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Kareena Kapoor: Bollywood and India’s problem with bigotry

Two days ago the number one Twitter trend in India was #BoycottKareenaKapoorKhan. This was based on an unsourced report stating that the actor had demanded ₹12 crores ($1.6 million) to play the part of Sita in a film. Neither the makers nor the actor was on record, yet enthusiastic bigots with a little help from a notorious social media cell were attacking the actor. The same handles which trended the hashtag also wanted Kangana Ranaut, an enthusiastic supporter of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to play the role. Should the casting decisions of Bollywood movies with million dollar budgets be decided on social media? Kareena and Saif Ali Khan, her husband, are no strangers to being used a political props for right wing attacks in India. After naming their first child, Taimur (widely associated with the Mongol warlord), they faced flak for days. They tried to offer a half-hearted defence but soon retreated into silence as pictures of Taimur became something of a cult. On February 21, 2021 the couple welcomed their second child. Nearly five months have passed but, the name of baby number two has not been made public by the couple, perhaps scarred and scared after the reaction to Taimur’s name. A huge public backlash Imagine that a name is what we are addressed by the world, yet a very high profile interfaith couple does not want to share their child’s name for the fear of facing a backlash and public abuse. Perhaps, the name Taimur was not the best choice but, shouldn’t the name a child be left to the parents? And, should they live in fear of revealing the most public of things — a name by which their offspring will be addressed by the world? For the past seven years I have investigated and reported the increased bullying of Bollywood by the BJP and its offshoots. As I revealed in my investigative book “I am a troll” inside the secret digital army of the BJP, superstar Aamir Khan faced a boycott campaign from his lucrative brand endorsement campaign after he repeated his wife Kirron Rao comments on “rising intolerance in India”. The trolls proved Rao right as Khan was dropped as the brand ambassador of an online major after a concerted campaign that targeted him. From Bollywood to OTT content, nothing is safe from attack by the trolls. A police case was filed against an OTT series Tandav for what was termed an objectionable portrayal of Shiva, Hindu deity, after which the makers apologised and deleted the scenes deemed offensive. Another case was filed against another series Bombay Begums by the child protection authorities for the way children were portrayed. In 2018, Karni Sena, a vigilante group, offered a bounty for anyone cutting off the nose of actor Deepika Padukone because they objected to a love scene between a Hindu princess and a Muslim king. Padukone also faced the ire of the ruling party when visiting the campus of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in August 2021 to stand with the protesting students. Sushant's death and a stormy year Subsequently after the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput the whole of Bollywood was under a so-called “drugs investigation”. The Narcotics Control Bureau summoned actors like Deepika Padukone, Sara Ali Khan among others. Rajput’s partner Rhea Chakraborty was arrested and jailed and reading out her WhatsApp messages became national sport for our “news channel”. The gross invasion of privacy and the salacious coverage demonised the young actor. So what does this all mean? Bollywood is India’s soft power and has an outsize influence on culture and consumption. The BJP has long wanted to harness this popularity the near craze for superstars to a political purpose. Now Bollywood for all practical purposes is divided in to a BJP-camp and the non-aligned. Those in the BJP camp include actors like Akshay Kumar who did the famous Modi interview before the 2019 general elections, asking the Prime Minister how he liked to eat mangoes? Kumar along with Anupam Kher, Amitabh Bachchan and Kangana Ranaut all support the BJP and were used by the BJP to attack the UPA government on the prices of fuel in 2014. As fuel prices skyrocket now, the actors are silent or have swiftly deleted their old tweets. Going after the A-lister Khans As Bollywood was demonised post Rajput’s death, Jaya Bachchan actor and Samajwadi Party MP in the Rajya Sabha, who is married to Bachchan, spoke about the campaign to defame Bollywood. Bachchan faced a huge backlash post her defence and has not spoken up again. Bollywood is one industry in India where Muslims are accepted and thrive to the extent that all the tree reigning superstars are Muslims — Sharukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan. All three are ageing in their mid fifties and not solid box office draws anymore. Khan who has a sparkling wit and intelligence has retreated in to utter silence. The superstars have the ability to influence millions and this is perhaps the reason that they have stopped speaking. Even an anodyne comment is met with the attack of the trolls on the three top stars, alleging imaginary “love Jihad” (marrying a Hindu to convert them). Two of the Khans are married to Hindus and Salman Khan has dated Hindu actors. The atmosphere is now so vitiated that revealing your child’s name could become a trending controversy. Somewhere we have lost our way, as the bullies rule. Swati Chaturvedi @bainjal Swati Chaturvedi is an award-winning journalist and author of 'I Am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP's Digital Army'.