NEW DELHI — When the hashtag #BollywoodSplit started trending recently on Twitter, people might have assumed that it referred to the romantic woes of India’s glamorous movie stars.
But it was a split of a different kind that had electrified the Hindi movie industry — one involving politics.
It all started with a written public appeal issued last month by some members of the industry, urging Indians to vote for secular candidates in national elections. The appeal did not mention anyone by name, but everybody knew it was aimed at Hindu nationalist politician Narendra Modi, the main challenger from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The message sparked a nasty Twitter war.
India’s national election — which wrapped up Monday, with the results expected Friday — has divided Bollywood along political lines more sharply than any other race in years. Bollywood stars have been largely indifferent to politics, although some run for office in the twilight of their careers.
But this time they’ve been shaken out of their passivity because some believe that Modi would limit creative expression if he became prime minister.
“Whenever a right-wing party comes to power, freedom of speech and creative expression is assaulted,” said Mahesh Bhatt, a filmmaker whose movie in 1998 about religious rioting ran into trouble with Hindu nationalist groups. Bhatt is among those who signed the appeal.
Modi, 63, is the pro-business chief minister of the western state of Gujarat. His BJP is leading in most polls over the governing Congress party.
Human rights groups have criticized Modi for his failure to quickly control religious violence in his state in 2002 that killed more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. Although an investigation team appointed by the Supreme Court did not find sufficient evidence to try him in a case based on the riots, his image as a strident Hindu nationalist continues to alarm some Indians. Modi has pledged in recent interviews to respect the constitution, which establishes the secular character of the government in this majority-Hindu nation.
“Dissent and irreverence are [the] lifeblood of democracy and the prized asset of an artist,” Bhatt added. “But Modi's track record in Gujarat shows us that he strangulates dissent. He has not allowed movies and documentary films critical of him to be aired in Gujarat. There is a dread that some feel in the movie fraternity. These are questions that weigh me down as an Indian.”
Yet other artists have disagreed, loudly, with the suggestion that Modi would be bad for democracy.
Filmmaker and scriptwriter Vivek Agnihotri dismissed the petition’s signers as “pimps of secularism” and “intellectual mafia” in his blog. Agnihotri, a Modi fan who has appeared on television to defend the candidate, says the opposition leader will bring much needed development to India, including new schools, factories and hospitals.
Unlike the symbiotic relationship that Hollywood sometimes maintains with the White House — including during the Obama presidency — India’s Mumbai-based film industry has long kept politics at arm’s length. Movie moguls here don’t usually make campaign contributions, and stars do not swan through government ministries to lobby for causes.
But this election is different.
“Unlike America, where George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey openly take political positions, our film industry people have never before gone public with [their] support or opposition to political parties,” said Madhur Bhandarkar, an award-winning filmmaker. He finds the new activism worrisome. “The appeal is trying to divide us along political lines and secular-nonsecular lines.”
But actor Vivek Oberoi, a Modi supporter, said the political engagement is good for Bollywood. He recalled attending a recent Bollywood party where guests were consumed by a passionate argument about Modi.
“I could sense that the unwritten code of the industry, of not discussing politics openly, was breaking for the first time,” Oberoi said. “I busted a lot of their myths about Mr. Modi that night. I spoke about his clean and efficient government in Gujarat and the ease of doing business there.”
“I also countered many of their traditional notions about secularism,” he added, suggesting that concerns about religious intolerance were often exaggerated by politicians seeking to frighten religious minorities.
Modi, who is famous for his sense of style and showmanship, has cozied up to show-business figures. In recent months, he has tweeted pictures of himself meeting movie stars to demonstrate his popularity and to soften his image. In January, Salman Khan — a Bollywood bachelor and bad-boy superstar who is on trial over a drunken-driving hit-and-run death — flew a kite with Modi during the annual kite festival in Gujarat. The appearance fueled online and offline chatter for days.
But Khan, who is also mindful of India’s millions of Muslims, stopped short of endorsing the Gujarati leader.
“He is a great man. I have not seen this sort of development elsewhere,” Khan told reporters, praising Modi’s record. But he added that he would vote for a different party in his home district in Mumbai.
Modi has also wooed Bollywood’s most famous actor, 70-year old Amitabh Bachchan, the host of the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” who appeared in “The Great Gatsby” with Leonardo DiCaprio. Five years ago, Modi persuaded Bachchan to appear in a television campaign to promote tourism in Gujarat. The promotional videos are still widely shown.
Earlier this month, India’s artists lined up on opposite sides of the campaign divide. First, on a Sunday, actors, storytellers, singers, dancers and filmmakers descended on the riverside temple town of Varanasi, where Modi is running for a seat in Parliament, to decry his politics.
The following day, an award-winning classical dancer, a singer and a stage actor pledged their support to Modi at a news conference in New Delhi.
“We need a strong leader who understands Indian traditions and can address the issues of the art world, and only Modi can do that,” Sonal Mansingh, the classical dancer, said in an interview.
Vinod Mirani, a box-office trade analyst, said some of the stars who have been so vociferous in their support of Modi have invested in solar and wind energy businesses in his state. But he was also critical of those appealing for a vote against Modi.
“Who are we to try to influence voters this way or the other?” Mirani said. “This not a healthy trend for the industry.”
For all their political activism this year, many in Bollywood did not keep their tryst with democracy. After weeks of urging Indians on television and Twitter to vote, many stars skipped voting last month when it was Mumbai’s turn in the six-week, staggered election process.
Instead, dozens flew to Tampa Bay for the International Indian Film Academy awards, the annual Bollywood event for the Indian diaspora, where they danced onstage with John Travolta and Kevin Spacey to thumping Bollywood movie songs.