no preference for any specific religion of Earth.
Ranbir’s earlier film Shamshera and Tripund Tilak hate
Ranbir’s last outing, which marked his return to Bollywood after four years, lost Rs 86 crore, more than half of its stated budget of 150 crore. The last boycott hashtag must still be fresh for Kapoor as #BoycottShamshera began to spread when Hindus saw the villain “Shuddh Singh” sport a large Tripund Tilak across his forehead.
In the film, Shuddh Singh, played by Sanjay Dutt, is a cop in British India who harassed and oppresses lower castes.
It was not the Tilak alone that irked people. Shuddh Singh’s menacing acts and dialogues were accompanied by recitation of Sanskrit shlokas in the background.
Critics said that these subconsciously led the audience to associate his evil actions with Hindu symbols. In the film, Hinduism is shown practiced only by upper-caste Shuddh Singh while lower-caste Shamshera and Balli are shown as non-religious.
Alia Bhatt too is facing criticism even though the criticism is largely directed at her father Mahesh Bhatt, mother Soni Razdan and brother Rahul. Mahesh Bhatt has maintained that the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist attacks were a conspiracy by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
He is also known for his tactfully neutral stand on Kashmir separatism and liberal praises heaped on Zakir Naik, who is now a wanted criminal in India.
Rahul, a former Bollywood actor, has been close to David Headley, who was heavily involved in the 26/11 attacks. Rahul reportedly spent approximately 1,000 hours with Headley, leading to questions about his role in the attacks.
Alia’s mother Soni Razdan controversially said in the past that she would be “happier in Pakistan.” Razdan made the statement when a 2019 film she featured in, No Fathers in Kashmir, was stalled by the censor board for subtly showing Indian Army as abductors of innocents.
Even though Alia has not courted controversy for her other films for these reasons and has been commercially successful, the general public sentiment against Bollywood has caught up with her. Her own statements and roles in the past are under scanner.
For instance, a 2012 song in which she featured, which described Radha as “sexy”, is being widely criticised. The song is from Alia’s debut film Student of the Year, directed and produced by Karan Johar who is also a producer of Brahmastra.
Alia is also being criticised for promoting “love jihad” in her 2019 film Kalank, where she is shown as a married Hindu woman in love with a Muslim man.
Besides this, she is attracting boycott calls against her for a recent statement in which she dismissed charges of nepotism and said that if the public did not want to watch her, they did not need to watch her.
Her social-messaging of a cracker-free Diwali while greeting Eid without any such message, is also doing rounds on the Internet.
A few months ago, she was criticised for questioning the custom of Kanyadan during Hindu marriages by distorting the interpretation of the word in an advertisement for a clothing brand.
Given that she has been caught on camera for her failure to answer questions on general knowledge, there is dissatisfaction among people against casual comments on Hindu faith and customs.
Urdu words in ‘Hindu film’ Brahmastra
For a film that is being publicised as an ode to Indian culture and spirituality, the film’s trailer and teasers have hinted at heavy use of Urdu. The film’s songs are full of words such as ‘Sufiyana’, ‘Fanaa’, ‘Qismat ka Sikandar’ and ‘Rabba’. The film’s dialogues have been penned by Hussain Dalal.
People have expressed their disappointment, and even anger, at this, arguing that the so-called “Hindi film industry” is, in reality, an Urdu film industry that actively pushes the idea of greatness of Urdu while deriding Sanskrit and Sanskritised Hindi, even in films that claimed to be rooted in Hinduism.
Angry social media users have called the film an attempt to “Islamise” Hindu themes and ideas, especially so because the original inspiration of the film was Rumi.
Cow jibes at Hindus by a member of Brahmastra team
Screenshots of Twitter posts by an employee of Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions, went viral last week. The employee, Shreeni Verma, has since deleted her Twitter account. The posts showed her using the anti-Hindu gaumutra (cow urine) slur at ”bhakts”.
Others posts made by her show jibes thrown at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath and Home Minister Amit Shah, which have angered these leaders’ support bases.
In one of her posts, Verma joked about Narendra Modi and Amit Shah having a “gaumutra shots party” in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic.
The posts made people angry as they argued that they manifested the general consciousness of the minds behind Brahmastra.
The fact that most members of the leading crew of Brahmastra or other recent films, such as writer-director Ayan Mukerji, Alia and Ranbir, have not joined or completed their college, and can barely communicate in Hindi, is also making people question their competence at making a film that claims to be a deep dive into Hindu ideas.
It is a Karan Johar production
Karan Johar, son of film producer Yash Johar who founded Dharma Productions, has been facing criticism of the public for several years now. The trend mainly started after allegations of nepotism made against him by actor Kangana Ranaut in his show Koffee With Karan. That was in 2017.
A year earlier, he had courted controversy for casting Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in his film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. In 2020, the anger against Johar peaked when actor Sushant Singh Rajput mysteriously “committed suicide”.
As the actor was considered an outsider, videos resurfaced of Johar mocking him on his talk show on several occasions.
The anti-Karan Johar sentiment also contributed to the recent boycott calls against film Liger, which proved to be a commercial failure.
Now, ahead of the release of Brahmastra, social media users are circulating his videos where he is justifying his launching of so-called star-kids. Besides, a video from his debut film as a director, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, where he showed a Hindu girl donning hijab and doing namaz is also doing the rounds.
The growing sentiment against Bollywood
At the core of the calls for boycott of Brahmastra is a growing public sentiment against Bollywood. As pointed out by Swarajya in this piece published last month, several factors have given rise to a movement against Bollywood in the past couple of years, and that movement is currently at a peak.
These factors include the boycott by Bollywood biggies of a rare film on Kashmiri Pandits’ massacre in the 1990s released earlier this year, nepotism in the industry where big producers routinely “launch star-kids”, the Bollywood icons’ hypocrisy on political and social commentary where they held placards in Kathua rape-murder case but have remained silent in countless rape-murders of Hindu women, their dismissal of ‘love jihad’, bashing of harmless festivals such as Karwa Chauth, blatant promotion of Islamism at the expense of Hindu culture, their obsession with flaunting their Afghani or Pakistani roots and, of late, display of arrogance towards people outside of the industry.
Bollywood’s silence on the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, who was considered an outsider, has contributed heavily to the ongoing anti-Bollywood sentiment on social media.
Bollywood supporters’ abusive response to criticism
The response of Bollywood professionals, especially of the so-called “star-kids”, to criticism of the industry has been far from tasteful.
Actor Arjun Kapoor, son of producer Boney Kapoor, recently made highly controversial statements against those giving boycott calls for films. Kapoor said that the industry made a mistake by being silent on boycott calls and that “ab zyada ho raha hai” (now it has grown a bit too much).
Others such as Vijay Deverakonda, a new entrant to Bollywood from the Telugu cinema where he is quite a big name, dismissed the boycott calls against his film Liger in what the public interpreted as his arrogance.
Actor Taapsee Pannu and filmmaker Anurag Kashyap were seen laughing at the boycott calls and even demanding similar trends for themselves, saying they were feeling left out.
Amid this, a viral hashtag called ‘Dalla Gems of Bollywood’ was started by supporters of Bollywood against a Twitter account that calls out problematic content in Bollywood films including the pattern of celebration of rape and molestation.
The online trend was accompanied by personal targeting of the founders of the Twitter handle. This boosted the anti-Bollywood sentiment, which was visible in the massive support given to a counter hashtag.
(Disclaimer – Gems Of Bollywood Twitter handle is managed by authors of this article.)