“Is not this same white missionary beach that gave 4 stars to raees, a movie on an anti-national Moslem terr0rist? Any Hindu actor’s movie, this hater tries to pull it down!” (sic)
This comment was one of many that appeared below my review of the Hindi film Jolly LLB 2, starring Akshay Kumar, published on Firstpost this month. If it weren’t so venomous, it would be funny. A friend with a vivid imagination says “missionary beach” conjures up visions of hanky panky in the sand — an experience I cannot claim to have had. Just as I did not give Raees a four-star review, I rated it 2.5 stars. Whatever. The truth, as you know, is irrelevant to propagandists. They prefer what Donald Trump’s aide Kellyanne Conway describes as “alternative facts”.
So what’s new? After all, falsehoods and personal attacks against critics in the virtual world are as old as the day websites first opened their comments sections to the public. The preceding paragraphs signal a relatively recent trend in online animosity though, evidenced by the pigeon-holing of Kumar.
“Hindu actor” — what does that even mean? A man may simultaneously be Hindu and an actor, but to place the two words side by side is as reductive and demeaning to his craft as tags like “woman journalist”, “gay filmmaker”, “Dalit writer” and “black singer” when used outside discussions on discrimination.
If you have been around long enough, this labelling may remind you of Hrithik Roshan’s smashing debut in 2000, which led to some distasteful right-wing cheer at the arrival of a “Hindu superstar”. The dominance of the three Khans in the Hindi film industry had been a sore point with the Hindu Right for a while, but the political atmosphere was different back then, and the attempt to celebrate an actor’s religious identity remained on the margins of our collective existence.
That began to change with the BJP and Narendra Modi’s general election victory in 2014. The subsequent flow of the ruling party’s Internet battalions into the film criticism space turned into a flood in 2015, when Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan both publicly condemned religious intolerance. Since then, these trolls have unrelentingly exhorted viewers to boycott — and critics to slam — films starring “Muslim actors” Aamir and Shah Rukh, and to back “Hindu actors” Ajay Devgn, Hrithik Roshan and Kumar.
How can we know that these are BJP supporters, you ask? Because their vocabulary and behaviour patterns have consistently mirrored BJP trolls, and mimicked the party and government’s reaction to these stars. For instance, online workers goaded “nationalists” to boycott Snapdeal, since Aamir was its brand ambassador, and Dilwale, since it starred Shah Rukh, even as the sarkar engineered the termination of Aamir’s association with the Incredible India campaign and bullied Snapdeal into leaving him. Meanwhile, these trolls have largely spared the other Khan, Salman. BJP insiders admit that this is one of Salman’s many rewards for his proximity to the PM and silence on the government’s shenanigans.
The repulsive communal profiling of Hindi film stars peaked this January when the SRK-starrer Raees clashed in theatres with Kaabil featuring Roshan. Online troops demanded that “nationalists” should skip Raees and make Kaabil a hit, while BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya batted for Kaabil with this obtuse tweet he claimed was about demonetisation: “The #Raees who are not for the country are of no use. We should all stand with a #Kaabil (worthy) patriot.”
As I write this column, I call up fellow critics to ask what they make of this ugly scenario. Raja Sen, whose reviews began appearing on Rediff in 2004, tells me, “The Hindu-Muslim divide among fan responses existed earlier too, but it was only one of many polarities including regionalism which one encountered as a journalist online. Now though, religion dominates responses to reviews. It is often clear that these people are not even paying attention to what you have written and that they are not necessarily film fans or mobs hired by some star’s PR, but may well be members of Chairman Modi’s orange army.”
Suparna Sharma, film critic for The Asian Age, offers this analysis: “Today’s online trolls attacking critics based entirely on the religion of certain stars are simply an extension of the ongoing campaign to communalise everything — the food we eat, the clothes we wear, how we vote, whether we stand for the national anthem or not... Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for us, box-office is secular. So while politicians and their Sanghi trolls can hound out, say, Pakistani actors from a film, they can’t really keep people out of theatres. I’d like to believe that critics, but more than them, audiences who queue up to buy tickets with their hard-earned money and commit two-three hours to a film, are above this sort of bunkum.”
Still, it is important to vocally condemn this well-strategised endeavour to infiltrate our reactions to cinema, because we cannot risk having well-meaning viewers and reviewers go the way of many political journalists, and subconsciously self-censor their public statements to avoid abuse. We live in a world where even shamshaan ghats (cremation grounds) and kabristaans (cemeteries) are being politicised. In this world, more than ever, it is important too to remind bigots that for a true cinephile, there are no “Hindu actors” and “Muslim actors”; there are only actors, characters, stories and films.
Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic; @annavetticad