Laal Singh Chaddha is the latest film to face targeted attacks from anti-Muslim, Hindu-nationalist trolls who some claim are beginning to impact box office performance
In August this year, a week after the release of Laal Singh Chaddha, Bollywood’s adaptation of Forrest Gump, a Twitter account with about 280,000 followers, tweeted: “#Urduwood is trending. Thanks to all who have accepted this term to accurately define the anti-national, anti-Hindu pedophile cabal that takes your money to destroy you.” The tweet received more than 1,700 retweets and about 5,800 likes.
For those not familiar with the term “Urduwood”, it is a pejorative popular among far-right social media and politicians. Urdu is an Indian language with a Perso-Arabic script, and is the national language of Pakistan; hence it is associated with Muslims and its use is a way to claim the film industry is “Hinduphobic”.
For decades, India’s Hindi film industry, known as Bollywood, has been one of the country’s most popular products, for Indians themselves and the world at large. But the consolidation of Hindu nationalism under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has marked a cultural shift.
Laal Singh Chaddha stars, and is produced by, Aamir Khan, one of Hindi cinema’s trio of superstar Khans (Shahrukh and Salman are the other two, all unrelated). On its release, social media platforms witnessed a tidal wave of targeted attacks calling for a boycott of the movie. The resurfacing of remarks made by Khan on the rise of “intolerance” in India in 2015, as well as clips from his 2014 film PK (which criticized blind-faith belief) were coupled with targeted tweets. Laal Singh Chaddha has fared poorly at the box office, but the calls for a boycott have not stopped. Other movies, such as Vikram Vedha, Dobaara, Shamshera and Brahmastra, are also in the line of fire, the last two owing to the recirculation of 11-year-old remarks by the lead actor, Ranbir Kapoor, on eating beef.
“Bollywood is an industry where Muslims have had representation and success, which bothers the Hindu right,” the Bollywood actor Swara Bhasker said. Bhasker herself has repeatedly been on the receiving end of rightwing ire, including a death threat. She adds: “If a popular mass medium of entertainment is so organically secular, pluralistic and diverse, then to further their agenda of a Hindu nation and discredit secularism, they have to discredit that medium.”
Organized trolling has also been deployed against films and streaming series such as Thappad, A Suitable Boy, and Bombay Begums, particularly for the last two’s depictions of interfaith romance. After a scene from A Suitable Boy depicted a Hindu girl and Muslim boy kissing, a state-level BJP minister called for a criminal case against Netflix India, which streamed the show. Politicians, particularly leaders and parliamentarians affiliated with the ruling BJP, also called for “introspection” and “ripping apart” of the Bollywood “ecosystem”, with some alleging that Khan was “money laundering” and that Laal Singh Chaddha “glorified terrorism”.
Screenwriter Hussain Haidry said that these campaigns “directly or indirectly cater to anti-Muslim sentiments or Hindu persecution complex”. Referring to the outrage over the web series Tandav, which depicted a Muslim-origin actor dressed up as a Hindu deity in a now-deleted scene. Haidry added: “This combination of a Muslim presence with supposedly anti-Hindu depictions strikes gold for them.”
A recently published paper by Joyojeet Pal, associate professor of information at the University of Michigan, and researcher Sheyril Agarwal found that tweets with the hashtag #BoycottBollywood were made in an organized manner, with several ghost accounts using hate speech, misinformation and presenting south Indian (particularly Telugu) films as more “traditional” compared with the “degenerate” and “culturally aloof” Bollywood. Their research found that 12,889 out of the 167,989 accounts that sent an anti-Bollywood message had zero followers and were mostly created in the past two years, suggesting collusive behavior.
How effective have these boycotts been? It is not always clear. Of the 26 big Bollywood releases so far in 2022, about 20 of them (77%) reportedly flopped, losing half or more of their investment. Experts, however, view the box office results as a sign of post-Covid reluctance, with Indians taking to streaming platforms.
Taran Adarsh, a movie critic, and trade analyst told the media that film exhibitors he spoke to said that boycott campaigns had affected Laal Singh Chaddha. But Adarsh also stressed other factors, including the rise in online streaming platforms during Covid lockdowns, which reduced the incentive to pay for a movie-hall experience. “So now, the hook to draw the audience to theatres is well-made big-screen entertainers,” he said.
The recent success of Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt’s Brahmastra has been held up as a counter-example – despite vicious trolling, it performed well at the box office, though some critics have ascribed its success to its Hindu symbolism that borrows from the Hindu mythology-inspired fantasy style of films such as the globally popular RRR.
Haidry suggests that this made a difference. “The campaign against Laal Singh Chaddha used anti-Muslim motivations, which couldn’t be weaponized against Brahmastra.”
Bhasker says: “I don’t think Bollywood necessarily understands that this targeting is coming from an ideology ruling India. This ideology aims to achieve total control over thoughts and expression. Their cultural project is majoritarian and totalitarian.”