Shashi Tharoor’s claim of conspiracy against Bollywood

Shashi Tharoor says that there is a conspiracy and even a war against Bollywood. This article is an answer to Tharoor’s bizarre theory.

Congress Member of Parliament (MP) Shashi Tharoor thinks there is a “conspiracy” going on against Bollywood. He stated this bizarre theory in a recent column for The Hindu newspaper.

Quite astonishingly, Tharoor suggested that the Sangh parivar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, judiciary, random social media users, the Enforcement Directorate and Narcotics Control Bureau are together conspiring against Bollywood.

In a political atmosphere charged with all shades of conspiracy theories, Tharoor has added one more.

His column suggests that the execution of this conspiracy began in 2019 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept all three ‘Khan superstars’ away from his famous selfie with Bollywood “A-list” personalities but its motivations lie in Sangh parivar’s long-held dislike for “diversity” and “composite culture” that Bollywood represents.

Why then the Modi government did not declare a war on Bollywood the day it was sworn into power and, instead, involved Bollywood ‘stars’ in promotional campaigns and indulged in that famous selfie after five years of being in power, Tharoor does not explain.

He also doesn’t quite state what the conspiracy is — is it the decimation of the film industry as a whole or bringing down the three Khan superstars of Bollywood?

To make his point that there is indeed a conspiracy and even a war against Bollywood, he cites the following events concerning the industry. This piece answers all of Tharoor’s hot takes on these events.

Tharoor: The recent media frenzy targeting actor Shah Rukh Khan following the arrest of his 23-year-old son Aryan for alleged drug possession (though it has since been admitted that no drugs were found on his person) has led to a major campaign against the film industry ecosystem that allegedly enables “drug culture”. While nothing yet has been established in a court of law, the episode is one more instalment in what appears to be a new drama series unleashed by the guardians of our public space — a war on Bollywood.

Comment: What this “major campaign” against Bollywood is, Tharoor does not specify. If Tharoor is talking about some angry tweets that might have appeared on his timeline or even a hashtag that may have been trending at some point, the accusation made is frivolous.

If Tharoor is hinting at Bollywood insiders and personalities calling out the “drug culture” within the industry they work (several including Kangana Ranaut and Ravi Kishan have made statements), then he is merely taking sides in an industry debate, and siding with the established and the powerful.

Tharoor dismissively speaks of the recent raid by Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) on a ship, where NCB seized 13 grams of cocaine, 5 grams of mephedrone, 21 grams of charas and 22 pills of MMDA (“nothing yet has been established in a court of law).

He says no drugs were found on Aryan Khan. In doing so, Tharoor is casting aspersions on not only the NCB but also the magistrate court that rejected Khan’s bail, over nothing but a conspiracy theory.

Like many ‘secular’ commentators, Tharoor is harping on Aryan Khan’s name to cry ‘vendetta’ even as no less than 18 people were arrested by the NCB in that raid — almost all of them non-Muslims. If Aryan Khan’s name is being propped up by the media more than others, then it’s certainly not because of his Muslim name. It’s obviously because of his superstar father.

All ‘superstars’, whether Khan or Bachchan or Kapoor, face the same media attention. Doesn’t the same media shower attention on Saif Ali Khan’s son Taimur far more than any other so-called star kid?

If the public is angry at Aryan Khan, it’s not because of his Muslim name but because of the fact that they have given a lot of love, money and fame to his father and the least they expect is for his son not to be a bad example for the youth.

Shahrukh Khan’s old interviews where he is talking of spoiling his son have added fuel to the public anger and rightly so.

It’s also amusing that while it was the Congress government that brought about strict laws against narcotics, Tharoor is angry when the agencies are cracking down.

Tharoor: Last year, there was an all-out assault on the character of starlet Rhea Chakraborty who, after months of media frenzy linking her to the death by suicide of her boyfriend, actor Sushant Singh Rajput, was arrested and detained for several days for allegedly buying drugs for him, claims she denied and which were never substantiated. This in turn had already led to a huge campaign against alleged drug abuse in Bollywood, with four other actresses being called in for questioning. No charges were made, but the process, as is so often the case, proved to be the punishment.

Comment: It’s amusing that Tharoor would include the questioning of Bollywood actresses by national agencies in connection with drug use, in his conspiracy theory of a war on Bollywood.

Tharoor’s anger that the “charges were never substantiated” and an actress faced “an all-out assault on her character” ring hollow, given that he has been a senior leader of a political party that kept calling Narendra Modi “maut ka saudagar” for several years. None of the many charges made against Modi have ever been proven, but Tharoor has chosen not only to stick to his political party but also remain silent on the smear campaign, let alone calling it a ‘conspiracy’ against Narendra Modi.

It’s disturbing that Tharoor’s only takeaway from what happened after actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death is that Bollywood was targeted.

Is it not true that Sushant Singh’s death is clouded in mystery? Is it not true that his associate Disha Salian died under mysterious circumstances only days earlier? Is it not true that the Mumbai police commissioner who (sloppily) handled the case, and went out of his way to stop Bihar police’s probe into it, has mysteriously gone missing and believed to have fled the country using a forged passport?

Why then should anybody wishing to know the truth be termed as “conspiring” against Bollywood or, worse, declaring a war on Bollywood?

Tharoor: But it is not just drugs that have been used to smear the film industry. In January this year, at least 10 police complaints were filed, in more than half a dozen States across the country, against film-makers, actors and Amazon executives of a made-for-television political drama called Tandav, which allegedly offended Hindu sensibilities by its depiction of a character portraying Lord Shiva. Another crime thriller, Mirzapur, underwent similar harassment, for similar reasons; A Suitable Boy had cases filed against it over a kissing scene filmed near a temple. In March this year, properties linked to film-maker Anurag Kashyap, actress Tapsee Pannu and Reliance Entertainment group CEO Shibhashish Sarkar were raided by the Income Tax department as part of a tax evasion investigation against a company, Phantom Films, that had been dissolved in 2018.

Answer: Tharoor must clarify if he approves of mocking Hindu deities and religious figures in the name of entertainment. If he does, he must clarify if that approval extends to religious figures and symbols of other religions. His past record suggests the answer is a big ‘no’.

Around the same time when Bollywood actresses were being questioned over drugs, which Tharoor now says is a war against Bollywood, a film called Muhammad, the messenger of God was banned from release by the Maharashtra government. The Muslim organisation that asked for the ban, cited potential violence as the reason.

If Tharoor did not see an Islamist conspiracy against the film industry then, why is he seeing a “Hindutva” conspiracy against Bollywood now when certain “anti-Hindu” content is protested against?

Above all, would Tharoor stand in defence of Tandav, Mirzapur or A Suitable Boy if they contained profanities against Islam’s prophet or showed kissing scenes near a mosque? We all know the answer.

Comment: The alarm bells have begun to go off in the minds of some in our political class. Maharashtra Minister Nawab Malik has alleged that the raids were an attempt to suppress the voices of those who speak against the central government. Jaya Bachchan — a one-time movie star herself, wife of megastar Amitabh Bachchan, and a member of the Rajya Sabha — decried a “conspiracy to defame the film industry”. The latest media campaign against Aryan Khan suggests the conspiracy is still alive.

Answer: Nawab Malik’s son-in-law Sameer Khan only last month came out of jail after spending nine months for narcotics-related crime. If he is now crying vendetta, what else was expected of him?

Jaya Bachchan’s statement in the Rajya Sabha was made as a Bollywood actor and not as a politician. This was clear by what she said — “jis thali mein khate hain usme hi chhed karte hain (they are biting the hand that feeds them)” — which was widely believed as directed against Kangana Ranaut and Ravi Kishan.

Jaya’s was a ridiculous statement, as it suggested that all whistle-blowers are biting the hand that feed them and are, thus, traitors.

It’s also amusing that Tharoor would cite some political leaders raising the issue of “defamation of Bollywood” to support his conspiracy theory. If political class raising it legitimises an issue, why Tharoor and his party continue to call ‘love jihad’ a figment of imagination?

Tharoor: As these allegations suggest, it is not really drugs that are the issue here for the powers-that-be. The alleged violation of our narcotics laws is merely a convenient cudgel to batter an industry that is disliked for other reasons. The political establishment recognises the outsize influence of Bollywood entertainment on the minds and attitudes of the broad viewing — and voting — public. What those in power, who have demonstrated their intolerance of points of view other than their own for some time now, really dislike is not what Bollywood does behind closed doors, but the content of what it puts out — what one might call the political culture of Bollywood.

Comment: Is Tharoor really suggesting that the Sangh parivar, narcotics agency, judiciary, and media and social media are collectively ‘victimising’ Bollywood for some of its popular personalities speaking against the Modi government? The way Tharoor has attempted to string together separate cases of drug raids and police cases for hurt sentiments to weave a narrative of a collective “war on Bollywood”, the same trick can be used to paint any group, any community, any industry as under attack. This defies logic and sense.

What it instead shows is that if there is a dominant “political culture” in Bollywood, it is intolerant to critical voices. If Bollywood insiders or outsiders questioning this culture are being branded as conspirators and traitors, it reflects poorly on the beacons of this culture.

Tharoor: When I wrote my novel Show Business in 1990, some Indian critics were surprised that I would follow The Great Indian Novel with a work that dealt with the trashy world of commercial Bombay cinema. But I did so because to me, Indian films, with all their limitations and outright idiocies, represented a vital part of the hope for India’s future. In a country that is still perhaps 30% illiterate, films represent the prime vehicle for the transmission of popular culture and values. Cinema offers all of us in India a common world to which to escape, allowing us to dream with our eyes open. And with 570 million Internet users, India also offers a remarkable market for new cinema for the OTT (over-the-top) platforms — direct to our laptops and mobile phone screens — a market Bollywood is poised to dominate.

Comment: What hypocrisy! Tharoor admits that Bollywood produces trash, but only because one-third of the country is illiterate (even after many decades of Tharoor’s own party being in power) and is an avid consumer of this trash, Tharoor sees value in it.

Does this not reek of opportunism where the privileged wants the masses to be addicted to trash as long as they can use the trash to keep them servile? Why would Tharoor not want people to stay away from trash?

This, not incidentally, is also the mindset of many so-called superstars of Bollywood. Saif Ali Khan has said on camera that he doesn’t watch any Hindi films and certainly not his own films. He said he consumes only foreign content. His wife Kareena Kapoor Khan has admitted she doesn’t watch her films either. Shahid Kapoor has said he doesn’t watch many of his films as he feels they aren’t worth watching in the theatre.

Tharoor: In India, popular cinema has consistently reflected the diversity of the pluralist community that makes this cinema. The stories they tell are often silly, the plots formulaic, the characterisations superficial, the action predictable, but they are made and watched by members of every community in India. Muslim actors play Hindu heroes, South Indian heroines are chased around trees by North Indian rogues. Representatives of some communities may be stereotyped (think of the number of alcoholic Christians played by a “character actor” like Om Prakash), but good and bad are always shown as being found in every community.

Comment: No, Bollywood does not reflect diversity. It never has. Through films after films, a Pundit has been painted as a fraud, a Baniya as greedy, a Thakur as lecherous and a Rahim chacha as the opposite of fraud, greedy and lecherous.

In its hundred years of existence, Bollywood has produced countless films mocking Hindu deities, but not one such film mocking the deities of other religions. The derogatory term ‘kaafir’ has been normalised, and even popularised, by Bollywood.

In countless films, Hindu characters are shown going to dargahs, offering namaz and singing praises of Allah and Nabi. How many films have shown a Muslim character attending a temple, prostrating before a Hindu deity or singing bhajans in the praise of Ram or Krishna?

In countless films, rapes have been shown in temples. How many times have such scenes been shown in mosques even though such cases are far more common? Tharoor is quite right when he says Bollywood produces trash, but way off the mark when he says the industry represents diversity and pluralism.

Tharoor: I was first struck by this quality of Bollywood not long after the Bangladesh War, when the 1973 film Zanjeer offered a striking pointer to me of what Bollywood had come to represent in our society. In the film, Pran played Badshah Khan, a red-bearded Pathan Muslim who exemplified the values of strength, fearlessness, loyalty and courage. This was just a year after the bloody birth of Bangladesh in a war in which most of the subcontinent’s Pathans were on the other side, but far from demonising the Pran figure, the film-makers chose not just to portray a strong Muslim character but to make him the most sympathetic presence in the film after the hero. This would not have been possible in many other countries, but Bollywood tended to be consistently good at this sort of thing, making megahits like Amar Akbar Anthony, about three brothers separated in infancy who are brought up by different families — one a Christian, one a Hindu and one a Muslim. The message was clear — that Christians, Hindus and Muslims are metaphorically brothers too, seemingly different but united in their common endeavours for justice.

Comment: Tharoor proves the point we made above. Bollywood does not stand for diversity or pluralism. It’s not Bollywood’s agenda. Instead, it shows a fiction that obfuscates reality.

What good has come out of the portrayal of Pran as a great, virtuous Pathan when every Hindu and Sikh in Afghanistan — the land of Pathans — has been forced to pack bags and flee? Through Sushmita Banerjee’s autobiography, we learnt that thousands of Indian women went to Afghanistan after marrying Afghani men in the 1980s and 1990s, only to regret their decisions.

Banerjee fled to Afghanistan too, only to make a life-threatening escape a few years later and eventually to be killed at the hands of the Taliban. It is not our case that all Afghani men are evil, but patting Bollywood’s back for portraying a Pathan in a great light a year after the Bangladesh War when “most of the subcontinent’s Pathans were on the other side [of India]” (Tharoor’s own words), reeks of a mindset that seeks to keep the “illiterate” Indians poorly informed. Or worse, misinformed.

And may we ask why Bollywood has not made a single film on the horrors Bengali Hindus faced in the same Bangladesh War?

Tharoor: This kind of message is unsurprising, given who makes these films. Many have observed that Muslims enjoy a disproportionate influence in Bollywood, most apparent in the dominance of the trio of actors Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, and Aamir Khan for three decades (six of the 10 highest-grossing films ever made feature one of the Khans). Several other prominent Bollywood stars — Naseeruddin Shah, Saif Ali Khan and the late Irrfan Khan — are Muslim. None of them was invited when, in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducted a famous photo-op with a couple of dozen Bollywood A-list personalities flown to New Delhi for the purpose.

Comment: Why is the Khans dominating the film industry repeatedly used to certify Bollywood’s so-called secular credentials? Why doesn’t it surprise Tharoor that Muslim actors have a disproportionate representation in Bollywood? Why is this dominance not seen in other domains where selection is strictly on merit? Given Bollywood’s deep connections with the likes of Dawood Ibrahim, why should this not raise suspicion instead?

Tharoor: In today’s charged political atmosphere, generated by the ascendancy of political figures associated with Hindutva, the photo-op suggested that the “A” in “A-list” seems increasingly to stand for “appeasement” of the authorities. Many Bollywood celebrities embarrassed themselves by participating in a Government-run social media campaign to denounce global celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg for their support to our agitating farmers, earning themselves the sobriquet “#Sellebrities”.

Comment: Here, Tharoor contradicts himself. While he began his column by stating that there is a conspiracy against Bollywood, he is now accusing Bollywood “A-listers” of appeasing the government.

If the “A-listers” are not complaining, why is Tharoor claiming victimhood on their behalf? At this point, it appears that the prime grouse of Tharoor is that Bollywood is pro-Modi government. That’s a complete about-turn from the claim on a war on Bollywood.

Tharoor: The real problem is that the Sangh Parivar dislikes diversity, and the film world embodies the very idea of India’s diversity in the way in which it is organised, staffed, and financed — and in the stories it tells. Everything about Bollywood embodies the “composite culture” whose very existence is an affront to the uni-dimensional bigotry of Hindutva. And as India’s entertainment has opened itself to more and more global influence, India’s “mainstream” cinema has increasingly shown a capacity for tackling serious themes — caste discrimination, rural injustice, sanitation, women’s rights, menstruation, female sexuality, interreligious marriage, homosexuality and even global Islamophobia have featured in recent films.

Comment : Tharoor is accusing everyone who doesn’t agree with the dominant “political culture” of Bollywood as being against “composite culture”. That anybody who questions the normalisation of ‘kaafir’ is against composite culture and a bigot. That anybody who questions Bollywood’s one-way portrayal of inter-religious marriages is against composite culture and a bigot. That anybody who questions why caste discrimination is shown as a feature of the Hindu society only, is against composite culture and a bigot. That anybody who questions why Bollywood hasn’t produced one film on women’s (lack of) rights in the Muslim society and even presented polygamy and triple talaq as virtues, is against composite culture and a bigot. That anybody who questions why Bollywood has given no films on anti-Hindu Moplah riots, Kashmir exodus, or ‘sar tan se juda’ rallies, is against composite culture and a bigot.

Tharoor: This worries those who prefer Bollywood to continue to limit itself to formulaic entertainment, the proverbial “bread and circuses” necessary to distract the general public from governmental failures. The plot is thickening. New Internet guidelines, whose application and operations are yet to be tested, have already prompted Amazon Prime Video to suspend plans for a second season of the popular rural political series Paatal Lok. Other releases are reported to have been postponed indefinitely. Even the prospect of official disapproval has already had a chilling effect.

Bollywood, which makes over 2,000 films a year, has long been India’s calling card to the world of entertainment. Our films and TV shows have the capacity of going global on the small screen the way Korean cinema has but Chinese has not — because censorship and intimidation stifle one set of film-makers and not the other. The remarkable creative talents available in India could make the country a global leader for such worldwide offerings. But to do that we must allow our film-makers creative freedom, stop harassing them and cease encouraging media persecution. It is time to rise up in defence of Bollywood.

Comment: Bollywood does not produce 2,000 movies a year as claimed by Tharoor. This figure is estimated for films made in around 20 languages across India.

Is Tharoor really blaming the Indian viewers or Hindutva for the fact that Bollywood has not been able to capture global audience the way Korean cinema has?

Tharoor seems to have forgotten the most probable reason behind it, which he himself admitted at the beginning of his column when he called commercial Bombay cinema a “trashy world” that tells “silly” and “formulaic” stories with “superficial” characters.

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