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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 3, January 7, 2023

Understanding Bollywood Boycotts | Ahmed Raza

Saturday 7 January 2023

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by Ahmed Raza *

EVER SINCE THE film Pathaan’s song ‘Besharam Rang’ has been released, a call for boycotting the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer has been doing the rounds on social media in India. This is nothing new. Shah Rukh has come back to films after a five-year hiatus looking sleeker than either Aamir or Akashay, all in their post-50s and contemporaries, even younger-looking than Salman who makes a cameo appearance in this film.

Every time a big Bollywood star comes with a new film, the competition industry generates a controversy. It is taken that controversy will tank the film and Pathaan’s production cost, said to be Rs 250 cr, will not be recovered. At least the attempt is such. Unlike Akashay Kumar, Shah Rukh’s refusal to support the ruling dispensation’s saffron ideology would be the obvious reason for the animosity against Pathaan, even before it is released in the halls. The objections are more than the handiwork of the bhakt brigade with little to do, however.

Politics, as we know, has a great deal to do with Bollywood boycotts. Let us take the controversy over the Deepika Padukone-starrer Padmavat a few years ago. Its production cost was pegged at Rs 190 cr, one of the most expensive films in 2018. Despite all the brouhaha, it collected about Rs 350 cr in box office, recovering costs for Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Deepika’s political affiliations, her solidarity with JNU students and the anti-CAA protests were some of the reasons for the ‘boycott Padmavat’ call. The Karni Sena threatened Deepika. Former royals of Jaipur called for total ban on the film, saying that Bhansali’s film showed queen Padmini in bad light. Objecting to the ‘Ghoomar’ song, the Judeo family of Chhattisgarh said, ‘History has witnessed that none of the Rajput maharanis has ever danced in front of anyone, and they cannot play with history’. There was no arguing with them that Padmavati (the original name) was a film and had creative licence. Haryana minister Vipul Goel sought changes in the film, saying, ‘glamourising Alauddin Khilji’s character was akin to praising those who carry out acid attacks on girls’. He had had no praise for Chhappak (2020), however. Others objected to ‘highlighting the romantic angle’.

 Those reasons continue to stand for Deepika, lead actor in Pathaan. Its an adult film and ‘Besharam Rang’ is a beautiful tune tied to a brazen lyric, picturised in exotic Mediterranean locations. And, the colour saffron, of course, cannot be proprietorial, at least not in India, where it has been used by the poorest friar and the richest monarch since ancient times.

One thing to remember, Padmavat, with all its cuts and conditions, was a pre-Corona, hall release. In between has come two-years of no hall-releases, lockdowns and a plethora of OTT platforms. Shah Rukh’s hall release, for cinema buffs, is as important as Mani Ratnam’s Rs 500 cr-Ponniyan Selvan I. There was no way for Shah Rukh to look less glam than the southern star Vikram. What OTT has done, one must note, whether it is Pathaan or PonniyanSelvan — the OTT releases are multilingual as hall releases now have to be.

Unfortunately, politics often ignores technology, that which gives primacy to twitter posts is also the same technology that brings films to pan-Indian audiences. And Indian cinema is now linked to the politically-motivated narratives and the attempt is to label every film ‘a nationalist movie’. A secular theme makes a film ‘anti-national’. The Hindi-cinema scenario — that is what is popularly called Bollywood film — has thus been compromised. There have been attempts to colour a film like Ponniyan Selvan with Hindutva, whether or not in Buddhist Lanka, Raja Raja Chola propagated Saivite beliefs. As mega-theatre, this has not mattered for the Tamil film, it should not matter for Pathaan either. It is a show, after all.

Interestingly, the Bollywood movies which are boycotted mostly have nothing to do with nationalism. More often than not, it is due to a top superstar in the lead role who pronounces his/her views on social or political issues. Lal Singh Chaddha and Raksha Bandhan, with the lead actors Aamir Khan and Akshay Kumar respectively, were released on the same day but both the movies saw audience rejection not because of politics or nationalism but because the narrative was narrow. This needs greater introspection.

It would be wrong to say, Bollywood is waning even as South Cinema rises. More appropriate perhaps would be to say, imagination is dying in Bollywood. Lal Singh is a remake of Forest Gump. In India, the film did not sit well. Raksha Bandhan failed to entertain modern India, no matter how loudly north of the Vindhyas is shouting ‘parampara’. Not that there could not have been a great film made out of Devgan’s Udham Singh, India’s Oscar entry. The flamboyance expected in a film like this was lacking. Daljit Dosanjh-starrer Jogi, on the other hand, could have been a great film, had it the same promo as, say, Pathaan. In contrast, films like Bahubali, Ponniyan Selvan, even a film like Kantara is entertaining, able to hold. What is seen in these is new and local.

The continuous failure of Bollywood movies in the box-office can be linked to many other aspects which urgently need introspection from a film studies perspective. Often nepotism is blamed, as was the case in the death of the actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Do people’s talent and merit not get a recognition in the Bollywood industry? Is it totally justifiable to create a narrative that influential people and nepotism are the root cause for the consistent failure of Bollywood movies? Alia Bhatt’s performance in Gangubai Kathiawad and Raazi say otherwise. But India does not select women-centric films for Oscars. And bigoted boycott calls against Pathaan, Padmavat only add to the Bollywood industry’s owes. It is high-time Bollywood reinvents itself.

* (Author: Ahmed Raza is an assistant professor at the Department of Public Administration, MANUU, a central university in Hyderabad. He can be contacted on: ahmedraza[at]manuu.edu.in)

Edited by Papri Sri Raman.

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