September 11, 2008 / 10:17 AM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 1-Top Bollywood stars swept up in nativist politics

(Updates with protest halted, paragraphs 11-12)

By Tony Tharakan

NEW DELHI, Sept 11 (Reuters) - A surge of nativism in Mumbai, India’s most cosmopolitan city, is leading to an uneasy relationship with one of its best-known institutions — Bollywood.

Some of its top stars have been caught up in the anti-immigrant rhetoric of two regional parties, whose politics is based on nativist pride for the people of the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital.

Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has a powerful influence over Mumbai, much like its larger political rival Shiv Sena, drawing sustenance from a politics of resisting immigration into Mumbai by Indians from states other than Maharashtra.

Bollywood had not been a target even though many of its stars could be considered outsiders who arrived in Mumbai with nothing but a dream of making it big.

But this week, the family of Bollywood’s biggest star, Amitabh Bachchan, became embroiled in the nativist issue after his wife, Jaya, apparently promoted Hindi over Marathi, the local language in Mumbai.

The right-wing MNS party interpreted Jaya’s remarks as an insult to the Marathi-speaking population and urged a boycott of films starring the Bachchans, who hail from a Hindi-speaking northern Indian state, and all products endorsed by the family.

Soon, posters of Bachchan’s new film “The Last Lear” were torn down and a theatre screening the film vandalised, forcing its producers to call off the premiere on Wednesday.

“It’s (the film) a piece of art and should not be brought in between politics,” the film’s producer, Arindam Chaudhuri, told reporters with Bachchan by his side.

The Bachchans said they were sorry if Jaya’s off-the-cuff remark hurt anyone. “Mumbai and Maharashtra have given us glory and recognition,” Bachchan wrote in his Internet blog.

“I am 66 years old and 40 of those years have been spent living in Mumbai. Is it ever possible that we will dishonour it? Never!” he wrote.

The MNS softened its stand on Thursday after Bachchan’s apology and called off the boycott of Bollywood’s first family.

“Amitabh Bachchan is the head of the family and he apologised yesterday, we accept that,” said party chief Raj Thackeray.

The MNS has accused the Bachchans in the past of being ungrateful and not doing enough for Maharashtra, where they had found fame and fortune.

The Shiv Sena, too, has spotted insult in top star Shah Rukh Khan’s fond reminiscences of his native town, New Delhi.

“If he loves Delhi, then why did he come to Mumbai?” an article in “Saamna”, the party’s mouthpiece, said.

“These people come here, fill up their bellies and then burp in the name of their own states.”

For generations, waves of migrants have tried to escape rural poverty by coming to Mumbai, gradually elbowing out the local Maharashtrians, who now form less than 50 percent of the city’s more than 17 million people.

Until recently, Shiv Sena had drifted away from its pro-Marathi posture as it tried to appeal to voters in other states, while also reaching out to non-Marathi communities.

But in 2006, Raj Thackeray, the nephew of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, deserted the party to form the MNS. News channels ran pictures of non-Marathis being beaten in Mumbai’s streets, this time by MNS workers.

Bollywood, too, has occasionally been at the receiving end of nativist anger. Screenings of art house movies about lesbians and other perceived threats to Indian culture have been attacked by right-wing parties.

Some analysts see Shiv Sena returning to its roots as it tries to hang on to its Marathi support base before local and national elections due next year. (Additional reporting by Shilpa Jamkhandikar in MUMBAI; Writing by Krittivas Mukherjee; Editing by Paul Tait)

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