Bollywood vs. Indies: India’s Film Industry Sharply Divided as Elections Get Underway

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Hollywood Reporter
The country’s mostly independent film community is openly protesting against the “harmful regime” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is seeking a second term while some mainstream Bollywood talent are backing the leader and even supported his voter awareness campaign.

As voting begins in the world’s biggest democracy, India’s film and creative community is more divided than ever, as well as more vocal, when it comes to the state of the country’s politics.

In a first of sorts, scores of film-makers and other creative talent have openly urged voters to reject Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) which is seeking a second term after it swept the 2014 elections in a landslide victory. The BJP is considered a right wing Hindu nationalist party and critics have slammed it for fuelling a polarizing and charged political atmosphere.

The country’s diversified film industry not only includes mainstream Hindi language Bollywood but also a robust regional language industry and a burgeoning indie scene. Over a hundred film-makers, mostly indie and arthouse helmers such as acclaimed documentary-maker Anand Patwardhan, Gurvinder Singh (Anhey Ghodey Da Daan) and south Indian directors Sanal Kumar Sasidharan (Sexy Durga) and Vetrimaaran (Visaranai), among others, recently issued a statement urging voters to “do everything in their capacity to keep this harmful regime from coming back to power.”

Patwardhan is known for his hard hitting films attacking the right wing, starting with his acclaimed 1992 title, In The Name of God, which chronicled how the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right wing Hindu organization, waged a campaign to destroy an ancient mosque in the city of Ayodhya in central India, which is considered the birth place of the Hindu god Lord Rama. Patwardhan’s latest release, Vivek (Reason) bowed at Toronto and also picked up the best film award at Amsterdam’s IFDA honors. In its review, THR said that “this teemingly detailed four-hour epic exhaustively examines the rise of right-wing Hindu extremism through the bloody prism of politically inspired killings over the past half- decade.”

The chorus of dissent against Modi was further raised with another recent joint statement from additional creative talent such as acclaimed helmer Anurag Kashyap (co-director of Netflix’s first Indian series Sacred Games), veteran film and theater actor Naseeruddin Shah (his Hollywood credits include The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and actress and director Konkana Sen Sharma (A Death in the Gunj), among others. “We appeal to our fellow citizens to vote for love and compassion, for equality and social justice, and to defeat the forces of darkness and barbarism,” said their statement urging voters to “vote bigotry, hatred, and apathy out of power. Vote against the BJP and its allies.”

On the other hand, Modi has found support in more mainstream Bollywood talent most notably veteran actor Anupam Kher (also well known in Hollywood with numerous credits such as Silver Linings Playbook and NBC series New Amsterdam). The 64-year-old actor, whose wife, actress Kirron Kher is a BJP member of parliament, has openly criticized members of the film community who are against the ruling government.

“So some people from my fraternity have issued a letter for public to vote out the present constitutionally elected government in the coming elections,” tweeted Kher. He added: “In other words they are officially campaigning for opposition parties. Good!! At least there are no pretensions here. Great.”

While Bollywood superstars have refrained from airing their political views, they have still used their star power and massive social media following to support Modi’s voter awareness campaign.

Responding to Modi’s tweet some weeks ago which stated that “voting is not only a right, but it’s also a duty”, superstar Aamir Khan posted, “Absolutely right sir, Hon PM. Let us all engage as citizens of the biggest democracy in the world. Let us fulfill our responsibility, and avail of our right to get our voice heard. Vote!”

Similarly, top actress Alia Bhatt also posted a response stating, “A vote is a nation’s voice. A nation’s choice. Use your voice. Make your choice.”

In January, a contingent of top Bollywood stars flew down to the capital New Delhi to meet Modi to “discuss the participation and contribution of these youth icons from the Hindi film industry in nation-building”, according to reports. Leading producer-director Karan Johar later posted on Instagram, “Powerful and timely conversations can bring about change and this was one of what we hope will become a regular conversation,” adding that meeting Modi “was an incredible opportunity..”

The meeting also led to the “selfie of the year” posted by Johar which went viral and showed Modi with actors Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor, Ayushmann Khurrana, and Bhatt, among others.

Mainstream Bollywood’s support for Modi is being further cemented with the upcoming biopic on the leader titled PM Narendra Modi. However, the film’s release has been stalled following an order by the country’s Election Commission Wednesday stating that the release of any biopic connected to a political party during elections would be a violation of the commission’s Moral Code of Conduct. Since its trailer was unveiled two weeks ago, which received over 20 million hits, the film has been criticized for being a propaganda vehicle for Modi to fuel his election campaign. The film’s earlier release date of Apr. 5 had to be postponed after the Congress lodged an official protest and even filed an appeal in the Supreme Court which ruled that the final decision should be given by the Election Commission.

India’s elections will run from Apr. 11- May 19 while final results will be declared on May 23.

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