About 24 hours after the film Khaali Peeli dropped its song 'Beyonce Sharma Jayegi' on YouTube, the video was trending on the platform and had garnered over 3M views. But it also clocked over 300K dislikes, as opposed to a paltry 47K likes. A few weeks earlier, when the Sadak 2 trailer released on YouTube, it created history with the number of people who down voted the video. At last count that number was a jaw-dropping 13M. Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, a Netflix film that released in August to favourable reviews, has a below average IMDB rating of 5.2.
The message is clear – if you're an actor born to privilege, social media is no place for you. At least not right now. Khaali Peeli, Sadak 2 and Gunjan Saxena star Ananya Panday, Ishaan Khatter, Alia Bhatt and Janhvi Kapoor respectively – all of them are born to film families and all got their first breaks from Karan Johar's Dharma Productions. The barrage of hate, threats, abuse, and calls to boycott them and their work accelerated after the tragic death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput fuelled the nepotism and insider-outsider debate in Bollywood to dangerous proportions.
Several online accounts claiming to be fans of the late actor have resolved to take down all 'nepo kids'. It's not just the actors. If anyone shows solidarity with them, an army of trolls magically appear out of nowhere to shut you down. 'Sadak 2 trailer …10 million dislike mission… Tribute to SSR,' tweeted several users on the day the trailer released, along with a call to uninstall Disney+ Hotstar, the streaming platform that hosted Sadak 2.
It gets worse. There's a Facebook group called 'Boycott Bollywood Nepotism- Justice for Sushant Singh Rajput' with 95.9K members. The page explores various ways in which one could get back at star kids. There are petitions to have Salman Khan removed as the host of Bigg Boss, ban the products he endorses, and boycott movies by Yashraj Films and Dharma Productions. There's more. YouTube is filled with videos titled 'Nepotism and dumb star kids' sitting at millions of views. "There's a pandemic raging, people are losing their jobs, and with schools and colleges shut a lot of people have idle time. It seems people are taking out their frustrations on those they think live charmed and luxurious lives," explains a leading producer.
Gautam B Thakker, the CEO of Everymedia Technologies, which handles the digital marketing of Bollywood's biggest movies and personalities, says while trolling is a part and parcel of digital life, he's never witnessed this volume of organised trolling and vitriol in his entire career. He calls it a full-blown "digital lynching" which if not stemmed could "spill on to the real world too".
Under non-pandemic circumstances, the box office collections of these films would have told us how worried the industry should actually be about online trolling. But with straight to digital releases one will never really know whether this hate equalled lesser people watching these films. That said, Shailesh Kapoor, CEO and Founder of research agency Ormax Media, says he observed a downward spiral in the numbers of Sadak 2. "With Sadak 2, we have seen a very unusual trend on the film in Ormax Stream Track. The film has scored fairly high on Buzz, which is a parameter we report as a measure of conversation around the film. However, its Appeal (intention to watch) of Sadak 2 is very poor, with most audience rejecting it basis the trailer. Hence, the Buzz has not resulted in actual viewership," he says. But then again, Sadak 2 may not be the best case study because the trailer was genuinely disappointing.
"I don't think studios should be too afraid of the dislikes and hashtags because they have to realise that these aren't real people. These are paid attacks by bots, so a lot of it is not even real," says Thakker. What he says they should be worried about though is the mental health of those being subjected to constant threats.
Right now actors seem to be dealing with it by lying low. Perhaps waiting for it to blow over. Alia Bhatt avoided media interactions to promote Sadak 2. Karan Johar refrained from tweeting or posting about Gunjan Saxena. A senior PR person, who didn't want to be named, says journalists and digital platforms are shying away from acknowledging the other artists who have worked in these beleaguered films out of fear of being sucked into the hate. Critics who praised Gunjan Saxena and Janhvi's performance in it were attacked. Actors like Sonakshi Sinha who enjoyed millions of followers on Twitter, quit the platform. It's also why several industry professionals contacted for this story didn't want to be quoted.
Last week, a strongly-worded letter by the Producers Guild of India was the first united response by the industry to the situation. "Members of the industry on both sides of this debate, especially women, have been subjected to rape threats and death threats. This is unacceptable and must stop now," said the statement.
According to Thakker, the onus now lies on the social media giants to step in and mitigate this trolling, because all agencies like his can do is manually block and delete abusive comments which is nearly impossible when there are millions of them. A few accounts have begun turning off comments on their posts to block the trolls. We reached out to Twitter India about top celebrities having no choice but to quit the platform. "Twitter has zero-tolerance policies in place to address threats of violence, abuse and harassment, and hateful conduct… Today 50% of abusive content that we take action on is identified proactively using technology, instead of relying on reports from people using Twitter. Our work will never be done, and we will continue to invest heavily in this area, as reducing the burden on the victims of abuse is absolutely essential," said a spokesperson.
Previous cases of a social media backlash against stars have shown us that nothing is permanent. Eventually the dust will settle. According to a few industry insiders, theatres being shut in this "over-heated environment" may have been a blessing. "God knows what this angry mob would do in theatres," says a producer. "It will either subside when things open up and if it gets worse, more stars will choose to stay away from social media," he predicts. Till then, the industry will have to weather this storm of hate.