Time to Cancel the Cancel Culture?

05 Aug,2022



By Shailesh Kapoor


Shailesh KapoorWhen I first heard the term ‘Cancel Culture’ a couple of years ago, it intrigued me. The idea that you can ‘cancel’ someone, typically a celebrity, for their unacceptable comments or conduct, especially on a topic of contemporary significance, seemed like an empowering one. It also seemed democratic in its intent, because a group of common people could hold a celebrity accountable for their actions or words, by ‘canceling’ them en masse.


In India, however, the term did not come with the nuances, such as those around the free speech debate, it carries in Western cultures, where it originated. The semantics changed to “Boycott”, a word that has since been used to attempt cancelation of several celebrities, films and corporates, often for reasons that are more political than moral, social or cultural.


As I write this, a search on #Boycott on Twitter throws up three prominent suggestions: #BoycottLaalSinghChaddha, #BoycottRakshaBandhan (the film, not the festival) and #BoycottAliaBhatt. All three are related to films releasing this week. Alia Bhatt’s Darlings has dropped on Netflix today, while the other two films, starring Aamir Khan and Akshay Kumar respectively, release on August 11.


It may not always be easy to trace root causes of such boycotts, because those causes often tend to be more generic than specific. If a community of trolls decides to boycott a particular film or its lead actor, they will find more than a few reasons to do so. It could be a comment made by the celebrity in the past (sometimes a decade ago), something ‘inappropriate’ they wore, a ‘problematic’ character they played in a film in the not-so-recent past, or all of the above.


The root causes may not always be linked to the bigger celebrities alone. Raksha Bandhan, a film headlined by an actor (Akshay Kumar) who generally has a right-of-centre political image, is being ‘boycotted’ because the film’s writer Kanika Dhillon has been outspoken about topics such as lynching, and has made ‘cow’ references in some of her tweets on this topic. These tweets are not from this year, but have been dug out in the week leading up to the film’s release.


Then, there’s the generic evergreen trending topic: #BoycottBollywood. Since Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide in June 2020, the call to boycott the Hindi film industry in its entirety has been a recurring one. It’s been fanned by some within the industry itself, most notably Kangana Ranaut. The industry has also been given the name ‘Urduwood’, a term that suggests how the industry has turned its back on Hindu culture and ethos.


The underlying politics is apparent even to the most naïve. News channels play their part in furthering this narrative, using subtler variants of these hashtags, but never showing any subtlety of discourse thereafter.


In times when the Hindi film industry is suffering from an identity crisis, with films from the Southern industries and Hollywood doing better, it becomes a soft target for hardline politics.


The good news, if one can call it that, is that there is no evidence that such boycotts impact the fate of these films or stars, either in theatres or on streaming. Alia Bhatt, who has been on the ‘boycott list’ of the Right Wing for what seems like perpetuity now, is at the peak of her professional career currently, and has delivered one of the few hits that the Hindi film industry have seen this year: Gangubai Kathiawadi.


Since the paying audience doesn’t care much, there isn’t much heft that these hashtags and social media trends carry. But they continue to exist, and are only getting more frequent and inane of late.


It’s perhaps time to boycott the boycott hashtags, to cancel the cancel culture.


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