Bollywood is going to the mattresses, to borrow a phrase from The Godfather, with television channels that have waged a campaign in recent months to paint it as a den of vice and crime.

On Monday, the Hindi film industry’s most powerful filmmakers filed a civil suit in the Delhi High Court against Times Now and Republic TV seeking “redress against the irresponsible, derogatory and defamatory reporting”.

Among the marquee actors with their own production companies who have joined the suit are Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Ajay Devgn, Aamir Khan and Anushka Sharma. Virtually every well-known director has signed on, from Rohit Shetty and Vidhu Vinod Chopra to Zoya Akhtar and Luv Ranjan. Aditya Chopra’s Yash Raj Films, Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions, the corporate company Reliance Entertainment and Sajid Nadiadwala’s Nadiadwala Grandson Entertainment are part of the appeal.

So have four apex industry bodies – the Producers Guild of India and Screenwriters Association, among them.

The broadcast networks that the filmmakers are taking on are markedly pro-government. There is a huge risk of blowback. In the short term, the response is likely to play out on Times Now and Republic TV and on social media. We can expect on-air drama and tweetstorms. Besides, as gangster movies have warned, a strategy of this sort always results in bodies piling up.

Vilification 24x7

The press statement issued by the plaintiffs provides a clue about their motivations. The television channels have been using “highly derogatory words and expressions for Bollywood such as ‘dirt’, ‘filth’, ‘scum’, ‘druggies’ and expressions such as ‘it is Bollywood where the dirt needs to be cleaned’, ‘all the perfumes of Arabia cannot take away the stench and the stink of this filth and scum of the underbelly of Bollywood’, ‘This is the dirtiest industry in the country’, and ‘cocaine and LSD drenched Bollywood’, the statement noted.

The channels have been strafing the Hindi film industry with heavy-duty moralising and unfounded allegations ever since the tragic suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput on June 4. Many channels converted Rajput’s death into a 24x7 drama, even as other, more pressing horrors such as Covid-19 played out on the streets.

A straight-forward case of an actor succumbing to his inner demons became a witch-hunt. Claiming that Rajput had been murdered, online mobs and television networks sought to flame anybody they held responsible for his plight, from filmmakers who had allegedly rejected him for roles to actors who had been claimed to have slighted him.

The bloodhounds eventually settled on a single, more easily manageable villain: Rajput’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty. She was accused by Rajput’s family of embezzling his money and supplying drugs to him. Several Central investigative agencies were called in: the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate and the Narcotics Control Bureau.

On September 8, Chakraborty and her brother, Shovik, were jailed on charges of drug trafficking. While she has been granted bail, her brother remains behind bars.

The investigation by the Narcotics Control Bureau into a purported drug racket threatened to get bigger with the summoning of actors Deepika Padukone, Sara Ali Khan and Shraddha Kapoor. Photographs and videos of Padukone entering the Narcotics Control Bureau office in Mumbai, her face half-hidden behind a mask, made headlines around the world.

Reputation at stake

After Deepika, who? The question has shaken up Bollywood. All eyes were on the Hindi film’s industry’s A-listers. Would they surrender meekly? The lawsuit tells us that they are gearing up for battle.

It’s not just the personal reputations of actors and filmmakers at stake. Reputation, of course, fuels the box office. If actors or filmmakers are declared criminals, the productions with which they are associated are bound to suffer.

The intense trolling and down-voting of Sadak 2, the direct-to-streamer movie starring Alia Bhatt, and the instant online criticism of the trailer of Akshay Kumar’s Laxmmi Bomb, are signs that packs of Bollywood haters fed with fake news are prowling about. Both actors have been accused of being part of a nebulous conspiracy by traditional film families to control Bollywood projects. Bhatt has been repeatedly singled out for being part of a filmmaking dynasty, while Kumar, despite his frequent pro-government utterances, seems to have been deemed guilty by association.

This is a critical time for the Hindi film industry. The next few months will see the release of films that have been on hold for months because cinemas have been shut because of pandemic restrictions. Movie theatres in several states are scheduled to reopen from October 15. Among the big-budget productions that will test the willingness of audiences to return for the big-screen experience are Kabir Khan’s ’83, based on India’s historic cricket World Cup victory in 1983, and Rohit Shetty’s Sooryavanshi, starring Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif, which is scheduled to be released early next year.

These theatres will be battling competition from web series on digital streaming platforms, dealing with diminished seating capacity due to seating restrictions to ensure social distancing, and facing the possibility that they might be shut down once again in case of another Covid-19 outbreak. The film industry need every bit of positive publicity it can get. The relentless “Burn Bollywood” campaign being run by television channels is undermining potential earnings.

Bollywood soft power

The press statement by the plaintiffs contains other important facts about the Hindi film industry. “Since several years Bollywood is a huge source of revenue for the public exchequer, earns significant foreign exchange for India by way of revenue from overseas releases of films, tourism etc., and is a big source of employment, with various other industries also being largely dependent on it,” the statement pointed out.

It added: “The livelihood of persons associated with Bollywood is being severely impacted by the smear campaign being run by the Defendants. This is in addition to the ongoing pandemic which has resulted in extreme revenues and work opportunity loss. The privacy of the members of Bollywood is being invaded, and their reputations are being irreparably damaged by painting the entire Bollywood as criminals, seeped in drug culture, and making being part of Bollywood as synonymous with criminal acts in the public imagination.”

Still, Bollywood must be thankful for some recent events that have acted in its favour. For instance, earlier this fortnight, despite the claims of these television channels, a team from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences team categorically ruled out murder as the cause of Rajput’s death.

In addition, Republic TV’s credibility has taken a blow with the Mumbai police beginning an investigation into claims that it is among three channels that allegedly rigged ratings. Supporting allegations that the controversy has been politically motivated, a research paper by Microsoft Research India has pointed out that the Bharatiya Janata Party used social media to create chatter around Rajput’s death and destabilise the Shiv Sena-led government in Maharashtra. At the same time, the Mumbai Police registered two first information reports claiming that over 80,000 fake social media accounts had been used to “derail” the investigation into Rajput’s death.

As Bollywood attempts to get back to business by resuming shoots and returning to the Friday release cycle, it cannot have what the press statement calls a “frenzy” play out on prime time television. At the heart of the civil suit is an unstated plea for Times Now and Republic TV to stick to the facts and report on the issues that really matter – the lingering effects of the raging Covid-19 pandemic, the precarious state of the economy, and the attack on civil liberties and protests by such entities as the Delhi Police and the Uttar Pradesh government.

The plaintiffs don’t want a “blanket gag order against media reportage” of the investigation into Rajput’s death or the narcotic inquiry, they clarified: “The Plaintiffs are merely seeking perpetual and mandatory injunction against the Defendants from carrying on reportage and publication of material that violates applicable laws.”

The perils of taking political positions

Hindi cinema’s A-listers have long been dismissed as being both apathetic and sycophantic. They have been criticised for staying away from political issues. But when some of them supported protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act or took public positions against the Central government’s policies, they were accused of being “anti-national”.

The group that gathered around Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a pre-election selfie in January 2019 was lambasted for its toadying behaviour. However, despite aligning with the most important man in the country, some of the people in that photograph, including Karan Johar, Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor, have been held up for vilification.

The matter has ended up in the relatively neutral arena of the courtroom. Here, a judge will examine the case for whether the Hindi film industry needs protection from Times Now and Republic TV. These two channels are not the only ones running campaigns against the Hindi film industry. But strictures against them might serve as a warning for other prime-time anchors seeking to spice up their bulletins.

The trolls are still at large, of course, as is Bollywood baiter Kangana Ranaut. Among the major production companies that isn’t a part of the lawsuit is Ronnie Screwvala Productions. RSVP is producing Tejas, starring Ranaut as an Indian Air Force fighter pilot. The film is expected to go into production by the end of the year, according to a Hindustan Times report.

Some other names are also missing from the list of producers, suggesting some dissent in the ranks. The irony is that any action against rogue television networks will ultimately benefit these absent parties too. Without sticking their necks out, they too will gain from the bitter fight between Bollywood and its maliciously motivated discontents.

Also read:

Why are they going after Bollywood?

How the might of India’s federal investigative agencies came to be trained on one young woman

How did Sushant Singh’s death lead to summons for Deepika Padukone?