The War on Bollywood

Its films have always celebrated a pluralistic India, making the industry—and its Muslim elite—a prime target for Narendra Modi.

Illustration: A collage of photos of Bollywood stars and Narendra Modi
India's Hindu-nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi (upper right), and three of Bollywood's biggest Muslim stars (left to right): Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, and Aamir Khan ( Illustration by Geoff Kim; Raveendran / AFP; Visual China Group / Getty; Chirag Wakaskar / Getty; Manoj Verma / Hindustan Times / Getty )

This article was published online on June 10, 2021 and updated at 10:15 a.m. ET on June 11, 2021.

The Bandra-Worli Sea Link connects central Mumbai with neighborhoods to the north. If you’re driving from downtown, the bridge brings you into the orbit of Bollywood, the Hindi-language segment of India’s vast movie industry. Actors, makeup artists, special-effects people—they cluster in a handful of seaside neighborhoods. The superstars live in great bungalows, with devoted crowds stationed outside.

Bollywood has been central to the creation of India’s national myth. Its movies are full of dance and song, but their genius lies in the ability to weave serious issues—social justice, women’s rights, gay rights, interreligious marriage—into entertainment. Bollywood films are at once commercial and political. They epitomize the pluralism of India.

And in today’s political climate, that makes them a target. In ways reminiscent of the old Hollywood blacklist, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is using powerful tools to curtail the creative freedom of Bollywood—in particular the influence of Muslims, who have an outsize presence in the industry. The measures pushed by the Modi government include indiscriminate tax investigations, trumped-up accusations against actors and directors, intimidation and harassment in response to certain movies and TV shows, and the chilling rap of law enforcement at the door. Fearing worse to come, Bollywood has remained mostly silent in the face of the government’s catastrophic response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Everybody is just shit-scared and wanting to lie low,” a woman who is closely involved with the industry told me recently. “This is such a vindictive government.” The day before we spoke, tax authorities had raided the home and offices of one of the country’s finest directors, along with those of an actor he worked with. Both are outspoken government critics, and the raid was widely seen as politically motivated.

As we talked, a director friend sent me a vanishing message on Signal, the encrypted-communications platform, about a case before India’s Supreme Court. A senior Amazon executive in India was facing arrest, along with others, for a nine-part political drama called Tandav, which includes a portrayal of the Hindu god Shiva that some found objectionable. The director of the series had apologized, and removed the offending scene. And according to the message I received, the court had declined to offer protection (a decision it later revised). “The problem,” one senior executive for a major streaming service told me later, “is that the director is Muslim and the actor is Muslim.”

Soon, another show—Bombay Begums—was under fire, with India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights calling on Netflix to pull the series on the grounds that it would “pollute the young minds of the children” by “normalizing” drug use. The more credible motivation was that the series normalized interfaith relationships, as well as LGBTQ ones.

I got to know India’s movie industry starting in 2013, when I was dating a Bollywood director, a protégé of Karan Johar—one of the city’s biggest producers, known as KJo. Johar is the Hindu half of a storied collaboration with Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim and one of Bollywood’s biggest stars. Their partnership began in the 1990s—at first yielding popcorn-and-bubblegum films, and then moving on to iconic post-9/11 dramas such as My Name Is Khan (2010), which dealt with growing Islamophobia worldwide.

Bollywood, in its upper echelons, is tight-knit, and through my boyfriend I met the whole A-list in a matter of days. It was a world of blacked-out SUVs that swept into underground garages, where men with walkie-talkies conveyed you up to palatial apartments overlooking the Arabian Sea.

The Indian film industry turns out more than 2,000 movies a year. Bollywood, its largest component, produces as many as Hollywood. The intensity of Bollywood celebrity is unmatched. One night, Ranbir Kapoor—India’s Ryan Gosling, you might say, and the leading man in a movie my boyfriend was directing—picked me up at my hotel in a tinted SUV. Kapoor was with his then-girlfriend, the actor Katrina Kaif. Soon we were speeding to a private dinner. Word traveled along the Mumbai streets that Ranbir was on the move, and by the time we had arrived at our destination, a crowd of several dozen had gathered.

There is a heartbreaking inevitability to the confrontation between Bollywood and Modi’s BJP. Modi does not view India as a composite culture, to which Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians have all contributed, but rather as an essentially Hindu entity whose destiny lies in bringing about a Hindu cultural renaissance. Modi’s record as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat included complicity in a pogromlike riot in 2002, in which more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslim, were killed.

Muslims have always had a disproportionate influence in Bollywood. Actors such as Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, and Aamir Khan have towered over the landscape of Indian cinema for the past 30 years: Of the 10 highest-grossing films in Bollywood history, six feature one of the Khans. (The three are not related.) Several of Bollywood’s most influential studios have been owned by Muslim families.

If Modi has the most Twitter followers of any man in India, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan are in the top rank, with more than 40 million each. At No. 2 is a legend named Amitabh Bachchan, whose career illustrates how inextricably Muslim lives are bound up with the movie industry.

Though not Muslim himself, Bachchan grew famous on the screen in the 1970s by inhabiting an angry-man character named Vijay, a persona created by two Muslim screenwriters. The films he made told stories of an India whose very survival depended on Hindu-Muslim unity. Bachchan’s father, a Hindi poet, grew up in a world steeped in Urdu and Persian poetry. It was this shared culture, in which Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus all participated, that fed Bollywood in its early days. It is Bollywood’s DNA.

The BJP has a very different origin story. The party began in the 1980s as the political face of an organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The RSS was founded in 1925, at a time when European fascist movements were gaining ground. Its early leaders, men such as M. S. Golwalkar, whose birthday the Modi government recently celebrated with a Twitter announcement, brimmed with regard for Nazi Germany. Golwalkar wrote in 1939 that India could learn from Germany’s efforts to “keep up the purity of the race and its culture.”

The RSS in recent years has sought to move past its ugly beginnings. But fixations remain, including an insistence on racial purity and a horror of interreligious marriage. A spate of new laws restricts marriages between Hindus and Muslims in BJP-controlled states. Interreligious marriage, meanwhile, is far more common in Bollywood than in Indian society at large. Two of the three Khans are married to Hindu women.

During Modi’s first term, which began in 2014, the BJP’s “IT Cell”—a network of online influencers and hate-mongers—made some of its most serious social-media attacks on Muslims in Bollywood. In 2015, Aamir Khan was hideously trolled when he expressed alarm at growing intolerance and mentioned that his wife had broached the idea of leaving the country. The following year, Saif Ali Khan—another leading man—came under orchestrated social-media attack when he and his Hindu wife, Kareena Kapoor, named their first son Taimur. (Taimur was the Muslim ruler known in the West as Tamerlane.)

In 2018, Hindu nationalists offered a bounty to anyone who cut off the nose of the actor Deepika Padukone, because she was starring in a historical movie rumored to depict an intimate scene between a Muslim king and a Hindu queen.

The following year brought a now-infamous photo op between Modi and Bollywood elites—an episode of appeasement or perhaps opportunism by elements of the industry. The stunt was arranged by a man named Mahaveer Jain, whom no one had heard of until then. Somehow he managed to corral a mighty figure like KJo into taking a group of A-listers on a private plane to Delhi to meet the prime minister. The stars were encouraged to post selfies with Modi. Not a single Muslim actor or director was included. The message was clear: Modi wanted a new Bollywood, one that was Muslim-rein. Soon Jain was working with major producers and directors, including Johar, on film projects with nationalistic themes.

Modi’s reelection, in 2019, emboldened the prime minister to press his cultural agenda. The suicide by hanging last summer of an actor named Sushant Singh Rajput gave the government a new opportunity. Rajput was a talented young actor who had risen in an industry with a reputation for being clubby. He also had a history of mental illness. People spoke of his struggle with substance abuse. “I hadn’t seen him sober once in the last three years,” a mutual friend told me.

Rajput’s suicide was a tragedy, but in the hands of a pliant press, known in India as the “godi media”—godi means “lap,” as in lapdog—his death became a way to put the entire movie industry on trial. With an election looming in Bihar—Rajput’s native state—the BJP made his suicide seem like a murder at the hands of a nepotistic and druggy elite. Rajput’s picture appeared on posters, with the words We haven’t forgotten. We won’t let them forget. His girlfriend, Rhea Chakraborty, was thrown in jail on charges of abetting his suicide. Soon, the Narcotics Control Bureau raided her home and those of other major figures in the movie industry, ostensibly in search of drugs but mainly to intimidate and sully reputations.

Modi used Rajput’s suicide to exploit Bollywood’s internal fissures and launch an outright culture war. One actor in particular led the charge.

I first met Kangana Ranaut in 2014, in New York City. I remember her as having a tremendous sense of fun. I recently came across a picture of us in Brooklyn, where she is wearing a summery white dress and silver sunglasses, and smiling broadly.

Ranaut looks very different in her WhatsApp profile picture, which presents her as a fierce figure of piety, wearing a blue sari and offering ablutions to Shiva. In 2019, before an audience of executives, journalists, and intellectuals, Ranaut defended a previous statement in which she had called for the destruction of Pakistan. (Her earlier comment had come in the wake of a deadly suicide bombing in Kashmir, for which a Pakistan-based extremist group claimed responsibility.* On hearing that news, Ranaut said, she had felt like going to the border and killing Pakistanis herself.) On another occasion, she described the movie industry as “full of such anti-nationals who boost enemies’ morals in many ways.” (Ranaut’s incitements to violence have led to her being banned from Twitter.) Last year, in response to unspecified threats, Ranaut was given a high personal-security designation by the Ministry of Home Affairs—a level that, according to news reports, is generally reserved for “someone who holds a position of consequence either in the government or in civil society.”

It’s hard to know whether Bollywood will emerge with its character intact. Johar, a child of the old Bollywood, is both a casualty of this new time and an enabler, trying frantically to remake himself in the image of Modi’s India. It’s an exercise doomed to fail. Johar has an incriminating body of work: movies with gay themes (Johar does not discuss his own sexual orientation, even though, as he has written, it is something that “everybody knows”) and movies that resist Islamophobia. My director friend recalls telling him simply, “Dude, you’re going to get fucked. You’re a fake.”

Last fall, after months of attacks, the movie industry showed a rare bit of gumption. Jaya Bachchan—Amitabh’s wife, and a member of the upper house of Parliament—described a “conspiracy to defame the film industry.” A few weeks later, a group of producers filed a defamation suit against cable channels allied with the government. Bollywood’s only chance of survival, given the weakness of India’s institutions, lies in its ability to stick together and marshal its star power.

Bollywood’s influence stretches well beyond India. The BJP knows this, and wants to bring it into line. In 1935, the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels went to see It Happened One Night, and later wrote enviously in his diary, “The Americans are so natural. Far superior to us.” Authoritarians always want that megaphone for themselves. One way to seize it is by making an example of a few while stirring fear and self-censorship among the rest.

This article appears in the July/August 2021 print edition with the headline “Can Bollywood Survive Modi?”

* This article previously misstated the nationality of the suicide bomber in Kashmir.