Bollywood, India’s huge film industry, may be an obsession with hundreds of millions of people across the sub-continent and around the world, but some right-wing Hindu nationalists believe the movies churned out by Mumbai are an insult to traditional Indian culture and would like them stamped out.
The harassment of film actors and actresses by a right-wing organization called the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) party has become so intense that Bollywood officials have threatened to leave the city of Mumbai after more than a century.
The Film and Television Producers Guild of India has warned Maharashtra’s state chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan, that he must improve security for the film industry and protect against what it calls acts of “political vandalism.”
Major Bollywood movers and shakers, including producer Mukesh Bhatt, directors Mahesh Bhatt, Ramesh Sippy, Yash Chopra and Ashutosh Gowariker, will meet with the chief minister on Friday to hash out a plan to stop the violence and ensure security for film crews.
"Things have gone out of hand. We can't do business at a place where there is always threat to life" complained Sippy, the president of the Guild.
"It’s unsafe to shoot in Mumbai nowadays. Our limbs are at stake. So is our property. The rampage should end soon. Or else, we filmmakers have to leave our city and look for options."
Mukesh Bhatt, vice president of the Guild, complained to The Times of India: "We are going to tell the [chief minister] about two things that need to be implemented with immediate effect. One, the government needs to beef up the security on film and television sets. Two, miscreants who disrupt and vandalize film sets need to be arrested and booked under a non-bailable offence."
In recent weeks, groups affiliated with MNS have attacked camera crews and disrupted shooting across the city of Mumbai. MNS cadres have also damaged cars belonging to various movie stars. They have also reportedly barged onto movie sets, made violent threats and tried to extort money.
"By attacking film personalities these political goons are assured headlines" said prominent director Mahesh Bhatt.
Bhatt added: “We have completed hundred years of Indian cinema and yet we are not free to shoot safely in our own city. Many filmmakers have suffered in the past and are scared to talk about it, which is why those incidents have gone unreported. And I wouldn't single out MNS. Many political outfits have been harassing us on some pretext or the other."
Losing Bollywood would be disastrous for Mumbai, symbolically and financially. The film center employs more than 2.5 million people and is valued at about $3.1 billion.
The neighboring state of Gujarat has already offered a safe haven and security for Bollywood, should the film industry decide to relocate.
It is unclear what MNS’s real grievance with Bollywood is (aside from the fact that many stars and directors come from outside Maharashtra). For example, MNS has repeatedly criticized Bollywood stars from other states, including Amitabh Bachchan, who is from Uttar Pradesh.
However, given Bollywood’s prominence in Indian affairs and pop culture, any disruption of movie-making guarantees MNS media coverage and a raised profile.
MNS is an offshoot of Shiv Sena, a right-wing Hindu nationalist group, which also had its roots in Maharashtra.
Indeed, the founder of MNS, Raj Thackeray, is a nephew of Bal Thackeray, the founder of Shiv Sena. When Bal handed over the leadership of Shiv Sena to his son Uddhav instead of Raj, the latter departed and formed MNS, taking many Shiv Sena youth members with him.
While Shiv Sena has a nationalist agenda, MNS appears focused solely on Maharashtra issues and had agitated against migrants from other parts of India, particularly north Indians. MNS has also called for the replacement of all English-language road signs and commercial billboards with the Marathi language instead.
Raj Thackeray is reportedly seeking to form an organization to rival, or even surpass, Shiv Sena, in terms of influence and scope.
On its website, MNS states: “[We are] committed to raising the State of Maharashtra, its people and the Marathi language to resplendent glory. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena is concerned about the State of Maharashtra and its cultural and material prosperity. It is committed to the development of the Marathi language and expanding its knowledge base. It will work to spread the knowledge about Maharashtra and expand its cultural boundaries.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.