India’s mainstream film industry has increasingly fallen under the influence of the Hindu nationalist ruling party and its agenda. But a thriving, multilingual independent sector is producing creative counternarratives.
Comedian Vir Das’s state-of-the-nation monologue Two Indias oscillates between the vision of a tolerant, secular, diverse democracy and its descent into a totalitarian dystopia. As he suggests, India is an ideational concept made possible by the intangible and often inexplicable glue that binds its historically disparate and fissiparous body politic. The power to enact and reinforce India’s secular democratic premise of “unity in diversity” has resided ultimately in the imagination, intent, will, and actions of the Indian people. This spontaneous popular agency to perform and sanctify the distinctive everyday practice of unifying ground-level communitarianism has become moribund in recent years. The Hindu fundamentalist sangh (family) of organizations, headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have hacked away at it through their segregationist, hate-instigating Hindutva politics.
The tenuous social fabric of a now nominally secular democracy is being torn apart by relentless ideological mass conditioning of the nation’s Hindu majority population to support the ruling political regime’s goal of establishing a Hindu supremacist state. These schisms and polarities, spotlighted by Vir Das, are mirrored in the contemporary Indian cinema ecology. Since its coeval ascendancy alongside India’s tryst with neoliberalism in the early 1990s, modern Bollywood has played a pivotal role in peddling, shaping, and annealing the majoritarian agenda of enforcing a mono-religious Hindu rashtra (nation).
Particularly since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meteoric rise at the helm of the BJP’s landslide election victory in 2014, Bollywood blockbusters espousing triumphalist ultranationalistic themes, valorizing war against India’s archrival Pakistan, and promoting Hindu religious values and rituals as synonyms of Indian identity have been commercially successful thanks in part to political patronage. Uri: The Surgical Strike, Mission Mangal, and PM Narendra Modi (all released in 2019), Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior (2020), and Bhuj: The Pride of India (2021) are a few examples of mainstream films that exploit the zeitgeist of populist hypernationalism rampant in vast swaths of contemporary India. A distinct example of Bollywood being co-opted into the BJP’s populist playbook is Modi’s public use of a slogan—“How’s the josh” (meaning passion or zeal)—from jingoistic war drama Uri: The Surgical Strike. The catchphrase was brandished subsequently by other BJP politicians and their followers, who are known as bhakts (believers).
Bollywood family sagas privileging traditional sanskari Hindu values range from Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) to Sooraj Barjatya’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015). They conform to the political ideology and distorted vision of a historically rewritten Hindu nation where religious minorities, Dalits, Adivasis, and other vulnerable groups are erased from the national narrative. The normalization of majoritarian ideology in popular Bollywood is an important instrument in this broader attempt to reshape Indian society, particularly at a time when a “religious parliament” held in the holy city of Haridwar in December 2021 provided a platform for Hindu religious leaders to call on ordinary Hindus to take up arms and enact genocide against minority Muslims.
Bollywood has supplied an array of voluble spokespersons and emissaries to validate and extol the agenda of the BJP and Modi. Stars such as Akshay Kumar have offered hagiographic paeans to Modi and his policies. Kumar’s unabashedly obsequious and apolitical April 2019 interview with the prime minister ran across mainstream Indian news channels. Another Bollywood actor, Kangana Ranaut, is a self-appointed defender of the BJP, weaponizing social media and engaging in an outré Twitter dispute with the pop star Rihanna over the government’s heavy-handed response to protesting Indian farmers.
Historically, the commercial Hindi film industry, now known ubiquitously as Bollywood, has had a long-standing reliance on a melting pot of creative, technical, managerial, and service personnel from multifarious socio-religious backgrounds. The broader breakdown of the secular constitutional Indian state under BJP rule is metonymized by the current religious fault lines in Bollywood. The industry’s Muslim stars are increasingly being denounced and singled out for stigmatization. Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan was embroiled in a criminal investigation and imprisoned in 2021 on unsubstantiated charges of drug possession. In 2015, Aamir Khan was pilloried by the right-wing Hindu political establishment, its nationwide acolytes, and mainstream news media for expressing concern about rising intolerance in the country. Interfaith Bollywood couple Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor drew opprobrium for naming their sons Taimur and Jehangir, allegedly after Muslim potentates of the past.
Indies disrupt the ultranationalist narrative proliferated by mainstream Bollywood.
In this tempestuous context, the antidote to Bollywood’s amplification of nationalist narratives serving the status quo has been an ascendant wave of independent Indian films. Charting the scene’s evolution since 2010 in my book Indian Indies, I delineate the archetypical characteristic of this alternative cohort of films as unconventional, critical, and oppositional thematic content. This divergent and outspoken propensity of new Indian Indie films—in a cross-regional range of languages, unlike Hindi-dominated Bollywood—is particularly significant considering the ongoing clampdown on freedom of speech and expression by the BJP regime, specifically the escalating censorship of dissenting voices in cinema.
Indies perform the important task of undermining the state’s Hindutva agenda by disrupting the majoritarian ultranationalist narrative that is uncritically proliferated by mainstream Bollywood. Through cinematic counternarratives, several Indies reimagine socio-religious unity, cooperation, and cohesion. They problematize patriarchy and expose the enduring abomination of the caste system. In essence, these films orchestrate small acts of subversion.
Devashish Makhija’s visceral Ajji (“Grandmother,” 2017), deploying tenebrous lighting, austere design, and a blanched color scheme, charts the saga of a slum-dwelling grandmother who seeks to avenge a sexual assault on her young granddaughter by the profligate son of a powerful local right-wing Hindu politician. The film foregrounds the solidarity between the elderly, so-called lower-caste Ajji and her local Muslim butcher, whose adroitness in dismembering goat carcasses provides the chopping board for Ajji to cultivate her own customized use of the butcher’s blade. Picking up the baton from Ajji, Makhija’s Bhonsle (2018) returns even more explicitly to the theme of politically influenced societal discord. The film’s eponymous lone crusader revolts violently against xenophobic and misogynistic sensibilities in the Marathi heartland.
Similarly, a spate of socio-politically incisive Malayalam films, such as Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen (2021), have intrepidly exposed entrenched patriarchy in Indian domestic spaces and structural family hierarchies. The film also reveals intersectional aspects of religious orthodoxy and political expediency that manipulate a pliable population with inflammatory social media messages. The Great Indian Kitchen unveils an endemic culture of WhatsApp pogroms and misinformation dispersion on Facebook, demonstrating the paradox of Digital India: technological neoliberalism is the most potent recruit in the violent enforcement of Hindutva authoritarianism. Challenging Bollywood’s turn-a-blind-eye policy regarding Dalit lived experience, a new wave of Dalit Indie cinema encompassing films such as Visaranai (2015), Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale (2019), Seththumaan (“Pig,” 2021), and Jai Bhim (2021) have thrust into the mainstream the perennially problematic and singularly Indian issue of caste-based discrimination.
The new wave of Indies has also served as a springboard for expanded homegrown web series, such as Sacred Games, Tandav, and Paatal Lok on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. These series present trenchant and interrogative interpretations of the ruling establishment, the political status quo, the mainstream media, social structures, and current affairs. But repressive measures by the state, in synchrony with moral policing by public votaries of the Hindutva agenda, are threatening to silence these critical voices.
In 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting revealed a draft Cinematograph Amendment Bill, claiming unilateral power to revoke the censorship certificates of previously cleared films and future releases. Digital streaming platforms that had enjoyed a measure of freedom from the draconian dictates of the Central Board of Film Certification have now been corralled into the ambit of an intensified state-controlled censorship regime. Some of the main avenues for Indie films to articulate dissenting counternarratives appear set to be foreclosed.
The ministry has also made the controversial move of merging four independent, publicly funded institutions—the Films Division, the National Film Archive of India, the Directorate of Film Festivals, and the Children’s Film Society of India—under the banner of the National Film Development Corporation. This is another attempt to stifle creative autonomy in a monolithic entrepreneurial model. As demonstrated by the 1969 Latin American Third Cinema manifesto, however, escalating authoritarianism by repressive state apparatuses can stimulate new and innovative strategies and counternarratives to circumvent censorship and political domination. The independent feature and documentary sectors in India no doubt will devise their own workarounds and detours.
As its credentials as a global film industry expand, Bollywood appears to have embraced its role as cultural soft-power proponent of the current Indian government’s ongoing program of parochialization, religious ultranationalism, and ideological entrenchment of a theocratic Hindu state. In contrast, the independent Bengali-language film Dostojee (“Two Friends,” 2021) is a revealing portrait of contemporary India told through a coming-of-age tale of friendship involving two inseparable eight-year-old Muslim and Hindu boys in a remote village in West Bengal.
The film’s idyllic rural landscape, flanked by a river, suggests a fragile liminality—a silently volatile borderline bifurcates the village’s Muslim and Hindu residents. The film invokes the specter of the 1992 demolition by Hindu political extremists of Babri Masjid, a historic mosque in Ayodhya, and the event’s cascading impact in the dismantling of the constitutional architecture of secular Indian civil society. A microcosm of this monumental rupture in the Indian timeline is manifested in the Hindu villagers’ mobilization to celebrate Lord Ram, while the Muslim inhabitants are galvanized to build a replica of the Babri mosque, in their respective communal enclaves within the village.
The two boys, whose families’ threadbare neighboring dwellings are separated by a flimsy bamboo barrier, construct their own terra nullius. On this neutral terrain, their playful interactions and flights of fantasy prevail against the village’s encompassing miasma of religious orthodoxy and its politics of hatred, exclusionism, and invidious ethno-religious ideology. Through its child's-eye view, the film’s depiction of a deceptively charming and whimsical rite-of-passage odyssey acts as an apologue for India’s disintegrating multi-religious edifice. Akin to Vir Das’s monologue on a Janus-faced country, the film flits between allegory and eulogy.
In a haunting coda, the young Muslim boy, unable to bear the grief of separation from his Hindu dostojee, returns to their erstwhile playground—a grove ensconcing a tree on whose bark is etched the duo’s initials. Instinctively, the boy mimics the plangent cry of a cuckoo. His effort to hail his absent friend and the invisible bird’s echoing call reverberate in harmony with the swaying trees. This reverie-soaked cinematic moment seems a contemplative elegy for Hindu–Muslim harmony and unity torn asunder. Dostojee leaves its audience to lament the loss of the old India and face a creeping fear of the new.