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

Narendra Modi - Getty - H 2019
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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 filmmakers 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 fueling 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. More than a hundred filmmakers, mostly indie and art house 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),  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 birthplace 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). "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."

Kher earlier reaffirmed his staunch support for Modi by starring in The Accidental Prime Minister, which was considered an attack on the opposition Congress party and its leader, Sonia Gandhi. In the film, which released in January, Kher played the role of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The film was based on the book of the same title by Sanjay Barua, Singh's media adviser during the former prime minister's tenure from 2004-2014 under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. Critics dismissed the film, which was a critical and commercial disappointment, as blatant propaganda for its unflattering portrayal of Singh and Congress leader Gandhi. 

While Bollywood superstars have refrained from airing their political views, they have still used their star power and massive social media followings 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 on 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, receiving more than 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 April 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.

The film stars Vivek Anand Oberoi essaying Modi, from his formative years as a tea seller to becoming chief minister of his home state of Gujarat and, ultimately, prime minister when he led the BJP to victory in the 2014 elections.

India's elections will run from April 11 to May 19 with final results to be declared May 23.