Learn more about the digital battlegrounds where anonymous troll armies fight to change public opinion.
In January 2020, days after Deepika Padukone’s film Chhapaak was released in theaters, the movie’s IMDb ratings witnessed a sharp drop. The film was based on the real-life story of acid attack survivor Laxmi Agarwal, and had been widely praised by critics.
Despite that, Chhapaak’s IMDb rating stood at a paltry 4.4 at the end of the month with 4,000 one-star ratings (the current rating is 5.1). Before the release of the film, Padukone had made an appearance at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in Delhi to show her solidarity with students who had been assaulted by a masked group. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a right-wing students’ organization was accused of orchestrating the attacks in a bid to quell students’ protests against a fee hike and the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act.
As pictures of the actress standing with JNU student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Aishe Ghosh started trending on Twitter, the hashtag #BoycottChhapaak started gaining traction. BJP spokesperson Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga called for a boycott of the film with a caustic tweet saying the actress is a supporter of the #tukdetukde gang and ‘Afzal gang’ (referring to Afzal Guru, the architect of the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001).
Downvoting of movie ratings, organized trolling, and calls for boycotts are becoming increasingly common ways of vilifying filmmakers and actors for their work if they are seen to contradict popular political ideologies.
Director Anubha Sinha was met with the same treatment upon release of his film Mulk. The film received a flurry of praise from critics for its portrayal of a Muslim family trying to reclaim its honour and live with stigma after one of them is found to have been involved in terrorist activities. According to Sinha, “When the film was released, it had a 9/10 rating, and overnight 5,000 accounts gave it a one-star rating on IMDb. I had reached out to the IMDb officials but they didn’t do anything. The same had happened with my films Article 15 and Thappad. Trolls were also running a parallel hate campaign against the films on social media channels.”
Sinha, who has been critical of the ruling BJP government had also written an open letter in response to the hate campaign directed at Mulk saying, “You [the trolls] are just a lonely loudspeaker on a pole. Come rain, come sunshine nothing changes for you.” It is important to note that Sinha’s Article 15 was also subjected to a slew of comments calling the film anti-Hindu for its loosely fictionalized take on the highly-publicized Badaun gang-rape case and how the prevalence of caste barriers made it difficult for the families of the Dalit victims to seek justice.
The Reverse Trend
Although Chhapaak’s earnings in the domestic and overseas markets and its sale of satellite and music rights helped it break even, the response to the film could be termed tepid at best in contrast to the Ajay Devgn movie Tanhaji which was released on the same day.
While Chhapaak’s negative publicity can be linked to Deepika Padukone’s anti-establishment political stance, Tanhaji’s roaring success at the box office had its root in the Indian audiences’ newly-acquired fascination for biographical period dramas that pay tribute to historical Hindu figures. Tanhaji was a biographical action film based on the life of Tanaji Malusare, the commander of the army of Maratha ruler Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj who sacrifices his life in a bid to save the Maratha empire from being annexed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.
Within two days of its release, Tanhaji’s IMDb ratings had climbed to 8.8 and went on to collect more than US$ 50 million at the box office, and is currently one of the highest-grossing Bollywood films of all time. As with Chhapaak, Tanhaji also garnered rave reviews from critics, but the reviews were also quick to point out the unnecessary saffronisation of the plot points. The film also depicted Saif Ali Khan as Udaybhan Singh Rathore, Aurangzeb's royal guard, in line with the recent trend among Bollywood film-makers where historical Muslim figures are shown as depraved characters, eating raw meat and making no attempt to disguise their lasciviousness.
Case in point is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat which depicted the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji as a murderous satyromaniac. The film shows Khilji has only one wife but the word harem is loosely thrown around for him. However, the Hindu protagonist in the film – Rawal Ratan Singh’s relationship with his second wife Padmaavati is shown to be rife with sensuality and tenderness.
Ankur Pathak, entertainment editor at HuffPost India said, “Calling out films that are government pamphlets pretending to be cinema with elements of hyper-jingoistic, chest thumping nationalism is bound to make the right wing come after you. The hate campaigns are very organized with sophisticated machinery behind it. There are IITians [alumni of the Indian Institute of Technology] and nerds on the payroll who can harm a movie’s perception very effectively.”
According to film critic Tanul Thakur, the days when box office numbers were the only way to gauge the success and failure of films are long gone. Speaking to Logically, Thakur said, “Now the failure of a film has both financial and psychological impacts. Especially, if the film challenges the dominant political narrative — the trolls really go after you. Sometimes the critics are not spared as well. I got trolled for writing an unfavourable review of Tanhaji. My Twitter was constantly buzzing with nasty replies for two days.”
If hate campaigns and downvoting of ratings are becoming a way of suppressing voices of dissent, the industry is also witnessing the emergence of an equally insidious trend. Tanul says, “The resonance of the Hindutva ideology among the masses has also given filmmakers and actors a successful formula. Films like Uri and Kesari were huge hits. ”
Pathak says, “There has been a shift in the kind of films that are being made. Examples include Mission Mangal that had undertones of insidious nationalism and Uri which was very well made and had subtle moments fawning over a political leader. That nationalism formula has worked wonders at the box office can be inferred from the fact that Mission Mangal and Uri were blockbusters. Actors like Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar have been rehashing and recycling this very formula. I am not sure whether they personally align with these political ideologies.”
Intolerance for Progressive Female Leads
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the far right organisation with close ties to the BJP, has emphasized time and again their view that Hindu women have a duty to produce children so that India can realize its dream of being a Hindu rashtra. For a political party that reinforces the patriarchal order where women’s existence is confined to rearing children and being caregivers to their families, a portrayal of sexually liberated women is bound to provoke pushback.
In a recent example, Rasbhari, a TV show launched on Amazon Prime last month was subjected to thousands of co-ordinated reviews downvoting it. The show, which has Swara Bhaskar as its protagonist, touches on issues of teenage sexuality, sexual repression and the societal double standards between Indian men and women with respect to expressions of sexual desires. Bhaskar, who has been an outspoken critic of the BJP government and a favourite target for right-wing trolls, plays the role of a seductress in a small town in Uttar Pradesh who becomes an object of lust for all the men and teenage boys in the town.
Within 24 hours of its release, the show was inundated with accusations of being obscene, vulgar, anti-Hindu and of showing Indian teachers in poor light (Bhaskar plays the role of a teacher). #BoycottRasbhari was trending and the show's IMDb ratings hovered around 2 with 75% of voters giving it a one-star rating. Although the show received only a lukewarm reception by critics, the middling reviews were still a far cry from the ratings received by users on IMDb.
In 2018, Bhaskar had been subjected to a similar trolling campaign. She was one of the protagonists in Veere Di Wedding, a ‘Sex and the City-ish’ film revolving around the lives of four urban Indian women and their relationship troubles. In one scene, Bhaskar’s character was shown using a vibrator to pleasure herself when her husband walks in. The scene created an uproar and Bhaskar was trolled and slut-shamed relentlessly, and even accused of damaging Indian culture.
Pathak said “Trolling can have a long lasting impact on filmmakers and actors especially newcomers. Actors also stand to lose opportunities to work with brands and production houses. If there is a production house or a brand that does not want its name to be dragged in a controversy it would be hesitant to sign an actor who is politically outspoken to avoid triggering the wrath of the troll army. Rasbhari had nothing to do with right or left politics and yet it was subjected to a vicious smear campaign.”
The trolling machinery is also catalyzing the growth of self-censorship among film-makers, actors, producers and script writers. Pathak says, “It has not become an established pattern yet but there is a fear-psychosis. People involved in the film-making processes are on the guard and they have started micromanaging their own expressions because they fear it is going to trigger a certain ideology or faction.”
With theaters remaining shut due to the coronavirus pandemic and production houses releasing their films to streaming platforms instead, co-ordinated review bombings have become even more effective. Pathak says, “In India, till now trolling has not had a significant impact on box office numbers and viewership. People have relied more on word-of-mouth reviews, especially in small towns. But now what with [on demand] platforms making viewers spoilt for choice, more and more people will check online ratings and those who are unaware of how organized and malicious the troll armies are, will be pushed away from movies which have been downvoted unfairly. For instance if I decide to watch a show ten days after it is premiered on an OTT platform and the show has been heavily downvoted and has a rating of 2.9 stars, I will take the rating at face value and not watch it. Beyond the bubble of Twitter, there are very few people who are aware how organized these hate campaigns are.”
Director Vikramaditya Motwane whose repertoire includes Udaan, Lootera, Bhavesh Joshi and the highly successful Netflix original Sacred Games says, “Eventually people are going to stop trusting IMDb and move on to something else. I don’t think that overhauling the rating system is viable because that may take away the democratic nature of IMDb which is that your vote counts for creating an opinion. We cannot tell a certain section of viewers to not vote to stem the problem of troll voting. This is something we will have to live with. I, personally, have stopped checking ratings. I go through user reviews because they are better indicators of how the public feels about a movie or TV show.”