Saif Ali Khan in Tandav
Saif Ali Khan in Tandav Image Credit: Amazon Prime

It’s been two weeks since ‘Tandav’ stirred up outrage in India for allegedly hurting religious sentiments and the dust has yet to settle.

Amazon Prime India, the streaming platform that stirred the pot by airing the politically-charged series, is currently bearing the brunt. There has been talk that its upcoming slate of shows hangs in the balance, with the second season of the Manoj Bajpayee-starrer ‘The Family Man’ facing delays.

Manoj Bajpayee, Kishore Kumar G., and Sharib Hashmi in The Family Man (2019)-1588323593970
The Family Man Image Credit: Amazon Prime

According to sources quoted by Indian new agency PTI, the release of the show has been postponed in the wake of the ongoing controversies over ‘Tandav’ and crime thriller ‘Mirzapur’.

While the makers or ‘Tandav’ have apologised over a scene in the series that features Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub playing a Hindu deity, Amazon Prime India’s controversies are far from a single instance. Days after the ‘Tandav’ brouhaha erupted, a case was also registered against the makers of ‘Mirzapur’ at Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur district for allegedly hurting religious sentiments.

The story is still developing with the Indian Supreme Court having denied granting interim protection from any coercive action to ‘Tandav’ director Ali Abbas Zafar, actor Ayyub and others facing multiple legal threats. Elsewhere, the Allahabad High Court has stayed the arrest of ‘Mirzapur’ producers Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani over he alleged indecent portrayal of the town Mirzapur and outraging religious beliefs.

Ali Fazal in Mirzapur-1603275963218
Ali Fazal in Mirzapur Image Credit: Amazon Prime

The current scenario appears to be unspooling like a Bollywood potboiler, some may say, but the plot is hardly an original one. A film, or now a web series ever since the digital boom, finds itself at the centre of a storm for promoting controversial content that often triggers backlash from extreme political groups and results in endless legal battles.

In the case of ‘Tandav’, BJP Member of Parliament Manoj Kotak, in a letter to India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar, said that the makers of the series “deliberately mocked Hindu gods and disrespected Hindu religious sentiments”. He called on the ministry to form an authority to regulate streaming platforms, and in the meantime, called for a ban on the series.

‘Tandav’s’ story serves as a cautionary tale for Bollywood that often finds itself tackling touchy subjects in an attempt to go beyond vanilla flavouring with their content. Yet, is the outrage by certain pockets of society justified? And does the negative press ultimately benefit the product through word of mouth? We find out.

Celebrities on hate speech and how to combat it

Learning to deal with haters and hate speech on social media is a delicate art-form, which can be more complex than acting itself, believes a cross-section of top Indian stars who are learning to deal with vitriolic venom that’s spewed at them daily.

Unlike enrolling yourself into an acting school to study the nuances of the performing arts, there’s no crash course on how to deal with faceless warriors armed with a keyboard and an extensive vocabulary on profanity.

“I don’t equate hate speech with free speech,” stated actor Abhay Deol, in a recent interview with Gulf News as he promoted his new film ‘Line Of Descent’ in Dubai in January.

Richa Chadha
Richa Chadha Image Credit: Supplied

Bollywood actress Richa Chadha — who swatted death and mutilation threats this January — has become hardened to such disturbing ultimatums.

When the poster of her new political saga ‘Madam Chief Minister’ released, a section of social media users considered the image of her character from the film holding the broom stereotypical to India’s marginalised Dalit community. She played a head of state in the film who smashes patriarchy to rise to the political ranks. Realising her mistake, the actress issued an apology but it was largely ignored.

Meanwhile, a bounty was placed to chop off her tongue by Nawab Satpal Tanwar, the alleged founder of Akhil Bharatiya Bhim Sena, a political fringe group, with calls to boycott the film doing the rounds.

“It doesn’t cost people much to sit on the internet and spew abuse and filth all day. I know my conscience is clean,” said Chadha, as she promoted her film. She made it clear that virtual venom doesn’t hold the power to scare her. But she compared the avalanche of hate to a country being governed by an authoritarian dictator.

“Their threats are pretty graphic … But I don’t want to amplify their stupidity. There are certain sections of people who think that they can get quick mileage or publicity by attacking someone else. But I don’t really care,” said Chadha.

But not everyone is as resilient and sturdy as her.

TAB Malavika Mohanan in Master IMDB-1611991969670
Malavika Mohanan in Master Image Credit: IMDB

For instance, actress Malavika Mohanan of ‘Master’ and ‘Beyond The Clouds’ fame, remembers a time when she was mercilessly trolled after her debut Malayalam-language feature ‘Pattam Pole’, opposite Dulquer Salmaan, released in 2013. She was 19 back then and didn’t have the bandwidth to process all that hate and body-shaming that came her way.

“When my first Malayalam movie had come out... [people] were so brutal when it came to trolling. They got personal and vicious … Why do you guys have so much hatred inside of you … especially against women?,” asked Mohanan.

The ‘Master’ star believes that opinionated women in India are softer targets when it comes to hate-speech on social media.

“I have seen some comments they post under [actor] Parvathy’s posts … I always get confused by the hatred inside them … What do these people against women who are doing well, who speak their mind and women who have an opinion? … Why can’t a person have her own opinions?,” questions Mohanan.

She remembers distinctly about being trolled for being ‘too skinny’ and ‘not curvy enough’. From body shaming to blasphemy, anything’s game for these haters and hate speech advocates on social media, believes the actress.

“Women actors are soft targets … When my first film came out, it was my first time being exposed in such a way where people are commenting about my acting, the way I look … I am being polite when I say that they said I was skinny … things got very spiteful and graphic,” said Mohanan.

The actress also believes that hate speech on social media knows no boundaries and aren’t bound by any code of conduct.

“Even a young girl or old woman wearing shorts can offend many …What is your problem, I want to ask them … Let anyone wear shorts,” said Mohanan.

Her belief to combat this kind of negativity is simple: “Never give into their bullying.”

“As actors or as people on social media who have any sort of influence, everybody just needs to stand up for themselves and not give into this sort of bullying. Stop giving into their kind of bullying where they dictate what you must wear or how you ought to behave or have a say in certain matter. These are just judgmental people who have nothing to do but spread hate,” said Mohanan.

Amit Sadh
Amit Sadh Image Credit: Supplied

Actor Amit Sadh, who was promoting his new TV show ‘Zidd’ on Zee5 recently in Dubai, also spoke about how complex the anatomy of hate speech on social media has become.

“We live in tricky, complex times … While we are trying to push boundaries as actors and with our stories, there’s a lot of hurt going around. It signifies the complexity of our nation like India … We need to upgrade our patience,” said Sadh.

He loathes the usage of the word ‘hate’ as it’s incredibly reductive. “I call it disapproving … The media is terming it as ‘hate’ … So if somebody is hurt or offended, having a conversation and a dialogue might go a long way in breaking that cycle of venom… We have to find a long-term solution,” said Sadh. Hate isn’t gender-coded either, believes this actor who made his debut with late actor Sushant Singh Rajput in ‘Kai Po Che!’ and topped it up with hit roles in series like ‘Breathe’ and ‘Zidd’.

“While I agree that anybody getting threatened is wrong, we live in dramatic times … I have never received a death threat, but I am not scared of them … Many a times, those issuing death threats are often exaggerating … If somebody on Twitter gives you a death threat, you can check if that person is a twenty or thirty-year-old idiot just making empty threats sitting behind a computer … Check if that person is even capable carrying out the death threat,” said Sadh, who promised to call his friend and colleague Chadha after this interview to find out about the volley of death threats she was receiving. His combat plan to obliterate hate speech is painfully simple and a tad utopian.

“We all need to relax … People are taking social media very seriously … It’s scary if somebody who made that threat comes to your home, then you need to worry … We need to learn how to gauge the complexity and the intensity of those threats that come our way,” said Sadh. His theory is that if Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can ban political leaders such as Trump, individuals can do the same.

“Remember we are not good with criticism or dialogue … The moment anyone gets uncomfortable, they show their dark sides. For us to grow as individuals, we must learn how to agree to disagree,” said Sadh.

Kubbra Sait
Kubbra Sait Image Credit: Supplied

For Kubbra Sait, the issue of hate speech and bodily harm threats being levelled on celebrities isn’t as simplistic.

“if I say something that’s not in line with the popular propaganda or narrative, then billions will start picking on me … The hate speech is shocking … our egos have become so fragile. Anything that we say which doesn’t suit you, can offend you,” said Sait, in a zoom video call from Malta.

The ‘Sacred Games’ sensation, who played the transgender character Cuckoo in the first season, believes that the tolerance levels among those who spew hate has eroded over time.

“To [expletive] shame a woman, call them names, or say that we will come anand rape you are a matter of great concern … See what happened with Rhea Chakraborty in Sushant Singh Rajput case … What is happening is concerning … All I want is to be a fellow citizen where I am not penalised for my gender. My thoughts have nothing to with my sexuality, gender.”

Bollywood actor Rajput was found dead at his resident on June 14 last year, setting in motion a media circus and a blame game that saw the film industry under the scanner and his girlfriend Chakraborty being held responsible by certain factions. 

Being made to feel like a criminal for expressing free speech isn’t fair, believes the actress.

“For instance, if I tweet: ‘I feel unsafe’, I will immediately have trolls and haters asking me to leave my country or get threatened with rape … but none of them even wondered what I meant by ‘I feel unsafe’. I could be unsafe for a million reasons, but those haters want to be intolerant, rude and spiteful and they naturally assume that I am talking about feeling unsafe in my own country.”

The self-made actor, who worked briefly in the UAE, has come up with her own mechanism to filter hate-speech aimed at disparaging her.

“If the person who’s making those vile threats don’t have a blue tick or a picture in their profile, I don’t take it seriously. They are not legitimate social media users … Combating hate and spite on social media is like standing against the wall and having a conversation with that wall. So why should I waste my energy and strength on unknown faces and voices?” points out Sait. Calling her names or disrespecting her on social media is an indication of that social media users’ moral fiber and is no reflection of the person that she is.

“Show me your face and then we can have an honest talk … The only way forward is to start using our energy in the right places. Social media isn’t one of them … But I have just one request: report those who make threats, don’t let it slide even if they are bots,” she adds.

Actor Abhay Deol Image Credit: Agency

Actor Deol is on-point when asked about how he deals with hate-speech and haters that come his way on social media.

“Remember, it’s their bitterness and anger that they contain within themselves that make you realise that they are just miserable inside … You end up feeling bad for that person or hater because they don’t make any difference to my life. When people unfollow me and announce that on their Instagram feed, I laugh … I have never relied on those people for my career … Instagram/Facebook/Twitter didn’t make or build my career, so they don’t have the power to break it either,” said Deol.

The actor was promoting his new film ‘Line Of Descent’ when he spoke about the barrage of hate speech being piled on Bollywood stars.

“When people feel threatened by my views or when they unfollow me and announce it to the world, they are the ones who clearly need validation for their existence … My career as an actor doesn’t define me.” He also made it clear that he’s not for hate speech.

“I don’t equate hate speech with free speech … I am not for propagating violence but for me art is inherently provocative. It is in the nature of art to be provocative because how else do you shake people out of their stupor? I should be allowed to challenge any belief … Otherwise we won’t evolve as humans.”

Ranvir Shorey Image Credit: IANS

Actor Ranvir Shorey uses humour as a tool to firefight his haters and combat hate speech that comes his way aplenty. His pinned tweet on his verified twitter profile reads: “Friends, so many of you writing into me here on #Twitter, it’s not always possible for me to reply to each and every abuse, but please know that each and everyone has a special place in my fart.” In a recent interview with Gulf News where he was promoting his upcoming comedy series ‘Metro Park’ on Eros Now, Shorey clarified his sarcasm-tinged warning.

“It’s my message to everyone out there that if you are abusing me and I am not replying, it’s not because I don’t want to. It’s just that I can’t abuse each and every one of you haters back ….”

He also believes that he isn’t a soft target because he’s a Bollywood actor.

“I am not an easy target … There’s nothing soft about me [laughs] … I give back as good I get … Life is too short to [tip-toe] your way around things … I can’t always be politically correct. I am a human being and I have the right to express myself … I have the right to be wrong and I have the right to correct myself.” And he has a message for all his haters out there.

“I read each one of your spiteful messages … I am watching you.” said Shorey.

There’s no business like show business

Copy of 20200107270L-1578822790801
Deepika Padukone joining JNU students in Delhi in January 2020 Image Credit: ANI

It’s been a little over a year since Deepika Padukone stood as a silent force amidst the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, risking a lucrative Bollywood career as she took a stance in a politically charged campus attack.

Padukone was days away from the release of her film ‘Chhapaak’, which she co-produced, that was based on the life of acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal. Within hours of her visit, social media was abuzz with trends that ranged from #ISupportDeepika and #BoycottChhapaak to #shameonbollywood.

The niche film walked away with a total box office collection of Rs550 million — pocket change when you look at the billions that Bollywood earns riding on the coattails of established male stars. It was always a given that the Padukone project would struggle to find its footing when facing a box office clash like it did with the period drama ‘Tanhaji’, which starred veteran actors Ajay Devgn, Saif Ali Khan and Kajol.

Deepika Padukone in 'Chhapaak'
Image Credit: Supplied

Yet, ‘Chhapaak’s’ earnings witnessed a significant boost as word of mouth and social media continued to get behind Padukone even as the right-wing rage burned away. Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, who is a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted her photo at JNU with an appeal to boycott her movies. The boycott call instantly triggered a flood of support for Padukone, with many criticising the BJP leader’s tweet at the time, calling it “shameful”.

A number of people on the microblogging site also decided to trend #ChhapakDekhoTapaakSe (Watch ‘Chhapak’ at the earliest) to support Padukone’s venture. A cynic may look at this as a clever marketing ploy that benefitted the film, but there’s no denying that even the bad press had everyone talking about ‘Chhapaak’ ahead of its release.

Bad press vs box office returns

Deepika Padukone in Padmaavat Image Credit: Supplied

Padukone is certainly no novice in facing the wrath of right-wing supporters. Her film ‘Padmaavat’ was put through the same wringer in 2017 when the actress was subjected to threats to chop off her nose, while a bounty was put on her head.

Haryana’s state chief media coordinator for BJP took a stance while applauding the death threats levelled against Padukone. Suraj Pal Amu passed derogatory remarks against Padukone, along with co-star and husband Ranveer Singh and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, over the portrayal of Rajput queen Padmavati and Delhi sultan Alauddin Khilji on screen.

The objection was over misinformation that there would be an intimate scene between the actress and Singh’s Khilji on screen.

“If you do not take back your words, we will break your legs,” Hindustan Times quoted him as saying, while addressing Singh who supported filmmaker Bhansali. Taking his threats further, Amu also praised a youth from Meerut from Rajput community who announced a Rs50 million bounty for beheading Padukone and Bhansali.

“I want to congratulate the Meerut youth for announcing R 5 crore (Rs50 million) bounty for beheading Deepika, and Bhansali. We will reward the ones beheading them with Rs10 crore (Rs100 million), and also take care of their family’s needs,” he said.

After months of protest and a name change from ‘Padmaavati’ to ‘Padmaavat’, the dust finally settled for the Bhansali production to finally garner a box office release.

The result? The period film went on to make Rs5.85 billion in collections according to Box Office India, and won numerous awards and accolades for the lead pair, which also included fellow actor Shahid Kapoor.

Goliyon Ki Rasleela - Ram Leela Image Credit: Supplied

It also wasn’t the first rodeo for the trio of Bhansali, Padukone and Singh, who faced similar censure ahead of the release of 2013’s ‘Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram Leela’. Several religious groups in India took objection to the film’s original title ‘Ram Leela’. The objection being the title and the film’s trailer were hurting the sentiments of many over its mythological reference to a Hindu deity. Things heated up so much so that a legal complaint was filed against Bhansali and its lead stars. Bhansali finally buckled and changed the film’s title to what we know today. Months later, the film went on to collect Rs2 billion, according to Box Office India.

Bollywood bears witness to moments in history that has seen violence take to the streets, only to result in a bumper opening for a project. Filmmaker Karan Johar’s 2016 film, ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’, which angered many Indians for daring to feature Pakistani actor Fawad Khan at a time when the country had strained relations with its neighbours, went on to collect Rs2.37 billion at the box office.

Fawad Khan in 'Ae Dil Hai Mushkil' Image Credit: Dharma Productions

Johar, of course, was forced to issue an apology to allow his Ranbir Kapoor-Anushka Sharma starrer to make it to the finish line. Once the movie had a successful cinematic run, the filmmaker stated he regretted apologising in order to prove his patriotism. “It was like being an Al-Qaeda hostage, I was held at gun point. I was near tears but did not plead,” he said in an interview with CNN News 18.

While talking about how politics takes a toll on their work Johar further added: “Our comments become national issues and we may get into trouble for them. All this pressure ends up affecting our work.”

Filmmaker Ashutosh Gowariker, who gave us the successful Oscar-nominated ‘Lagaan’ (2001), returned in 2008 with his period drama, ‘Jodhaa Akbar’. The Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan film played out like a never-ending drama in news headlines over Jodha Bai’s depiction in the film. Some Rajput groups claimed the film distorted historical facts, while others claimed that Jodha was married to Akbar’s son Jahangir and not Akbar himself, while historians claimed she never existed.

Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Jodhaa Akbar. Image Credit: Supplied

As the controversy raged, the film finally minted Rs778 million at the box office.

Are these films victims of circumstances or part of a clever marketing ploy to keep a film or a star in headlines ahead of their release? Padukone’s stance at JNU came at a time when ordinary people struggled to see the privileged lot in Bollywood choosing to stay mum during political tensions, while speaking out (or apologising) only when there was a threat to their movies and their businesses.

In an interview with Exchange4media, Harikrishnan Pillai, co-founder and CEO of digital agency, TheSmallBigIdea, had a unique take. “Despite being negative, these controversies eventually act like any other marketing device. Negative publicity or controversies around is nothing but a strong opinion around a film from a certain section of the society, which leads to higher SOV [Share of Voice] of a non-positive nature.”

TAB 200601 Ram Gopal Varma-1590997252915
Filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma Image Credit: IANS

Would it be fair to say bad press works in the favour of every film or web series to release? Perhaps not. One only needs to look at the abysmal box office collections of ‘Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag’ (2007), a remake of the cult Bollywood classic ‘Sholay’, to establish that fact. Yet, it would be a fair assessment that the curiosity factor surrounding a subject does garner eyeballs, perhaps more so because of a controversy fueling the fire. Bollywood has scores of examples that stand testament to that fact. But does it also mean that some may attempt to harness the rage to fuel box office collections as well?

While the jury may be out on this one, writer, columnist and political analyst Zainab Sikander shared her thoughts on Bollywood in a tweet at a time when India was facing a migrant worker crisis during the lockdown last year. “They (Bollywood) only speak up when they’re in danger of going out of business since everyone wants to boycott them. Till now, they were silent spectators to all sorts of bullying to different sections of society,” she tweeted.

Could this be true? We will have to wait until the next Bollywood controversial release to be the judge.

Shows and films affected by hate speech

Shruti Seth
Shruti Seth Image Credit: GN Archives

Indian actress Shruti Seth wasn’t off the mark when she tweeted this week: “Taking offence is now an Olympian sport for Indians and damn we are good at it.” But being offended isn’t limited to making your displeasure known on various social media platforms anymore. Calls for boycott of a film, hate-speech directors at the talents and stars who oppose the popular narrative has become the mainstay. Here’s a look at shows and films that have sparked outrage with calls for boycott intensifying because an element in those works didn’t agree with the popular opinion.

Show: Tandav (Amazon Prime)

Tandav Image Credit: Amazon Prime

Controversy: On January 18, a police case was filed against its director Ali Abbas Zafar and writer Gaurav Solanki for showcasing Hindu deities in an unflattering light. According to news reports, the First Information Report was lodged at Hazratganj police station in Uttar Pradesh and names Amazon Prime’s India head of original content Aparna Purohit, producer Himanshu Krishna Mehra and director Ali Abbas Zafar for promoting enmity between different religious groups.

The cast and crew of Amazon Prime show 'Tandav' have apologised after the political drama was accused of being insensitive to Hindus.

Film: AK Vs AK (Netflix)

AK vs AK 2-1609067482840
AK vs AK Image Credit: Netflix

Controversy: As soon as director Vikramaditya Motwane’s film AK Vs AK starring Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap released, the Indian Air Force (IAF) objected to scenes where Kapoor’s character is is seen donning the IAF uniform and using inappropriate language. “The IAF uniform in this video is inaccurately donned and the language used is inappropriate. This does not conform to the behavioural norms of those in the Armed Forces of India. The related scenes need to be withdrawn,” they tweeted.

They also claimed that their uniform is inaccurately donned, along with demanding those scenes to be edited out from the film. Neither the makers nor the platform relented. However, the lead actor Kapoor took to his social media to apologise for unknowingly hurting the sentiments of IAF officials and said he had the utmost respect for those in uniform. Those scenes were the demands of the script.

“When he finds out that his daughter has been kidnapped, the anger and rage he experiences and portrays are that of an emotionally distraught father…. It was never my intent or the intent of the filmmakers to disrespect the IAF,” said Kapoor in the video.

Show: Sacred Games season 2 (Netflix)

tab Saif Ali Khan in Sacred Games (2018)
Saif Ali Khan in Sacred Games Image Credit: Netflix

Controversy: While Saif Ali Khan’s cop thriller was a runaway hit, it enjoyed its share of controversies. When the second season of Sacred Games dropped in 2019, the Sikh Community expressed their disappointment at a scene in which Khan’s character is seen throwing his ‘kada’ in the sea. Sikh Delhi MLA Manjinder S Sirsa took to this Twitter to slam the makers for hurting religious sentiments.

“I wonder why Bollywood continues to disrespect our religious symbols! Anurag Kashyap deliberately puts this scene in #SacredGames2 where Saif Ali Khan throws his Kada in sea. A KADA is not an ordinary ornament. It’s the pride of Sikhs & a blessing of Guru Sahib,” tweeted Sirsa.

He also slammed director Anurag Kashyap for depicting the religion in the wrong light. “We cannot let Bollywood stars play with our religious faiths & sentiments. I warn Anurag Kashyap; he should at least study the scriptures of Sikhs & Hindus before he portrays the characters so negatively in his projects just for entertainment or sensationalisation,” he added.

Show: Mirzapur 2 (Amazon Prime)

Image Credit: Amazon Prime

Controversy: As soon as the trailer of the crime saga ‘Mirzapur’ starring Ali Fazal dropped, a section of social media users on Twitter demanding the boycott of the series. The reason? They weren’t keen to support a series spearheaded by an actor who supported the nation-wide protests against India's Citizenship (Amendment) Act that was touted as discriminating against certain communities. His tweets about endorsing anti-CAA protests triggered the calls for boycott.

Show: The Family Man (Amazon Prime)

Manoj Bajpayee and Sharib Hashmi in The Family Man (2019)-1588323588266
The Family Man Image Credit: Amazon Prime

Controversy: Actor Manoj Bajpayee’s celebrated series courted controversy when RSS and its affiliated magazine raised objections about certain dialogues about the Indian government’s action of abrogating Article 370 in which it granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

“In the series, a woman affiliated to the National Investigating Agency (NIA) is shown speaking to her male colleague at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, decrying the fact that Kashmiris were being oppressed by the Indian state as it had shut down phones and internet and used measures like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). At one point she asks her male colleague, who appears quite affected by her talk, whether there is any difference between the Indian administrative apparatus and militants,” claimed the quoted article. They called for greater censorship.

Show: Pataal Lok (Amazon Prime)

TAB Pataal Lok-1600162065121
Pataal Lok Image Credit: Amazon Prime

Controversy: Producer and actress Anushka Sharma was labelled “anti-national” and “Hindu-phobic” after her production ‘Pataal Lok’ released on Amazon Prime and the hashtag #BoycottPataalLok began trending soon after. Nandkishor Gurjar, a member of the Legislative Assembly of the ruling BJP party, filed a complaint against Sharma for using his picture in the series without permission.

Film: Bajirao Mastani

Bajirao Mastani Image Credit: Supplied

Controversy: Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Bajirao Mastani was a sweeping period epic based on the real-life 18th century King Peshwa Baijrao. But many took offense to a scene where the film showed the warrior king dancing with his second wife. There were calls to remove a song from the film, but the makers stuck to their original plan.

Film: Padmaavat

Padmaavat Image Credit: Supplied

Controversy: Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone was inundated with death threats and a bounty to chop off her nose was placed after weeks of protests were staged across Indian against her epic Padmaavat, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Many right-wing Hindu and Rajput caste groups took offense to a scene in the film and demanded a ban on the release of film in December 2017. Although the initial release date was stalled and Indian censor board’s suggestion to change the name of the film from ‘Padmaavati’ to ‘Padmaavat’ was accepted, the supreme court eventually allowed the film to be released in states that called for its ban.

Show: A Suitable Boy (Netflix)

Suitable Boy1443-1598950960221
A Suitable Boy Image Credit: Netflix

Controversy: A scene which depicted a Hindu girl kissing a Muslim boy against the backdrop of a Hindu temple triggered protests. A police complaint was filed by a BJP politician last November about the “shooting kissing scenes under temple premises.”

Experts weigh in...

Right-wing activists hold ‘Padmaavat’ banners during a protest in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Image Credit: PTI

Gulf News caught up with industry experts and think tanks to find out if Bollywood celebrities are softer targets when it comes to hate speech on social media and whether the gender of a talent makes you more vulnerable to vitriolic comments … Here’s what they had to say:

Shakuntala Banaji, Professor of Media, Culture and Social Change, London School Of Economics and Political Science

Q: Do you think Bollywood stars are soft targets when it comes to hate speech?

A: No, they are not soft targets, if by soft targets you mean those whom it is easy to target without much threat. The softest targets in India at the moment are any ordinary people... and those who are working for human rights in India and against gender violence or mob violence.

Q: Why do you think there’s a surge in the number of women talents being targeted more than men? Or do you think gender plays a role when it comes to haters targeting their subjects?

A: Gender plays a role in all hateful content. There’s misogyny all over the speeches and attitudes of the ruling party and its supporters. As women tend to have more conscience on these issues – such as Swara Bhasker – they do get targeted.

Q: Do you think Bollywood stars – who are often seen taking selfies with politicians – have invited this online wrath because they lack a spine?

A: Absolutely not. The ones who are most targeted with hate are those who never click selfies.... 

Q: Should Bollywood celebrities take a stand when it comes to being the subject of threats?

A: Of course. Everyone should, but they need to be consistent and not be hypocrites. If they support hate and lynching - someone like Kangana Ranaut - then they have no grounds to complain.

Pedro Sigaud Sellos, Program Director and Assistant Professor of Communication and Information Studies, American University in Dubai

Q: Do you think Bollywood celebrities/stars across the globe are soft targets when it comes to hate speech?

A: Stars across the globe certainly are easy targets for the so-called internet trolls. Achieving fame on social media involves producing content for those platforms, but not any type of content: the more personal, the better. That involves sharing large parts of one’s personal and intimate life, and this is when they become easy targets. It is like a double-edged sword, the more you share content about your personal life, the more interested your audience will be. But that means also sharing material to the internet trolls to use against those celebrities.

Q: Why do you think there’s a surge in the number of women talents being targeted more than men? Or do you think gender plays a role when it comes to haters targeting their subjects?

A: I personally don’t think this is related to gender but more like a matter of numbers. There are more female users on social media trying to build an audience around their personalities. Male users tend to lean towards online gaming and tend to be less interested in social recognition on social media.

Now, the way this hatred manifests around female social media celebrities is indeed related to gender: according to Prof. Jonathan Haidt, an American social psychologist and professor at NYU, women manifest their aggressiveness in more verbal and social ways (gossiping, defamation, denigration, etc) while men tend to manifest their aggressiveness in more physical ways. That explains why social media offer the opportunity for users to channel their aggressiveness in a more verbal way.

Q: Do you think stars — who are often seen taking selfies with the ruling party leaders or being anti-establishment — have invited this online wrath because they lack a spine?

A: Not really, I think trolling is an inevitable phenomenon.

Q: Should celebrities with considerable clout take a stand when it comes to being a subject of threats?

A: Absolutely. But this brings us back to the beginning: they are the ones who give material to the trolls. It is part of the social media logic, in order to achieve fame you need to share content related to your personal life.

Q: What’s the way forward?

A: People might hate me for what I’ll say here. The fight for attention and fame on social media can be a brutal game. On one hand, I would recommend celebrities to use all the legal and technical resources to protect their image and dignity (legal action, blocking annoying users, reporting offensive content, etc). On another hand, I would strongly advise them to grow a thick skin: the game will not get any easier in the future.

Comment: What is the way forward?

Swara Bhasker
Swara Bhasker Image Credit: SUPPLIED

There’s no denying that Bollywood stars — idolised by millions of movie-mad Indians — lead a privileged and a precious existence. They are paid to wake up, lead fabulous lives and are treated like perennial rock stars. On the surface, they lead near-perfect lives, but what about all that hate and vicious, vile remarks that come their way because they are public figure? Does living in the public eye mean automatically make you every virtual trollers’ punching bag?

Ask any Bollywood star about the hate coming their way on social media in recent times and they all admit that it’s getting more vicious by the hour. They may have an army of adoring fans as their followers, but the vile comment that come their way is debilitating.

In a recent interview with Swara Bhasker, an actress and activist who has always questioned the popular narrative on Twitter and other social media platforms through her anti-establishment rhetoric, reveals that she doesn’t let her family pore through the comments that make her way on social media.

“I’ve told them strictly not to read the comments because my mother used to read them and cry,” confessed Bhasker. On a bad day, she gets called names and on a particularly bad day, a brutal character assassination that questions her morality ensues. She doesn’t take it lying down and has mastered the art of trolling back the trollers by adopting a sarcastic tone.

“Awwwwwww!!!!! My trolls are hard at work again, sweating it out in the heat to popularise my name.. You guys are SO dedicated & sweet!!! Don’t mind the [expletive]-shaming guys.. their imagination is a bit limited.. but loving the effort you two,” wrote Bhasker to a couple of her trollers. But not everyone has learnt to grow a sturdy and strong hide behind their designer backs. Unlike Bhasker, a majority of stars are not able to use sardonic humour and acidic wit to thwart their invisible enemies.

Actress Sonakshi Sinha famously quit Twitter because she couldn’t handle all that negativity around her.

Sonakshi Sinha
Sonakshi Sinha Image Credit: Supplied

“Let’s face it, I [have] cut the direct source of insult and abuse in my life. Ive taken away YOUR power to be able to say whatever it is that you want to me, my family and my friends. Ive taken away that access you had to me, that i had given you so trustingly. So there’s only one winner here. Me,” she wrote, when her trollers mocked her for quitting Twitter. It’s the women in Bollywood who face a deluge of online wrath more than their male counterparts.

“Women celebrities are the ones who are at the worst end of social media abuse. I don’t see that many male actors being vilified as much as their female counterparts. But this type of trolling could just be an extension of the mindset of a patriarchal society where the hostility in their mind is being espoused through social media,” observes Santripti Vellody, Brand Comms & Public Perception consultant from Dubai.

While there’s increasing pressure on social media companies like Facebook to clamp down on hate speech, the onus has to lie on the stars themselves. These Bollywood stars – who have a commanding social media presence — must learn to use their celebrity to spread awareness about the hate-speech abuse they are subjected to. They must learn to take a stand.

“Report every abuse, report every account that write vicious and untrue things about you and report every bot,” warns actress Kubbra Sait.

While that’s a first step in the right direction, Bollywood stars which are considered soft powers in any world must also tone down their propensity to bow down to establishment. Otherwise, any dissenting talent with a political stand that’s different from the popular narrative might have to pay a heavy price for having a varying opinion.

As Bollywood stars, most women, get ambushed by hate and vitriol, their only chance of survival is if they use their celebrity to combat the online abuse.