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Indian pro-government news channels have trained their guns on an unexpected target: Bollywood. The $ 2.6 billion film industry has been accused of nepotism, drug addiction and even murder following a suicide of young actors during the lockdown.

Not all Arabian scents can remove the stench and stench of that Bollywood belly scum and dirt, Shazia Ilmi, spokesperson for Narendra Modis’ ruling Bharatiya Janata party, fumed in a recent televised debate on the Republic called Bollywood Muck & Stink Exposed.

After relentless defamation, Bollywood retaliates. This week, box office superstars Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan, along with 31 other celebrities and unions representing actors, directors, producers and writers, sued Republic, its rival Times Now and four presenters in the hours of prime time, for defamation.

In their trial, the celebrities accused the channels to which the authorities allegedly leaked private messages on WhatsApp of invading their privacy and of portraying all of Bollywood as criminals, steeped in the culture of drugs.

Indian Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP via Getty

The case, according to movie stars, critics and political analysts, has exposed the tension between an influential, liberal cultural industry and a right-wing ruling party determined to harness the power of cinema.

There is no other political party in the country today that understands the power of the image as much as the BJP, said Shubhra Gupta, author of 50 movies that changed Bollywood.

Since 2014, she said, the ruling party had both courted and pressured Bollywood to stand in line and promote the worship of Mr. Modi as well as highlight the historical Hindu-Muslim tensions.

If you don’t comply with the rule, everything in their power will be done to make it happen, Ms. Gupta said.

Suhas Palshikar, editor of Studies in Indian Politics, said what is happening against Bollywood is part of a larger model of cultural warfare. I don’t know if Bollywood is aware of this or ready.

In its best films and in the personal lives of its biggest stars, many of whom are Muslims, Bollywood has long symbolized the founding ideals of independent India of secularism, inclusion, tolerance, individual freedom and interfaith friendship.

They represent a different kind of India, a less Puritan India, said Rachel Dwyer, professor emeritus of Indian cinema and culture at Soas, University of London. It’s also one of the few places where you have a sizable Muslim elite.

It is this cosmopolitanism that has put the industry on a collision course with the BJP, whose right-wing base views Muslims with hostility and believes that interfaith marriage, particularly between Muslim men and Hindu women, is a love jihad, a plot to erode the demographic advantage of Hindus.

Superstars Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan have both been subjected to a nationalist backlash and boycotts in 2015 after voicing concerns about the growing climate of fear and intolerance after Mr. Modi came to power.

Bollywood has been one of the most vehement voices for the constitutional values ​​of secularism and Hindu-Muslim unity, actress Swara Bhasker told the Financial Times.

Poster from the 2018 film Kedarnath, depicting a love story between a Hindu priest girl and a Muslim boy
Recent historical epics such as Padmaavat have reinforced a BJP version of India’s past, characterized by Muslim aggression against valiant and noble Hindus.

These values ​​are exactly opposed to the ideals of the Hindu nation, as imagined by the Hindutva ideology, which concerns the primacy of the Hindu faith and the Hindu citizen.

After India’s independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, called on filmmakers to help unify a society traumatized by the violence of partition. Hindi films were traditionally filled with heroes who saw humanity beyond religious identities and the wicked extremists that separated people.

The need of the hour was to create a cinema that looked at India as a composite nation rather than pieces of people in perpetual conflict, Ms. Gupta said.

But the ruling party is deeply hostile to love between people of different faiths. 2018 movie Kedarnath, depicting a love affair between a daughter of Hindu priests and a Muslim boy, has been accused of promoting amorous jihad and banned in BJP-run state of Uttarakhand, where it takes place.

Bollywood tried to find a compromise with the regime of Mr. Modis. He has made films that glorify Mr. Modi (PM Narendra Modi), praised its assertive policy towards Pakistan (Hatred) and made fun of Manmohan Singh, his predecessor (The accidental prime minister).

Recent historical epics have reinforced the BJP version of India’s past, which was characterized by Muslim aggression against valiant and noble Hindus. In the 2018 movie Padmaavat, Said Ms. Gupta, the Muslim invader, Alauddin Khilji, is described as a monster … without any element of redemption.

Despite the industry concession, the deeper tension between New Delhi and Bollywood is unlikely to ease anytime soon. No government has understood the soft power of Bollywood like the Modi government has, Ms. Bhasker said, and no government has used Bollywood like the Modi government has.

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