After almost two years, with theatres opening to full capacity post the COVID-19 pandemic, 2022 was expected to be a good year for Bollywood, with big films like 'Laal Singh Chaddha' and 'Brahmastra' in the fray.
But things haven't been as great as expected. Ahead of the release of Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan starrer Laal Singh Chaddha, social media was flooded with their old interviews, with some social media users asking people to 'boycott' the film for their views on India and nepotism among other things.
A similar online trend was noticed around the release of Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor's 'Brahmastra', which saw massive protests during one of the film's promotional events in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh.
This isn't the first time an Indian film has faced ‘ban’ or ‘boycott’ calls, but the scale this time, was huge.
Film trade analysts believe that this online movement even resulted in poor box office collections for 'Laal Singh Chaddha', a film that had been in production for over ten years.
Given this concerted hate campaign online, we tracked a few hashtags like #BoycottBollywood’, ‘#BoycottBrahmastra’, ‘#ब्रम्हास्त्र_का_बहिष्कार’, ‘#BoycottLaalSinghChaddha’, over a period of 20 days (7-27 September), to get a sense of who the people supporting this trend were.
We tracked various public groups and pages on Facebook and were able to broadly categorise the users into two groups:
Users belonging to groups that claim to be against nepotism in Bollywood, who together believe that Sushant Singh Rajput's alleged death by suicide was a conspiracy.
Right-wing users, who have started referring to Bollywood as ‘Urduwood’, claiming that the industry often makes films that are moving away from 'Hindu values', by their yardstick.
In this story, we will explore the reasons behind this trend, the kind of content shared, and map the amplification.
How SSR Supporters Amplified the Trend
Recap: For the unversed, Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput allegedly died by suicide in 2020. His untimely death triggered a lot of conspiracy theories online – ‘targeted for being an outsider’, ‘killed for knowing dark secrets’, ‘FAUG was his idea’, ‘his death was live streamed on the dark web’ – that took the internet by a storm. Hundreds of thousands of people were a part of these online groups and the content shared was amplified across platforms.
Two years later, these people are still united in their "fight to bring justice to SSR." One such group had 6,03,700 followers, pushing the ‘boycott Bollywood’ trend.
There are several such groups, in which people continue to peddle theories (mostly very tenuously linked to those alleged 'facts' of the case) and push for the boycott trend.
Sample some of the examples shared in a group called ‘Justice for Sushant Singh Rajput’. There are conversations ranging from nepotism to demanding justice for the Bollywood actor, with all the posts also tying back to the Bollywood boycott theme.
(Note: We have refrained from adding any active links to the groups or posts. Swipe right to see more posts.)
Users often share content asking people to boycott Bollywood.
The ones who were supporting the boycott trends on such groups seemed to be pushing the trend irrespective of the actors in the film.
For instance, another Facebook group, 'Revolution @SSR', which has over 11,000 members, regularly shares updates on movies, along with 'justice for Sushant' and 'boycott' hashtags.
Snippet: For instance, in a call for ‘boycotting Pathan’, these posts on the group brought up old interviews, appearances of Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone to target them.
In one of the posts, a user wrote, “Boycott Shah Rukh Khan & Deepika Padukone "Pathan", Two Anti Nationals.”
They used Padukone’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) appearance in January 2020 to target her. The actor had visited the campus ahead of the release of her film Chapaak, after violence had broken out in the camps during the anti-CAA protests.
To target SRK, a quote falsely attributed to him, about leaving the country if Narendra Modi becomes the prime minister, was used.
There are many more posts like these. Sample these.
The post blames Karan Johar for SSR's death and says that his movies will fail at the box office and 'he will become a liability for the underworld'.
We contacted one of the users, whose online activity we tracked, to understand the motivation behind sharing this kind of content.
Forty-three-year-old Krushna Chandra Mohapatra told us said that he shared all these posts online because he is “against nepotism” and “Bollywood’s arrogant nature.” He went on to say that they when Sushant Singh Rajput died, “everyone remained silent."
“They are earning money because the audience is watching their movie, hence they should give respect to the thoughts of the audience. They should not think that whatever they will do, (the) audience will accept it. They should keep in mind that technology has changed, for entertainment audience has many other options,” he added.
Right-wing Groups Blame Bollywood for 'Islamification' of Audience
Another section of the internet that aligns with the far right of the political spectrum has also been championing the 'boycott Bollywood' trend.
Pages like "Hindutva Supporters" and "आरएसएस समर्थक" (RSS supporter) regularly post content against the Mumbai film industry and often refer to it as "Urduwood", accusing the filmmakers of imposing, what they describe as 'Islamic culture' on the audience.
Other pages that share content on the trend, also support the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and other leaders of the BJP.
Some individuals like Hindu Army chief Sushil Tiwari, Hindu Samaj Party's Mohit Raj, who have a massive following on Facebook, not only promote content created by others, but also create videos wherein they abuse Bollywood filmmakers and actors.
A cursory glance at Raj's Facebook page revealed that he regularly posts such content. In a video posted on 10 September, which had garnered over 48,000 views at the time of writing this story, he could be seen urging "Hindus" to boycott Brahmastra for "hurting religious sentiments".
Sushil Tiwari, the chief of the Hindu Army, posts similar interviews and posts calling for a boycott of movies and more specifically "Khans."
In one of his interviews, Tiwari was seen complaining (archive here) about the portrayal of Hindu characters and claimed that they were portrayed as villains, while Muslim characters got roles of police officers.
'Urduwood': Users Blame Filmmakers For Mocking 'Hindu Culture'
We noticed that the word 'Urduwood' is being used by Hindutva supporters to describe Bollywood's supposed "domination" by the “Khans,” and other Muslim artists and filmmakers.
A page titled, “Hindutva Supporters,” which describes itself as ‘followers of Hindutva and BJP’, regularly posts visuals with captions calling for boycott of Bollywood. The page has close to 1,20,000 followers and features posts comparing the depiction of Hindus and Muslims in Bollywood.
Posts target actors and allege that they insult Hindus and Hindu culture in the movies.
While we tracked the pages around the release of 'Brahmastra', the content from the page was more focussed on the boycotting the movie. Like the SSR groups and pages, several posts here also used old interviews and statements to create misleading narratives.
Posts between 9 September to 13 September called for a boycott of the movie over Ranbir Kapoor's statement about eating beef.
Another page supporting the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) (4,62,000 followers) also regularly posted similar messages. They also put out content specifically targeting 'Brahmastra' and questioning its success after the filmmakers and actors put out posts about the box-office collections.
Kreately, a website known for its anti-minority propaganda articles and a regular purveyor of mis/disinformation, also regularly posts on the boycott Bollywood trend.
The website and its content is heavily promoted by right-wing social media influencers including some BJP leaders.
The posts include old videos shared with a communal spin, graphics created to vilify Muslims, and hateful content targeting Bollywood actors and filmmakers.
These posts are also promoted on Twitter by right-wing influencers.
When Was the Spike Noticed?
Expectedly, posts from both the groups – SSR and right-wing – seemed to sharply rise around the release of the movie on 9 September.
The graph shows a clear spike in posts from unverified page, which posted content related to 'boycott Bollywood'.
When we looked for posts on public groups, the number of post increased to 2,031 between 7 September to 27 September.
The posts with most interactions were from groups that supported PM Modi, journalist Sudhir Chaudhary, and right-wing influencer Pushpendra Kulshrestha.
We even noticed that conversations around Shah Rukh Khan starrer 'Pathan' and appeals to boycott the film have already started.