The preview of Bollywood film depicting the misery of millions of migrant workers who were left jobless and forced to walk hundreds of kilometres during India's Covid-19 lockdown has been taken down from YouTube, triggering outrage on social media.
Directed by Anubhav Sinha, Bheed, which means “crowd”, features a stellar cast that includes Rajkumar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, Dia Mirza, Bhumi Pednekar and Ashutosh Rana.
However, days before its release on March 24, the preview suddenly disappeared from the official YouTube page of the filmmakers, T-Series, “shocking” fans and critics alike.
Bheed tells the story of millions of distressed Indians who left cities for their hometowns in far-flung places, walking hundreds of kilometres on motorways in scorching heat.
They were forced to rely on alms after Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a sudden nationwide curfew to stop the spread of Covid-19 in March 2020.
The migration was described by many activists as one of the biggest humanitarian crises in India since its partition with Pakistan in 1947, soon after the country's independence.
About 200 migrant workers died between March and May in road accidents and due to exhaustion, according to data compiled by road safety NGO SaveLife Foundation.
The preview was released on social media on March 10 and received rave reviews but, curiously, it did not mention the name of the filmmakers.
Shortly after its release, a group of people claimed the director's depiction of the government was “negative” and described the film as “propaganda”.
Soon, hashtags such as #boycottbollywood began to appear on Twitter.
“Just watched the #BheedTrailer by Anubhav Sinha, and it's disappointing to see how the film is being used to spread propaganda against the Indian government's Covid-19 efforts,” said Disha Satra, a Twitter subscriber, who called the film “misleading”.
However, neither YouTube nor T-Series have disclosed why the trailer has disappeared and neither responded to requests for comment when contacted by The National.
The criticism of Bheed is the latest in a series of cases that some have described as exhibiting a growing intolerance of the Hindi film industry, more commonly called Bollywood, which churns out more than 1,000 films a year.
Bollywood has always been the target of politicians. However, attacks have become more frequent in recent years, particularly from right-wing Hindu activists and supporters of the nationalist government who accuse the industry of having mafia and extremist connections, whose ideologies they spread through films.
In December, the country’s film censorship board triggered outrage after it asked for changes to be made to Shah Rukh Khan’s film Pathaan.
The request came after right-wing Hindu groups were upset by a musical scene that showed leading actress Deepika Padukone dancing in a saffron-coloured swimsuit.
Right-wing groups burnt effigies of the film's stars and tore down its posters at theatres during protests across the country as they called on authorities to ban it.
While the reason for the removal of Bheed's preview has yet to be known, many on Twitter called it an attack on freedom of expression and expressed concern about a ploy to have it banned on social media.
Mahua Moitra, a legislator from West Bengal state, said she was “shocked” after the preview disappeared.
“Shocking: Trailer of Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar's Film on COVID-19 Lockdown Migration Taken Down from T-Series YouTube Page … Democracy?” Ms Moitra said in a tweet.
Another Twitter subscriber Vinay Verma raised questions about “democracy” and “freedom of expression” in the country and expressed hope that the film was not banned.
Pahlaj Nihalani, a former chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification, said that the step was an attack on creativity and freedom of expression in the film industry.
“Nobody has the right to remove the trailer from YouTube. It is not obscene or vulgar. The film is on a content-oriented subject,” Mr Nihalani told The National.
“Everybody has seen how the situation was during the lockdown and how the people suffered. People making the noise in political arenas, they all know how people suffered.”