Decoding Boycott Bollywood trends: How the Hindi film industry is grappling with fear, hate and hashtags

What can lead to calls for boycott of Bollywood films today? An actor’s opinion about the country’s situation or a frivolous joke on Koffee with Karan? An apparent use of one’s privilege, an out of context movie scene or — bizarrely even– a tweet? The Hindi film industry, which is struggling with poor box office results against an unprecedented negative wave, Laal Singh Chaddha and Raksha Bandhan being the recent examples, knows the answer: Everything. Artistes are not new to backlash. Movie stars and influential filmmakers have often found themselves in the middle of the storm, but seldom has the displeasure cemented into a systemic hate against the entire film industry, the way it stands today. This year, in particular, has been rough on the industry as it not only saw the crushing failure of almost all its biggies, but also remained a mute spectator to the social media boycott trends against most of its major films: From Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha, Alia Bhatt’s Gangubai Kathiawadi, Ranbir Kapoor’s Shamshera to all three of Akshay Kumar films – Bachchhan Paandey, Samrat Prithviraj and Raksha Bandhan. Barring Gangubai Kathiawadi, all films sank without a trace, fueling the perception that boycott calls managed to transition from virtual hashtags to the real world, plummeting every film in its way to the ground. But did they?

Decoding Boycott Bollywood trends: How the Hindi film industry is grappling with fear, hate and hashtags All major Hindi films this year have come under attack, either for old statements of the stars or an issue with the movie’s narrative choices. (Photo: PR handouts)

2020: The Hate Wave Any understanding of what several industry insiders have called the “systemic” targeting of Bollywood in the last decade dates back to 2015, when Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan came under fire for their comments on the rising intolerance in the country. The Khans were whipped up in the political storm and faced extreme backlash from various sections. The hate, however, never dented their films. Shah Rukh managed to glide his Dilwale–which released just a month after his comments–to nearly Rs 140 cr despite poor reviews and clash with a superior film, Bajirao Mastani. The following year, Aamir headlined Dangal and broke all existing box office records, becoming one of the biggest hits of Indian cinema with nearly Rs 387 crore lifetime collection. But industry’s course took a turn for the worse in 2020, when actor Sushant Singh Rajput was found dead at his home. His sudden demise gave birth to uncountable conspiracy theories, vicious media coverage, rampant misinformation that put members of the Hindi film industry directly under attack. They were labelled drug addicts, murderers and a cunning bunch of immoral, anti-nationals. Industry’s largely unified silence — barring a statement from the producers association (IMPPA) and a defamation suit against certain TV channels and media portals alleging malicious reportage — hurt its reputation further and was received as part arrogance, part admission of guilt.

Achin Jain, producer at Sikhya Entertainment, tells indianexpress.com that Bollywood’s ‘no response is the best response’ approach deserved criticism because it only made the industry more susceptible to hate. “The whole industry is always ready to take a dignified silence and feels that ‘it will pass’. No one wants to make a comment because they know individual attacks will follow. But the reality is, we are letting these attacks to happen more freely on individuals. Nothing will change until everyone comes together. All producers, big influencers of the industry need to come together,” he says. Actor Gulshan Devaiah, however, believes the kind of relentless attack the industry was under, there was very little it could have done to fight it back. To expect unity, Gulshan says, is “misguided”.

“We all are not one big family or go to the same office or something. ‘Industry’ is an umbrella term and it has its hierarchies and power structures, both good and bad just as any other ‘industry’. Secondly I don’t think the industry could have done anything else but be quite.” According to Gulshan, the negativity was “so amplified” that nothing anyone said or did was going to ‘override the enormous zone flooding that was happening’. “Sushant’s career was an example and a benchmark of success, but what followed his tragic and mysterious death was a disgusting sh*t show exploited for attention by all kinds of people,” the actor adds.

An industry insider, on the condition of anonymity, says it’s this negativity spread across two years with no fact-check from Bollywood that has made the the boycott calls today feel “more intense”. “It was a systematic dismantling of one of India’s most influential soft power – Hindi film industry, headlined by the Khans. “Pandemic had made audience oversensitive, and the social media negativity further added fuel to fire. That makes it more intense today. It gave you two years of no film releases, no spokesperson to state facts, in an environment that was muddied with negativity on a daily basis.” Actor Arjun Kapoor during an interview with Bollywood Hungama also regretted that the industry “made a mistake by being silent” about the negative campaigns against it. “We made a mistake by thinking that our work will speak for ourselves…I guess we tolerated it a lot and now people have made this a habit. We need to come together and do something about it because what people write about us or the hashtags that trend, are far away from reality,” he said. Unsurprisingly, soon after his comments, Madhya Pradesh minister Dr Narottam Mishra slammed Arjun and said he should focus on his acting rather than “threatening” the audience.

Boycott vs Box Office After frequent closing of cinema halls due to multiple Covid waves in two years, when films started releasing consecutively, they faced the freshly minted ‘anti-Bollywood’ sentiment, which was formed in 2020. There was hate against Akshay Kumar’s Sooryavanshi as it was bankrolled by Karan Johar, whose infamous perception of being the flagbearer of nepotism became a reason for vicious trolling against him in the aftermath of the successful outsider Rajput’s death. Johar, one of the most influential filmmakers of the country, was accused of running a clique which apparently crushed celluloid dreams of outsiders and launched unworthy star kids on the broken backs of those without a famous last name. Rajput, his post 2020 fans claimed, was a victim of this unjust system. But Sooryanvanshi opened to smashing box office numbers and clocked an impressive nearly Rs 200 cr at the domestic box office. Another film which bulldozed the boycott calls to emerge a success was this year’s Gangubai Kathiawadi, headlined by another star who was heavily attacked for her film family roots: Alia Bhatt. What saved these films? Several trade experts say, the content.

“There was backlash against Alia Bhatt too during Gangubai but the film still worked. It’s very simple: If people find a film entertaining, nothing can stop it. Films are affected by not boycott—which today we can say can just affect a film’s business maximum by five percent—but poor quality content,” Rajasthan-based distributor Raj Bansal tell indianexpress.com. Bansal says because Bollywood has so far released subpar films, people are confused if the movies bombed “because of the boycott calls or because of bad content”. “Boycott is done by those who anyway don’t watch films in theaters. With this trend, they want to prove that they’re so powerful that if they call for a boycott of a certain film, it’ll flop. That’s not true.” Trade expert Taran Adarsh shares with indianexpress.com that one “cannot turn a blind eye” to the current situation. He feels the anti-Bollywood narrative is indeed strong, but not powerful enough to damage a good film. “You can’t deny it and say ‘nothing is happening’ because it is there. Somewhere, these boycott calls have made an impact. I’ve been speaking to a lot of exhibitors, and they tell me that people are not coming to the theatres also for this reason.  But the major reason is still that the content isn’t exciting,” Adarsh says.

Gulshan Devaiah is in agreement with trade voices, as the actor feels a good movie will always find its audience, irrespective of any campaign against it. “If a film is good, the trailer and poster and songs connect with the public, (then) it’ll have its fair run at at box office.  For example, boycotting ‘Gangubai’ didn’t affect its collection, on the contrary it might have accidentally boosted it,” he says. Devaiah, however, also finds the boycott culture as “exaggerated, aggressive and nauseating as cancel culture”. According to the actor, it is a kind of an “ideological and political opposition” to cancel culture. “In both cases, people are clearly upset about certain things but this is organised into a mass movement that’s misguided and exploited for power. It’s definitely as political in its nature as cancel culture is. The targeting is also very specific and very well defined, there’s ample evidence to suggest that. These things lack nuance or balance in their approach and that results in cherry picking instances that suit whatever narrative one wants to support or oppose in this matter,” he adds. According to the industry insider, boycott trends don’t affect a film, as much as the “narrative” around them does, as it takes the focus away from the film’s content to controversies. “But this again does more damage to an actors personal brand than the film. In terms of box office, if the content is solid, the film will work. There was a call for boycott during ‘Gangubai’ but with good content, the film did well. In contrast with Jayeshbhai Jordaar, there were no calls for boycott, the trailer did not click and so the film did not perform,” the insider adds.

‘The curious case of Laal Singh Chaddha’ No other Hindi film this year opened in cinemas to the degree of negativity with which Aamir’s latest Laal Singh Chaddha did. A heavily criticised trailer, followed by a dull marketing had already put a question mark at its box office fate. But just 10 days before its release on August 11, the film suddenly found its way back to spotlight, by sheer accident, which later proved to be fatal: relentless boycott calls.

In a group interview to promote the film, Khan was asked about the rise of boycott culture, which had also already targeted Laal Singh Chaddha for the superstar’s almost decade-old comments on intolerance. His statement was coupled with scenes from his blockbuster PK– where Rajkummar Hirani followed the journey of an alien on earth to question religious dogmas and superstitions — dubbed as ‘anti-Hindu’. Khan, one of the biggest stars on Indian cinema, while responding to the question appealed to people to watch his film in theatres and said he felt saddened that people believed he “doesn’t like India”. “I really love the country. That’s how I am. It is rather unfortunate if some people feel that way. I want to assure everyone that it’s not the case so please don’t boycott my films. Please watch my films.” Laal Singh Chaddha hit national headlines and till its release became a talking point. Also starring Kareena Kapoor Khan, the film failed to open well. More than 10 days after its release, Laal Singh Chaddha crawled towards Rs 60 cr, becoming one of the biggest flops of all times.

“If the content is good enough, the effect of boycott is there but extremely marginally. A very low percentage can affect the business of a film. If people make up their minds that they have to watch a film, nothing can stop them—be it IPL, examination period, bad weather or even boycott calls. But, if the films are weak, then yes, these voices become more powerful. That’s what happened with Laal Singh Chaddha,” Taran Adarsh explains. Bansal says because Laal Singh Chaddha happened to be an underwhelming Aamir Khan film, it empowered the boycott Bollywood voices to claim victory. “Even those who call for boycott of an Aamir Khan film will watch it if it’s a good entertaining film. He had given the intolerance statement before Dangal and yet that film was a blockbuster success. Even Thugs of Hindostan had opened to a whopping Rs 50 cr. So these things don’t really matter”. But what is worrying is that in Laal Singh Chaddha’s case, Achin Jain feels, is the way Aamir was attacked and anyone who had anything good to say about his film was also not spared. The producer says it was unbelievable how, when actor Hrithik Roshan tweeted praise for the film, there was a call to boycott his upcoming September release, Vikram Vedha.

“When something like this happens to your A-list star like Aamir Khan, it’s concerning because then what will happen to lesser mortals, what will happen to other filmmakers? The situation is such that Hrithik Roshan puts out a simple tweet about Laal and then there is a ‘Boycott Vikram Vedha’ trend.” “These are scary times. Right now we have to think before we speak. Today, we don’t know what people might find offensive,” he says.

The Nation Wants to… Boycott? In a recent interview with indianexpress.com, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap had summarised the mood of the nation in two lines: That it has developed an unhealthy obsession of boycotting everything. “We are living in very strange times. Two years later, Sushant Singh Rajput still trends everyday. These are strange times, where everything is to be boycotted. This country now has a boycott culture. If you are not being boycotted, then you don’t matter,” he had said. Taran Adarsh says the conversations around boycotts are slowly and steadily moving out of cell phones and trickling into daily lives. “I’ve seen people around me, who are not even remotely connected to movies, discussing comments of stars about the country. ‘Why did Aamir say that his wife is feeling unsafe in the country? Why did he demean our religion in PK?’ “These conversations are happening on social media and on ground as well. Aamir Khan had tendered a public apology, that if he has done anything wrong, he should be forgiven. That means he was somewhere feeling the heat,” Adarsh says.

Jain also feels that the targeting of Aamir Khan played out smartly, where a “sensitive issue like religion” was amped up to play with public sentiments. “It’s a smart play where an entire narrative is being derived. Everything that’s put out on social media is out of context. Aamir’s comments ten years ago were said in a particular context, people are also taking out one scene from PK. They’re also saying about army (that he disrespected it) but the film was passed through a due process by the CBFC, I’m sure permissions would have also been sought from the ministry of defence”.

According to the insider, the overall sentiment of the industry today is of introspection. Actors, directors are focused on doing better films, taking audience feedback and working towards course correction. “While producers who have a lot at stake are the ones concerned with boycotts and the narratives that are used to trend the subjects”. Gulshan Devaiah says he cannot gauge how anyone is feeling about the boycott Bollywood trend as he has not discussed it with anyone, but says ‘may be some are deleting their old tweets’. “I really don’t know, (but) what is truly happening is that this is a battle for power,” he adds.


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