Top Bollywood controversies of 2019
In this year-ender, we remember the tiffs and squabbles that kept Hindi cinema abuzz in 2019
A Bollywood year isn’t through without controversies. It’s that necessary glue that holds together a volatile industry and its ravenous fanbase. Yes, we, the media, feed off it, and at times — as witnessed during the Kangana Ranaut blow-up — are an active participant. In any event, it’s been a rather lukewarm year at the movies. So here’s remembering the tiffs and squabbles that kept Hindi cinema abuzz in 2019.
The Accidental Prime Minister and the propaganda machine
The myth of an insular Bollywood was broken this year. In the run up to the decisive General Elections, several films succumbed to active propaganda. The gloves came off with the simultaneous release of Uri: The Surgical Strike and The Accidental Prime Minister in January. While the first film celebrated a prominent military action by the present regime, the other took to chintzy caricature of the government before. Rather characteristically, no words of protest came from the titular ex-minister, though activists of his party vandalised theatres in Ludhiana and Kolkata.
Manikarnika and the battle for credit
Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi marked the directorial debut of Kangana Ranaut. The film was initially helmed by Telugu director Krish Jagarlamudi, who left the project over alleged creative interferences. Kangana took over, later claiming to have shot 70 per cent of the film.
This was heavily contested by Krish in post-release interviews, and was corroborated by actor Sonu Sood, who had quit the film during the scuffle and was replaced by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. Mishti Chakraborty, who played the role of Kashibai in the film, also criticised Kangana for snipping her role.
Pulwama and Pakistan ban
After the February 14 attack on a military convoy in Jammu and Kashmir, the All Indian Cine Workers Association announced a blanket ban on Pakistani artistes in India. Music label T-Series unlisted songs by Pakistani musicians from its portals, including the Atif Aslam single Baarishein. Actor Ajay Devgn, whose film Total Dhamaal was on pace for release, announced that the comedy would not open in the neighboring territory.
A reverse action of sorts was taken by Pakistan following the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. Addressing the press, Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting, Firdous Ashiq Awan, said a policy was drawn to ban all cultural content from India.
(A film on the Balakot airstrikes is being helmed by Abhishek Kapoor)
The delayed release of PM Narendra Modi
Omung Kumar’s biopic on the Indian Prime Minister was meant to be released before the elections. Stepping in at the last moment, the Election Commission (EC) stalled the release until after the polls, claiming it might disturb the level playing field. The film finally opened in theatres on May 24, a day after the General Elections results were announced. While the BJP-led NDA government emerged with a landslide win, the Vivek Oberoi-starrer film was widely panned, grossing an estimated 23 crore over its 8 crore budget at the box office.
Judgmentall Hai Kya and media backlash
There were two major controversies surrounding this comic thriller. Firstly, the film’s initial title — Mental Hai Kya — was objected to by the Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS). In a letter to the CBFC, health experts argued it was derogatory to people suffering from mental illnesses. The complaint was held up by the Prasoon Joshi-led statutory body, which directed the makers to alter the title.
Secondly, at a promotional event for the film on July 7, lead actor Kangana Ranaut engaged in a heated argument with a journalist. The actor accused the reporter of conducting a ‘smear campaign’ against her, rebuking him for tweeting negatively about her previous film Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. The journalist, in response, denied posting about the film or messaging Kangana personally. He also questioned her for using her position of power to threaten a press member.
The issue blew up, resulting in a press boycott against the actor by the Entertainment Journalists Guild (IJG). It was met with a legal notice from Kangana’s side, and a court case is presently underway in Mumbai.
Kabir Singh and the misogyny debate
Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Hindi remake of Arjun Reddy was hotly dissected. Critics slammed it for promoting misogyny and violence against women. Detractors called out the film for glorifying a destructive protagonist, thereby inciting similar behavior in society. Its fans, meanwhile, called for audience discretion, bringing up analogies to films like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. The debate continued to flare up after release: in an interview, Sandeep defended the scene where Kabir (Shahid Kapoor) slaps his girlfriend Preeti (Kiara Advani). Arguing for context, he called it an expression of ‘honest love’. The box office — with a total worldwide gross of Rs 370 crore — seemed to agree.
Bollywood’s ambivalence towards anti-CAA protests
The Hindi film industry stood divided over the anti-CAA/NRC unrest. Superstar Shah Rukh Khan, an alumnus of Jamia Millia Islamia, was criticised for his silence over police brutality in the campus.
Akshay Kumar offered clarification for liking a tweet about the protesting Jamia students, claiming he did it ‘by mistake’. Celebrities like Paresh Rawal, Anupam Kher and Vivek Agnihotri tweeted in favour of the act, while Ajay Devgn and Kangana Ranaut criticised the use of violence in protests. Seemingly on the fence were National Award-winners Vicky Kaushal and Ayushmann Khurrana, who condoned peaceful protests while deriding instances of violence. Saif Ali Khan, fresh off the success of Sacred Games, remained undecided in his remarks.
On the flip side, director Anurag Kashyap returned to Twitter to furiously slam the Modi government. He was joined by Article 15 director Anubhav Sinha and actor Sayani Gupta. Sharing a picture of Bollywood A-listers with the Prime Minister, Sayani urged her fraternity members to speak up.
Other celebrities who tweeted in favour of the protests included Farhan Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Mahesh Bhatt, Priyanka Chopra, Parineeti Chopra, Siddharth Malhotra, Pulkit Samrat, Sonakshi Sinha, Gulshan Devaiah, and others. A protest poem, titled Hum Kagaz Nahi Dikhayenge, was recited online by lyricist-screenwriter Varun Grover. Several of the dissenters were also seen at the anti-CAA protests in Mumbai. Among them, actor Sushant Singh was reportedly fired from his television show Savdhaan India – India Fights Back for taking part in the protests.