Members of the Hindu ultranationalist Shiv Sena party protest against Muslim Bollywood actor Shahrukh Khan in New Delhi on Feb. 7, 2010. K Asif—The India Today Group via Getty Images

In his 30s, Suniel Shetty’s rippling muscles made him a South Asian Arnold Schwarzenegger of sorts. In movie theaters during the 1990s, his fans cheered and whistled as he stood up to power and fought against injustice.

Now in his 60s, a successful entrepreneur, Shetty prefers dialogue to achieve the greater good. Especially when dealing with muscular state power. So, this month, Shetty was at his beseeching best when he pleaded with the Hindu far-right to lay off its attacks on Bollywood.

In a meeting between the film industry’s bigwigs and Yogi Adityanath, a powerful far-right monk-turned-politician, Shetty highlighted how Bollywood was reeling from a campaign of hate. He begged Adityanath, who is seen as a possible successor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to make it go away. “It can stop if you say something about it.”

The macho star’s meek entreaties may have felt out of character, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Bollywood has fallen on hard times. Trade analysts are calling 2022 Hindi cinema’s worst year. Most films tanked and the industry is estimated to have lost $250 million.

Various reasons are cited to explain Bollywood’s bad patch: COVID-19 disruption, a slowing economy, viewer fatigue with formulaic “masala” story lines of romance and violence, and growing competition from streaming platforms. All of this makes viewers less inclined to buy theater tickets that Indian films rely heavily on.

But a major, overlooked feature is Hindu supremacists turning up the heat on India’s greatest cultural export. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and allied Hindu supremacist organizations are waging a culture war against Bollywood. The Hindi movie industry’s pluralistic and liberal ethos—Bollywood’s three leading men are Muslims—is resented by India’s current rulers, who aim to remake the secular republic as a Hindu state by rallying the majority Hindus against its Muslim and Christian minorities, and usurp Bollywood’s outsized cultural influence for that purpose.

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