Bollywood has long been a stronghold of India's diversity and pluralism. But the very same phenomenon makes them a target in today's political environment.
The film industry has played an important role in the formation of the country's much celebrated national narrative - a pluralistic India. Its movies have brilliantly blended pressing social issues (women's rights, LGBTQ rights, social justice, etc.) into a commercial package. Entertainment and political themes are intertwined in Bollywood films, aptly representing India's diversity best.
However, it appears that the industry is under threat for the very reason that made it powerful in the first place. The source of Bollywood's power and pride has been the prey of a vulture which seeks to rewrite the narrative. Under pressure, can Bollywood survive the antagonism?
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is using every means to restrict the creative freedom of Bollywood, particularly the impact of elite Muslims, who make up a large percentage of the industry.
Indiscriminate tax inquiries and unfounded allegations against actors and directors are becoming commonplace. Modi has successfully created an atmosphere of intimidation and harassment to silence the film industry, Bollywood.
In Bollywood, Muslims have always had an outsized influence. For the last three decades, the Khans - Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir - have had disproportionate power in the Hindi film industry over most other actors. Six of Bollywood's 10 highest-grossing films include one of the Khans. In addition to that, a large number of Bollywood's most significant studio owners have been Muslim.
To most Indians, the Khans' dominance is a symbol of the country's liberal secularism. But it irritates radical Hindus, adeptly represented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP has criticised all three Khans in recent years, with the customary "go to Pakistan" taunts.
The newest chapter of Modi's concerted effort to dismantle Bollywood's influence was the arrest of Aryan Khan, son of Shah Rukh Khan. Often called the 'the king of Khans' or 'King Khan,' he is arguably the most influential actor in modern Bollywood history, not only in India but to the outside world as well.
SRK and BJP: No love lost
On 3 October, India's Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) arrested Aryan onboard a cruise ship off the coast of Mumbai. It became clear quickly that this was no ordinary instance of suspected drug use. The lower courts denied his bail application twice, and he had to stay in jail for 28 days regardless of the fact that no narcotics were ever found on his person.
But what is the bigger picture? Isn't it just a political decision to not release Aryan Khan on bail for nearly one month? Is it a vendetta against a man, an industry, Muslims in general or more?
Speculations are in abundance, and the social media is polarised. And the showdown regarding Aryan Khan's arrest, with its every twist and turn, is perhaps intended to teach Bollywood a lesson - a lesson to tame the industry. And who is out there more important than one of the Khans?
A product of India's strong democratic institutions and culture, Shah Rukh represents the country's missionary schools that taught equality, its subsidised college education that taught inclusivity and its secular theatres from which he emerged - and that image of India is changing.
Shah Rukh represents India's secular spirit of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood. A Muslim by origin, Shah Rukh has never been recognised as just a 'Muslim actor.' Instead, he has portrayed personalities ranging from Raj to Raees Alam.
But in 2010, he ventured to challenge Islamophobia in "My Name is Khan" with the slogan "and I Am Not a Terrorist." It is no coincidence that there has been a rise in excessively patriotic blockbusters cinemas catering to Hindutva sensibilities since the BJP and Modi came to power in 2014.
Politics and Bollywood
The BJP has been promoting its Hindutva and anti-Muslim agenda in many aspects of Indian society. But Bollywood, the Hindi film industry, has mostly eluded it, more or less. So it is not unexpected that the whole affair was seen as a Muslim celebrity being targeted for not supporting the Narendra Modi administration like others in the film business.
This attack on Bollywood is motivated by a potential election gain, political vengeance and a desire to insult Muslims. Modi-led BJP has stifled India's once-vibrant press and suppressed free expression since taking office in 2014.
Liberal and secular values have been sidelined. As a result, India is on a converging point. Old India is phasing out, and a new version of India is being installed on the basis of a straight version of a Hindu nation.
Bollywood represents the antithesis of what BJP preaches. To Modi's new version of India, the fact that Bollywood's cinemas portray Hindus and Muslims getting along, and that its characters and real-life people preach liberal principles is just too much of a danger. Bollywood has no place in this new India. Simply put, Bollywood's values are not welcome.
BJP represents different values and wants to give India a new identity. As BJP and Bollywood are portraying distinct versions of India, this clash, in that sense, seems inevitable.
Bollywood is not beyond problems. Under the veneer of glamour, Bollywood's connection with black money, underground dons, drugs are not unheard of but mostly overlooked, even if they are true stories.
But since the BJP came to power, things are not business as usual. Bollywood is under the microscope. Quite understandably so, the latest Aryan Khan debacle has a bigger story than what meets the eye.
In the new India, no values that do not align with Hindutva are tolerated.
There is an election knocking at the door
And this entire showdown follows a familiar recipe. When actor Sushant Singh Rajput, a Bihari, killed himself last year, BJP was electioneering in Bihar. Shushant's girlfriend, Rhea Chakraborty, was blamed of drug abuse and eventually it was made to appear that she was connected to his suicide. The NCB detained Rhea for a month before releasing her on bail.
This time in Uttar Pradesh, there is another election knocking at the door. And BJP is depending on its traditional and trusted technique of creating tensions. Aryan's arrest is a sequel to last year's drama.
In fact, every important election is tied to some kind of political ploy since the BJP took office. A very common strategy, shaped by a narrow version of Hindutva, is to paint or depict Muslims, seculars - basically all others who do not fit in with their vision, as menaces. To prove that point, they need someone to vilify. For that reason, Aryan Khan may as well just have been a scapegoat.
Taunting Bollywood offers other advantages for the BJP, such as irritating the Maharashtra government. The local Shiv Sena ended its long partnership with the BJP in 2019.
BJP has hardly let any divisive issues escape without scoring some political points. Bashing the Muslim is an extra bonus. From stoking fear to sowing hatred - all the strategic tools are being employed to ensure BJP's creation of the new India.