If people have an issue with someone, the knee-jerk reaction these days seems to be to tweet out their displeasure and immediately use a hashtag to ostracize them. If it’s a popular celebrity, the possibilities are high that they will start trending within hours.
It doesn't take much to provoke certain sections. Sometimes, it doesn't take anything at all. So even if someone isn't as famous, the mere mention of religion, politics, and social issues can trigger conflict.
The idea of ‘Boycott culture’ overlaps with cancel culture. In a sense, if an individual transgresses norms it leads to ostracism on social media and potentially other avenues in one’s life.
These norms are difficult to pigeonhole and describe. But the reasons can be anything under the sun. ‘#BoycottLaalSinghChaddha’ started trending after a snippet of Aamir Khan’s old interview started going around the internet, where he commented on the growing intolerance of the country. And ‘#BoycottLiger’ trended when Vijay Deverakonda supported Aamir Khan’s film.
It’s a tricky terrain, anything can be boycotted on social media and not much can be done about it. But the sentiment to relegate something to the margins or curb it from public viewership isn’t new. Although, it has perhaps become deceptively rampant.
Banned Films and Censorship - the 1960s and 70s
According to a report published in The Hindu, the initial release of Guide was supposed to be by the end of 1965. But the film faced a lot of backlash from various sections of society, who claimed that the movie promoted infidelity. Fortunately, the film was released on 8 April, 1966.
Garam Hawa, on the other hand, was held up by the Censor Board, that feared it would trigger communal unrest. The film dealt with the Partition of India and was released later.
Kissa Kursi Ka was banned by the government as it lampooned the Emergency era. But it was also released later.
Fire; Resisting Against Homophobia - the 1990s
Deepa Mehta’s Fire came under attack when it was initially released. Some theatres were attacked by Hindu Fundamentalists for depicting a lesbian relationship, and the film was sent back to the censor board. But it came back uncut.
But more importantly, celebrated actor Dileep Kumar and the director submitted a petition to the Supreme Court, much to the displeasure of the right-wingers. Consequently, protests against this move took place outside Kumar’s house.
Mehta also held a candlelight march along with many others against the withdrawal of the film.
Political And Explicit Content - the 2000s
Political or explicit content was never met with all-around appreciation. But some films during the 2000s were decisively going beyond the mainstream. Enter Anurag Kashyap and his first film Paanch. This film went unreleased despite the censor board giving it cuts. There were claims that the film glorified drug use and was overtly violent.
Another of Kashyap's films that had a delayed release was Black Friday. It was set in the backdrop of the 1993 Bombay Bombings and was not released till the Bombay High Court gave its verdict and it finally hit theatres in 2007.
So the censor board took the lead when it came to what could and could not be released seeing as the content was also changing.
The Culture of Boycott & Rampant Social Media Trends
With social media gaining ground in recent times, the focus has shifted from the content of films to other more general aspects of the film. For instance, Raksha Bandhan, an Akshay Kumar film, was boycotted not because of the story of the film but because the writer, Kanika Dhillon, was deemed as ‘Hinduphobic’. She had commented on the Hijab ban, gaumutra, and communal lynching. Opinions, it appears, she wasn't allowed to have.
Yet, the earlier need to demand the withdrawal of any religiously or politically charged film still continues, for instance, an FIR was filed against Leena Manimekalai's documentary Kaali for depicting the goddess smoking a cigarette.
In a sense, there is an added layer to the need to both ban and censor. Old tweets, interviews and talks resurface on the internet and a celebrity becomes an easy target. In which case, legal action or mob protests take a back seat and what takes centre stage is virtual backlash.
It’s difficult to say if this affects the box office, seeing as the post-pandemic movie-goers seem to be more vigilant about their choices and the audience also has access to OTT platforms which churn out content incessantly evidencing the movie-going culture is slowly shifting.
But virtually boycotting the film does not have anything to do with the content of the film unlike earlier. In other words, people don't even wait for the film to release before it is boycotted. But it’s the audience's prerogative to boycott or not. So the onus to watch or not lies with the viewers.
To that end, a sense of hyper-nationalism seems to trigger the recent 'boycotts'. But that may not always be the case. Maruthi, the director of Prabhas' new film, is facing a boycott for the simple reason that fans think he is a subpar director.
There also exists a reverberating silence in the industry regarding any political, social and religious issue. Which makes the industry a soft target for 'boycotting'. But the opposite is true as well, the silence exists due to the heavy backlash the industry faces when they take a stand. They are met with indiscriminate threats and trolling.
But ultimately, a 'boycott' can be for a plethora of reasons due to the sheer amount of content available on the internet to attack film personalities. From 'Boycott Bollywood' to 'Boycott Brahmastra' - one can be under fire for speaking about intolerance or their supposed arrogance. All in all, trends seem to emerge and die down but the culture of hyper-sensitivity has always been around but now with added ammunition.