The internet is a powerful thing in the hands of a Hindutvavadi bully. That became clear once again on 6 August, when an online movement led by Hindu chauvinists forced a powerful Bollywood studio to remove scenes from an upcoming film that they suspected of pushing an “Islamic” agenda.
On 11 July, Reliance Entertainment released a trailer for Singham Returns, the sequel to Singham (2011), about the (violent) adventures of a proudly “Maratha” cop, Bajirao Singham. In the sequel—which also stars the actor Ajay Devgn—the eponymous hero has a new challenge to deal with, naturally. This is the issue of “black money,” a matter brought to national attention, incidentally, by the very Hindu yoga guru Ramdev.
Within days, the web was awash with loud outrage against what was claimed to be a motivated campaign by Bollywood to belittle the Hindu faith. To be sure, the Hindu right has been arm-twisting Bollywood into submission even before it discovered the internet. In 1995, for instance, Mani Ratnam had to screen Bombay, a Hindu–Muslim love story in the backdrop of the Mumbai riots, to the Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, who was widely believed to have presided over the riots, and make the cuts Thackeray demanded before submitting it to the censor board. (Thackeray demanded cuts of a different kind—he insisted that the character inspired by him should express no regret over the riots.)
Now there is even less to deter Hindutvavadis as they have a go at Bollywood with their enviable strength on social media and their skill with headlines and hashtags.
Leading the anti-Singham “movement across internet” were websites like hindujagruti.org and hinduexistence.org—the latter publishing one sharp commentary after another to “stir the Hindu mind in a warrior spirit.” Their main objections to the trailer:
—In this film, one hooligan is shown in the form of Hindu ‘Sadhu’ as a villain.
—The hero of this film says to that ‘Sadhu’, “I have not come here to listen to your useless ‘pravachan (discourse).” This has insulted the word ‘pravachan’ used by Hindus in the context of help in God realization.
—The same hero is shown as reading ‘namaz’ in khaki uniform in a mosque. He is also shown as saluting mosque. It shows that the film is communal.
The trailer does indeed show Devgn saluting a mosque and, in another scene, talking back to a man dressed up as a Hindu saint—who may well be the movie’s antagonist. But Hindutvavadis have, in fact, little to worry about. Mainstream Bollywood can be accused of a number of things, but not of being a mouthpiece for India’s religious minorities, who are usually represented in Hindi films as vile or laughable stereotypes.
This of little comfort to Upananda Brahmachari, the firebrand editor of hinduexistence.org. Brahmachari imagines that the Mumbai film industry, once controlled by the Muslim underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, and then empowered by the death of the anti-Islamic bastion, Bal Thackeray, was only waiting to join hands with a studio owned by a man (Anil Ambani of Reliance Entertainment) “married to a Muslim” (the actress Tina Munim, who was actually born into a Jain family).
If that wasn’t evidence enough, Muslim writers have been found to be involved with the film: the scriptwriting partners Sajid and Farhad Samji, and the screenplay writer Yunus Sajawal. In his post on 3 August, Brahmachari—a striking figure in his white turban, flowing beard and solemn glasses—calls for Ambani, Devgn and the film’s director Rohit Shetty to be tied in “a rope of hatred” and put into “the fire of wrath.” “We didn’t allow the staying of MF Husain in Bharat for his anti Hindu eccentricity. Why there is a concession for these bastards,” he thundered.
Brahmachari has, on occasion, rebuked even the most fearsome champions of Hindutva—the legends of the extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Ashok Singhal and Pravin Togadia among them—in various web articles, for losing their edge in the struggle for a Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu state. “The VHP and RSS are doing all the works in the interest of Hindus. But, they are not ruling the country,” Brahmachari laments in a post for Hindu Existence in which he lays down the Hindu agenda for the Lok Sabha elections.
The only Hindutva representative—even Ramdev comes in for harsh words—to have Brahmachari’s approval is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who he considers to be a fellow soldier in his movement, referred to on Twitter as “#antihindubollywood.” The source of this solidarity is a video on Shankar’s Art of Living website from 2 January 2013, which became a hit on YouTube. In it, the preacher—known otherwise for a general air of benevolence—slams Bollywood for not being sufficiently reverent. “What do they do? Drink, go for drugs and drinking, partying and waste money. Whose money they are wasting? Public!” he says in a long tirade against the filmmakers of Oh My God (2012), which claimed to expose various religious inanities.
Hindujagruti.org shared Shankar’s anger. The site enumerated the film’s crimes:
Akshay Kumar who is acting as an incarnation of Bhagvan Shrikrushna, is shown in the western attire. In place of Sudarshan Chakra Bhagvan Shree Krushna is shown rotating a key chain in the finger. In order to convince people about, ‘There is no God’, actor Paresh Raval’s dialogue includes many sentences insulting Deities. Mixing of holy ‘ganga jal’ and spitting in the arti platter scenes are there in this film. There are some anti Hindu dialogs in the film like Diseases like AIDS are spread due to temples.
A few months later, Hindutva forces would join ranks against the biopic of Indian athlete and Olympian Milkha Singh, Bhaag Milka Bhaag. They demanded the removal of a song, ‘Havan kund maston ka jhund’ because it showed the “ancient Hindu practice of ‘havan’—ritual fire—in bad light.”
As with most of his ilk, the internet is Brahmachari’s battlefield. In a post on hinduexistence.org that celebrates the success of the anti-Singham activism, particular praise is reserved for Brahmachari’s “forceful” article condemning the filmmakers to hell, and his brilliance in “tagging” it everywhere to “move the matter forward,” including on the Facebook page of Reliance Entertainment.
The internet is also how they judge their success. The website of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti maintains an elaborate record of the online response to the campaign, detailing page visits, Facebook likes and shares, tweets, and Google searches. A post dated 5 August boasts that “for keyword ‘Singham Returns’ searched on Google, Indian Express’ link publishing news about opposition to ‘Singham Returns’ stood 7th” and that “the same news on Hindujagruti.Org ranked 11th. (as checked on 30th July at 11.00 a.m.)”
Needless to say, the sense of triumph online at the success of the anti-Singham movement is huge, marked by adjectives like “overwhelming” and “unprecedented.” Various things irk Hindutva activists about Bollywood films every day, but with Singham Returns, at least, they’ve had their way. The win might smooth the way for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s plans to put Indian values—(largely interchangeable in their worldview with Hindu values)—back into Bollywood films. They stated their intention of doing so in an announcement the party made shortly after coming to power this May. This might just be the beginning of “achche din” for Bollywood.
Snigdha Poonam was previously an editor at The Caravan. She has written for a number of publications, including the New York TImes, The Guardian and Granta.