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India will know who we have elected to govern us on June 4, but an important indicator of what ideology currently holds sway in India is the one thing that unites all Indians: Bollywood.

As my dear readers of SWAT analysis will know, we track Bollywood closely because it represents the most powerful popular culture in India. As the poet Javed Akhtar pointed out with acuity, “cricket and Bollywood are the two religions in India”.

And, Bollywood is changing colours at a striking rate. When the Khan trinity of Shahrukh, Salman, and Aamir Khan ruled movies, they were agnostic; they may have been called “Rahul” in the movies, but religion wasn’t such a big deal in the movies.

Now the Khan trinity is pushing sixty and has been individually hounded by an ideology which seeks to dominate movie thought because films are still the Uber medium to convey gigantic messages.

So consider some of the films made and under production currently: Godhra with the subtitle “Accident or Conspiracy”, Savarkar, Razakar, JNU with the subhead “Jahangir National University” with a fist clenching India in the poster asking, can an educational university break the nation, Article 370, Bastar - the Naxal story, and The Sabarmati report.

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Whitewashing historical figures

An award-winning director, much attacked by the right-wing trolls, tells me, “Bollywood always salutes the powers that be; we have no spine to take on anyone, and the veto of street power terrifies us. When Aryan Khan, son of the country’s biggest superstar Shahrukh Khan, was arrested and kept in jail for over a month in a false drug case, it sent a chilling message to the sections of Bollywood who were still pretending that they would not fall in line. Now we only want to do projects which will make the powers happy.

Also, let me be honest, the funding for these projects is currently overflowing; you have no problems raising money, and the entire ecosystem gets busy to promote your films.”

I asked the filmmaker, who I know well and who has made soul-stirring films, if I could name him for this quote. He laughed and said, “I talked to you because I trust you and you understand the situation if you want me to face raids, sure, name me.” Silence prevailed on the phone after I promised heartfelt anonymity to him.

OTT platforms, which were seen as a new hope for telling stories which could be bold, topical, and not necessarily big tentpoles, now face a huge threat and censor from offended and hurt sentiments which involve arrest threats as multiple cases are registered across them in the huge Indian landmass, and there is always an implicit threat of violence.

OTT platforms now self-censor and don’t green-light any “content” which is deemed “controversial”. What this means for creativity is a no-brainer. History is conveniently rewritten to make victors of the vanquished and whitewash acts of historical figures.

A form of blackmail

As the organised attack against Sharukh Khan’s film Pathan underscored, even the use of a colour for swimwear worn by female lead Deepika Padukone made a particular section of the thought police livid.

The biggest open secret currently in Bollywood is that some social media handles which trawl current and old Bollywood films for “upsetting secular content” and imaginary attacks on deities can be quietly paid off. It’s a clear form of blackmail which post payout vanishes as fast as the social media attacks.

A top actor told me, “a paid trend attacking me will lead with a comment I made years ago about food, or something trivial in a forgotten interview. I will be attacked as being disrespectful to the majority faith. My films will be attacked. Then an approach will be made to “settle”. If we pay up, the public attacks will end. Bollywood has always paid “hafta” (extortion) only the people demanding the dough have changed.”

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A clear indicator

You could argue that Bollywood is filled with spineless actors who have always genuflected to political power the way superstar Amitabh Bachchan has always been close to leaders who rule the country running the gamut from Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, even being the Congress party member of Parliament for Allahabad now Prayagraj and now being the face of the BJP government schemes such as Swach Bharat and earlier a brand ambassador for Gujarat tourism. But, Bachchan is hardly the only one; nearly all actors in Bollywood queue up for meet and greets with important political leaders.

When Jawaharlal Nehru was PM and the dominant ideology that animated politics was secularism, actors and directors like Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, and Dilip Kumar made films which told secular stories.

Later, director Manmohan Desai made secular blockbusters like Amar Akbar Anthony. Now as the dominant ideology is saffron, Bollywood reflects that. But, it’s more insidious; some of these propaganda films are packaging hate against certain minorities.

This bigotry and hate transmitted via the most viral and popular medium against a hapless minority should worry us all. It’s also a very clear indicator of the way India is headed.