Bollywood's New Releases Under Fire: 'Maharaj' and 'Hamare Baarah' Trigger Debates and Boycotts

Over the last few years, many OTT releases have attracted the ire of Hindu fundamentalists, in almost all of them, the main charge remains the same: ‘Hinduphobia’

Photo: screengrab

Bollywood celebrates the launch of a star kid with the kind of fondness and fervour that Indian families reserve for weddings. But Aamir Khan’s son, Junaid, about to debut in a Netflix release, Maharaj, got nothing. Literally nothing: no teaser, no trailer, no hoardings, no interviews, no promotion. Quoting industry experts, entertainment websites speculated that the real reason could be the script itself. In 1862, journalist Karsandas Mulji wrote a newspaper article accusing Jadunathji Maharaj, the leader of the Vaishnavite Pushtimarg sect, of sexually exploiting his female devotees. Maharaj sued Mulji for libel. Now a period drama recreating this case, where Junaid plays Mulji, has itself become embroiled in a legal tussle.

On June 3, a Hindu nationalist organisation, Bajrang Dal, sent a letter to Yash Raj Films (YRF), accusing its movie of “vilifying Hinduism”, “disrespecting Lord Krishna”, and “offending the feelings of Hindus”. If released, the letter continued, the film could create a “law and order” problem. “So we demand that you immediately show the movie to the representatives of the Vishva Hindu Parishad [VHP] and religious leaders.” It ended with a warning: “Hindus will not tolerate anyone disrespecting their religion.”

Over the last few years, many OTT releases have attracted the ire of Hindu fundamentalists, such as Sacred Games (2018), Pataal Lok (2020), A Suitable Boy (2020). In almost all of them, the main charge remains the same: ‘Hinduphobia’. Tandav’s director, Ali Abbas Zafar, apologised and deleted the objectionable scenes; so did Nayanthara, an actress helming Annapoorani (2023), which stopped streaming on Netflix. Her apology came after VHP’s FIR complaint. But YRF ignored the letter, hoping a quiet release on Netflix, then the word of mouth praise, could save the film.

Just a day before the release, however, the Gujarat High Court, acting on a petition by the members of the Pushtimarg Vaishnava sect, issued a stay order, halting its screening. Around the same time, hashtags such as “Boycott Netflix” and “Ban Maharaj Film” trended on X. Many social media users also connected this case to Junaid’s father, Aamir Khan, commenting on rising intolerance in the country in 2015 (which continued to haunt him even seven years later, as his Laal Singh Chaddha (2022) faced boycott calls).

Unlike the recent film controversies, which can be boiled down to a ‘Left versus Right’ conflict, Maharaj’s case doesn’t seem that simple. “Mr. Saurabh Shah (@hisaurabhshah) took a firm stand for Hindutva at a time when no established alternate ecosystem existed. ‘Maharaj’ is based on his [bestselling Gujarati] novel,” wrote Meghalsinh Parmar on X, the Deputy Editor of Op-India Gujarati, a far-right-wing website. “Do you really think a person who is ideologically committed and who worked extensively for Hindutva would write an anti-Hindu book and defame his own Dharma?”

But Maharaj isn’t the only film this week to court controversy. It’s found company in Hamare Baarah, whose trailer shows a series of dialogues, by Muslim men, establishing their misogyny and fixation on breeding. We see an incendiary speech by a Muslim leader (“women should be like salwar’s strings—it’s better if they remain inside”), an old Muslim man (Annu Kapoor) threatening to kill his wife (as disobeying a husband means disobeying khuda), and Muslim men slapping Muslim women multiple times, dragging them on the floor, and on and on.

The drama plays to Hindutva’s perennial concern—called, what else but, the “population jihad”—which believes that Muslims’ population will swell to such an extent that they’ll overtake Hindus. In fact last month, during the election, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Economic Advisory Council released a working paper, which stated that, between 1950 and 2015, the Muslims’ population share increased from 9.84 per cent to 14.09 per cent, while the Hindus’ decreased from 84.68 per cent to 78.06 per cent. Many critics, however, objected to the report’s selective reading of data and the lack of context. It relied on, for instance, a survey and not the decade-wise national Census and used percentages, instead of absolute numbers, to paint an alarming picture.

After the trailer surfaced online, several Muslim organisations complained about its Islamophobia and misogyny. Earlier this month, the Karnataka Government banned its theatrical exhibition, as the movie could create communal tension. Scheduled to release on June 7, it ran into another roadblock when the Bombay High Court, acting on a petition, issued a stay order till June 14. The court directed the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) to form a three-member committee to watch the movie and share its feedback. But the panel requested for more time, and the High Court allowed the film to release.

The petitioner, then, moved the Supreme Court, objecting to the CBFC forming a panel when it was itself an “interested party”. On June 13, filmmaker’s counsel said that the makers had removed the objectionable scenes from the trailer. “We saw the teaser today morning,” responded the bench, “and all the scenes are there.” It also stated that the “teaser” was “so offensive that the High Court [initially] granted an interim order [restraining the film’s release]”. When the counsel argued that a delayed release could result in huge losses, the bench said, “If the teaser is so offensive then what about the whole movie?” It also slammed the CBFC, saying it had “failed to do its job”.

It can be argued that, over the last 10 years, the CBFC has “failed” to discharge its duties several times, green-lighting films demonising Muslims, which deepened the communal divide and even became box-office blockbusters. But with the Supreme Court’s firm stand in the Hamare Baarah case, and YRF and Netflix challenging the Gujarat’s High Court order, a slender beam of hope seems to emerge from the bleak canvass of Indian political cinema.