A commentary on the double standards, selective outrage, and dangerous precedents being set, from Kerala story to Adipurush
What are the factors that can trigger calls for boycotting Bollywood films today? Is it an actor’s opinion on the country’s politics or economy or a frivolous joke on a talk show? Could it be a movie scene taken out of context or even a seemingly innocuous tweet? The trend of boycotts has become prevalent on social media platforms, particularly Twitter. Initially led by journalists, liberals, and those with dissenting views, there are underlying differences that need to be explored.
The Backlash against “Adipurush”
Om Raut’s “Adipurush” is a recent release that has generated significant controversy. Despite possessing all the elements of a blockbuster film, including a popular lead actor, a story based on a revered Hindu epic, a substantial budget, and endorsements from right-wing leaders and celebrities, the film has faced backlash from certain groups including the All India Cine workers association. Hashtags such as #BoycottAdipurush and #BoycottBollywood have trended on Twitter since June 16, 2023.
This situation highlights the hypocrisy surrounding artistic expression in India.
Controversial Films and Political Narratives
According to a BBC article “Adipurush” is one among a series of recent films aimed at appealing to Hindu viewers. The same article highlights allegations of distorted facts and Islamophobia in films such as “The Kerala Story” and “The Kashmir Files.” Interestingly, the right wing, which actively promoted “Adipurush” before its release, was the first to initiate the boycott once the film hit theatres. Going towards the 2024 general elections, India has a few more films in its lineup that may look to relay the narratives of the right wing.
Inconsistencies and Controversies
While the left-wing was quick to demand a ban on films like “The Kerala Story” and “The Kashmir Files” due to allegations of exaggerated narratives, they remained silent when it came to criticizing “Adipurush” for its lack of being true to the Hindu epic, video game aesthetics, subpar graphics, and two-dimensional storytelling.
While we can ignore the fact that the left wing is being so stand-offish for a topic that starts and ends with the right wing, the left has also not been consistent enough in its calls for banning films and calling for freedom of expression to be upheld.
Art is inherently political, and critics argue that even when an artist refrains from making an overt political statement, their silence itself can be perceived as a political stance. When a film plays with the religion of a real-life perpetrator from Muslim to Hindu and presents it as “artistic expression,” it becomes a political statement and loses its basis in true events.
One such example is the web series “Jamtara,” which portrays Hindus as key perpetrators and Muslims as news reporters who fight against a crime. However, in August 2021, the Delhi Police arrested 14 people from Jaamtara, and it was found that most of the key accused of the Jamtara group were Muslims. There were a few Youtube channels and media agencies that reported this.
While the above example was a misrepresentation of a real incident, another fictional web series titled “Paatal Lok” was unfairly criticized heavily by Right-wing groups and labeled “anti-national” and “Hindu-phobic” for having a storyline where minorities were ill-treated and served a legal notice for showing a woman being raped by Sikhs.
Sudipto Sen’s “The Kerala Story” was labeled as “propaganda” for polarizing the country’s political discourse, marketing a baseless allegation that “thousands” of women from Kerala were forced to convert to Islam and join the Islamic State (IS) terror group. While it is indeed documented that both Hindus and Christians who married Muslims in different parts of the country (including Kerala) were taken by their spouses to Afghanistan to join the ISKP (Islamic State – Khorasan Province) after marriage, it is an exaggeration which was problematic, right from the launch of its trailer.
“The Kashmir Files,” despite being one of the biggest box office hits of 2022, faced similar opposition from those who claimed it was propaganda supported by the BJP-led central government. The left-wing, which championed the cause of freedom of expression on other instances that suited their narratives, was quick to brand “The Kerala Story” as politically charged propaganda, resulting in its ban in certain states, despite receiving approval from the censor board.
Selective Support for Freedom of Expression
Freedom of expression has become a favored term among self-proclaimed liberal groups, on both sides of the spectrum. However, their support for this freedom appears to be limited to expressions that align with their own beliefs or ecosystem. For instance, when Aamir Khan’s film “Laal Singh Chaddha” faced a boycott due to his previous comments about feeling unsafe in the country, secular masses rallied behind him, citing the importance of freedom of expression in a democratic setup. Conversely, “Lipstick Under My Burkha” faced boycotts when the All India Muslim Tehwar Committee objected to the portrayal of Muslim women, citing religious sentiments. Similarly, Akshay Kumar had to apologize to Sikh religious heads for the film “Singh Is Kinng!” due to perceived disrespect. When it came to banning “The Kerala Story,” the left wing hastily labeled it as politically charged and propagandist, resulting in its ban despite the censor board’s approval.
Navigating Bias and Artistic Expression
The deafening silence of Bollywood, self-proclaimed secular intellectuals, and the hostility of the left-liberal elite toward a film portraying ethnic cleansing and violence against Hindus in the Kashmir Valley reveals a blatant bias against right-wing narratives. Just as “Schindler’s List” resonated with the Jewish community, “The Kashmir Files” holds personal significance for the thousands of displaced Kashmiri Hindus, as it was supported by those who experienced the exodus firsthand.
Steven Allan Spielberg, the director of Schindler’s List had a Jewish background, while the film Kashmir Files was backed by many of those who were part of the exodus in the 90s and had personal validation by those affected by the events.
While accusations of Islamophobia and false claims were used to call for a ban on “The Kerala Story,” similar allegations against films like “Haider” were dismissed as mere fiction. Such inconsistencies expose the hypocrisy of left liberals. When a film tries to humanize terrorists or give context to why the terrorist picked up arms other than the fact that he was brainwashed by The Book, it is a political statement. On the other hand, films like “Padmaavat” were defended despite accusations of glorifying atrocities committed by the Turkish Sultanate.
In the realm of censorship and celebrated films, Schindler’s List stands as a prime example of how even acclaimed masterpieces encounter dissent from political and religious factions. Despite its critical acclaim, this historical drama faced its share of negative criticism. Notably, Stanley Kubrick himself questioned whether any film could genuinely capture the magnitude of the Holocaust. When asked about the portrayal of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, he provocatively remarked, “Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. ‘Schindler’s List’ is about 600 who don’t. Anything else?” This serves as a poignant reminder of the complexities and debates that arise when attempting to depict sensitive historical events on the silver screen.
The film also faced significant scrutiny for its handling of sensitive themes. Even Jewish concentration camp survivor Helen Hirsch raised concerns about the movie’s portrayal, highlighting the potential sexualization of female suffering. Her sentiments echoed the sentiments of others, including Tom Coburn, co-chair of the Congressional Family Caucus, who expressed unease at the graphic nature of the film during its televised premiere on NBC. The explicit violence, language, nudity, and sexual content stirred controversy as viewers of all ages were exposed to its intense imagery.
Furthermore, within the Jewish community, there was a division of opinions regarding the depiction of Jewish characters. Criticisms emerged, asserting that apart from the nuanced portrayal of Schindler’s accountant Itzhak Stern, brilliantly portrayed by Ben Kingsley, other Jewish characters appeared as one-dimensional representations, devoid of psychological depth—a monolithic mass of weakness. These criticisms shed light on the complexities and differing perspectives that arise when navigating sensitive subject matter in cinema.
Yet, their ability to spark conversations and shed light on important stories should be considered a success. Ultimately, the perception and understanding of a film rest with its audience, and attempts to suppress or ban such films hinder artistic expression and meaningful dialogue.
The Consequences of Bans:
All art is inherently political and calls for bans on films often stem from accusations of inciting communal passions and spreading false narratives. However, the act of banning a film can backfire in several ways. Court rulings can overturn bans, and the controversy surrounding a banned film often generates curiosity and increases public interest, inadvertently amplifying its propaganda value and serving hidden agendas, if any. This is reminiscent of the infamous BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which despite being banned by the Indian government as “hostile propaganda and anti-India garbage,” only fueled heightened curiosity. Banning films contradicts the essence of freedom of artistic expression, a fundamental aspect of a thriving democracy.
The hypocrisy of calling to ban a film already censored by the film board lies in the contradiction between advocating for censorship and demanding further suppression. Film censorship involves a rigorous process of review to ensure compliance with guidelines and societal standards, striking a balance between freedom of expression and public interests. Regardless of political affiliations, calling for bans on films already certified sets a dangerous precedent, undermining democratic values. Open dialogue and debate are essential in discussing a film’s impact and societal implications.
Whether it is the left or the right, calling to ban a film that has already been cleared by the respective censor boards and even the Judiciary (for the film Kerala story) is anti-democratic. Calling for bans on films already certified will set a dangerous precedent.
Advocating for a ban post-censorship can be seen as hypocritical, disregarding established mechanisms and impeding artistic freedom. In such matters, the media serves as a crucial platform for analysis and information dissemination, highlighting contradictions and double standards. The role of Indian media in this regard remains a subject for readers to discern.
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this are that of the author and not necessarily of WeThePress.