When a Bollywood superstar joined students protesting against a mob attack at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, India’s film industry set up an unlikely clash with Narendra Modi’s government.
Deepika Padukone's appearance marked the most dramatic, decisive and risky intervention yet by Bollywood after weeks of protest in India. A wave of actors and directors have recently joined or supported demonstrations against what critics say is an anti-Muslim citizenship law and violence against students.
Padukone was studiously silent about her visit. However, the unusual foray into politically fraught territory from celebrities who generally avoid controversy highlights the gravity of the challenge facing the prime minister.
Modi enjoyed support from Bollywood ahead of his landslide re-election last year, even appearing in a selfie flanked by A-list actors and directors. India’s film industry has the largest audience in the world, according to statistical data specialist Statista, with two billion cinema tickets sold each year and an annual production of more than 1,000 films.
The outpouring of protest from within Bollywood appears to signal a turning point in its relationship with Modi. High-profile directors such as Zoya Akhtar and her brother, the actor Farhan Akhtar, have joined anti-government demonstrations in Mumbai. Actor Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub spent New Year's Eve with protesters in Delhi.
Others, such as director Anurag Kashyap, whose recent titles include Netflix crime series Sacred Games, have been among the most vocal opponents of the law and the police crackdown on protests.
“This has gone too far,” Kashyap wrote on Twitter in December. “This government is clearly fascist.”
But stars who express contentious views have faced mass boycotts of their films and campaigns led by angry crowds. Padukone appeared at JNU only days before the release of her film Chhapaak, prompting figures within the ruling Bharatiya Janata party to call for a boycott.
In 2017, a BJP official even offered a reward for Padukone’s beheading after she starred in historical drama Padmaavat, which sparked furious protest over its alleged depiction of a romance between a Hindu princess and a Muslim sultan.
The latest protests were sparked last month by a citizenship law that offered non-Muslims from India’s Muslim-majority neighbours a path to citizenship, but pointedly excluded followers of Islam. The attack by the masked mob at JNU last week inflamed tensions.
Namrata Joshi, cinema editor at the Hindu newspaper, said the controversy had "triggered" an outcry within the industry. "I've not seen it [Bollywood] speak so much as it has now," she said.
Protesters say the law serves the BJP’s goal of remaking India as a Hindu homeland at the expense of Muslims, who make up about 14 per cent of the population.
In recent years Bollywood has released fawning political biopics, historical epics with Hindu heroes battling Muslim villains and recreations of skirmishes with rival Pakistan that observers said played to the BJP's agenda.
"Films have been able to help [Modi] sharpen his image of this saviour against India's enemies," said Suparna Sharma, a film critic at newspaper the Asian Age. The recent protests from within the industry have undermined that narrative.
“If [demonstrators] are backed by celebrities, it gives them more power. It energises their protests. It emboldens them,” she said.
But many of the industry’s biggest stars, several of whom are Muslim, have stayed away from protests despite calls for actors to show support from fans and figures within show business.
Shah Rukh Khan, India's most famous actor, has not commented despite being an alumnus of Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi, where police launched a particularly violent crackdown on protesting students in December. His production company did not respond to requests for comment.
Khan faced a backlash himself, including from the BJP, for criticising growing intolerance in the country in 2015.
Despite the reticence of some in the industry, a surprising number of figures have attended demonstrations or publicly opposed the government – in sharp contrast with the comparative lack of reaction from public figures in other fields such as sports.
Film critics said this was particularly notable in an industry where maintaining good relations with the government and its supporters was often important to commercial success.
The government “can really make or break a film if they want to, and an actor”, Sharma said, highlighting the threat to those who make a stand. “They do it at a great risk.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020