Since the last few years, a Twitter trend has been gaining pace — #BoycottBollywood, which seeks a complete audience withdrawal from the Hindi film industry. It takes many shapes and forms, often specifically geared towards an upcoming film, actor, or in one of its latest avatars, #BoycottBollywoodCompletely.
With the recent boycott campaign against the Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan starrer Laal Singh Chaddha and its subsequent commercial failure, speculations have arisen that this trend could adversely affect box collections of films.
Actor Vijay Deverakonda, who plays the protagonist in the film Liger, recently hit back at the trend and said, “Shouldn’t we work? We have worked hard for three years to make this cinema. Shouldn’t we release our movies? Should we sit in homes?”
However, is a Twitter boycott campaign enough to lessen the commercial prospects of a film? Or is this another case of correlation that is not causation?
As the name suggests, the trend seeks to stop audiences from consuming content created by the Hindi film industry. However, it does not just stop at that. Several Twitter accounts who are regular participants in this trend also seek to end what they call the ‘Khan hegemony’ in Bollywood, referring to Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, and Aamir Khan – actors who have enjoyed a massive fan following for more than three decades.
Moreover, a lot of these accounts call Bollywood ‘Urduwood’, claiming there is a disproportionate representation of Muslims in the industry as well as the so-called glorification of Muslims in the films. They go further to say that this cannot be tolerated in an India which is ‘proud of its Hindu identity’.
The participants in these trends also want to put a stop to the supposed ‘destruction of Hindu culture’, which refers to a seemingly continuous Westernisation of Hindi films. Along with this, they object to what they consider a mockery of Hindu gods and rituals in several films; a major example of this is Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2015), which starred Aamir Khan in the lead role. The backlash to PK, which was commercially successful, has continued well into 2022 with the movie being cited as a major reason to boycott Laal Singh Chaddha.
In contrast to Bollywood, many of these accounts often say that the film industries from south India are more respectful towards Hindu traditions and are better at upholding religious norms. However, there is a catch: these narratives focus almost exclusively on the Kannada and Telugu film industries, calling them the ‘south industries’ while ignoring cinema in Tamil and Malayalam languages. A reason for this seems to be a prevalence of narratives borrowed from Hindu mythologies in the first two industries.
These accounts also focus on the prevalence of nepotism in Bollywood. This narrative gained extensive momentum in 2020, after the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Many people claimed that the actor took his life because of how nepotism functioned in the industry, despite no concrete evidence for this claim.
Who are the accounts behind this trend?
While an exact analysis of all the accounts is not possible, it is easy to notice a pattern: most of these accounts, by and large, endorse Hindu right-wing ideologies, often of a very extremist kind. They comment on both Bollywood and political matters at large in aggressive tones and use derogatory language against minority communities, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, and others.
These accounts also endorse films and film personalities who also seem to support right-wing talking points. An obvious example is actress Kangana Ranaut, who is usually held up as the ‘outsider’ to Bollywood’s nepotistic circles by these accounts. Incidentally, her account was suspended in 2021 by Twitter for violating its rules, after she posted a tweet that allegedly incited violence against a community.
There are more than 23 million Indian users on Twitter, while nearly 240 million Indians use Facebook, according to some estimates. It is clear that the reach of Twitter as a means to start a widespread movement in India is fairly limited when compared to other social media platforms.
There are other factors at play as well, including the presence of ‘bots’ or automated accounts that perform the same functions as those operated by humans. According to a Bloomberg report from July, bots are used to “engage in potentially deceptive, harmful or annoying activity”, which includes spreading fake news, falsehoods, and promoting political messages.
There is also the question of algorithms: for most Twitter users, the ‘What’s Happening’ section on their homepage, which shows recent trends, is automatically the ‘For You’ section and not the ‘Trending’ section. This means that most people using the platform see the trends that the algorithm has determined that they would be most interested in, instead of seeing what is actually trending far and wide on the platform.
This implies that unless someone follows Bollywood regularly, there is a lesser chance of them encountering #BoycottBollywood. Keeping all this in mind, it would be a bit of a stretch to claim that the hashtag is responsible for sinking the fortunes of Bollywood, especially considering how Hindi movies have seen lesser footfalls even before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Another aspect to consider is that though Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) starring Alia Bhatt faced an active boycott campaign, it still managed to become one of the biggest hits of the year and was credited by many commentators for being responsible for bringing Hindi audiences back to theatres. A few months later, Kangana Ranaut’s film Dhaakad tanked at the box office. Clearly, there is something more at play here.
The quick answer is, a lot. Comparing the success of some south Indian films in the Hindi belt, with the underwhelming response to Hindi films, there is said to be an audience disconnect with the kind of stories Bollywood is choosing to tell. There is also a dearth of good mass, masala films, which other industries are churning out.
Critics have attributed the failure of several big-budget films this year, like Shamshera, Prithviraj Chauhan, Laal Singh Chaddha and Rakshabandhan to lacklustre writing that has nothing new to offer. Meanwhile, films that are opting for direct digital releases, like Darlings and Gehraiyaan, are being applauded for trying out new themes. A few films which underperformed at the box office have garnered more viewership and praise after being released on OTT, such as Badhaai Do, Jhund, and Jersey, proving to some extent that Hindi movies’ audiences now prefer watching films at their convenience.
The disappearance of single-screen theatres from many parts of the country and the rise of the much more expensive multiplex is another reason attributed to Bollywood’s under-performance, as OTT offered a cheaper alternative, becoming the norm in the pandemic. People seem to be flocking to the theatres only for ‘event’ films, or films which are considered too grand to be experienced on the small screens of televisions, laptops, and mobiles.
Incidentally, many OTT platforms have been ‘boycotted’ in the past too, such as Amazon Prime for its web series ‘Tandav’ in 2021. Despite these attempts, OTT platforms are quickly becoming a standard feature in the lives of Indians who use the internet frequently.