Can Bollywood Survive Modi?
The Atlantic|July - August 2021
Its films have always celebrated a pluralistic India, making the industry—and its Muslim elite—a target of Hindu nationalists.
By Aatish Taseer

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 their ability to weave serious issues—social justice, women’s rights, gay rights, inter-religious 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, Bolly wood 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 Bolly wood 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.

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