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TV news depicted Bollywood as a den of illegal drug use. Now, India’s stars are fighting back.

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Night after night, prime-time television anchors in India described the country’s beloved Hindi movie industry — known as Bollywood — as a den of illegal drug use, mixing innuendo and sensationalism to boost their own ratings.

Now, Bollywood’s biggest stars are fighting back in court.

The spectacle of India’s most-loved stars taking on two pro-government news channels and widely known anchors is an escalation that reflects the increasing polarization of the country’s media industry, once considered a crucial pillar of the world’s largest democracy.

The pushback from movie stars is “unprecedented,” said Shubhra Gupta, a film critic with the Indian Express. “It has never happened before in this concerted manner.”

The dispute began in June with the suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, a 34-year-old rising star. His tragic story transfixed the country: an engineering dropout who spent years acting in television shows and was on the cusp of superstardom in Bollywood. While the story dominated airtime on every channel, Republic TV and Times Now, ran salacious coverage accusing the industry of abetting his suicide or having him killed, pivoting then to charges of drug abuse and even money laundering by stars. The allegations were unsubstantiated.

Finding themselves at the center of a “media trial,” Bollywood stars say the channels’ coverage is defamatory and have asked the court to block such reporting. Though the petition does not ask for reporting on the issue to cease, it requests an injunction against reporting that violates defamation laws and rules governing television broadcasters.

Nearly every major star, production house and industry association are part of the lawsuit, which accuses the channels of invading their privacy, damaging their reputation and inciting hatred in the public against them.

Bollywood actress Sara Ali Khan arrives for questioning by narcotics officials in Mumbai in September, in a drug probe following the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput.
Bollywood actress Sara Ali Khan arrives for questioning by narcotics officials in Mumbai in September, in a drug probe following the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. (Sujit Jaiswal/AFP/Getty Images)

The overwhelming coverage of the circumstances of Rajput’s death became a convenient distraction from multiple crises facing the country, Gupta said — from a fast-spreading virus to a tense border dispute with China.

A prime-time show on the two channels named in the lawsuit consists of as many as a dozen guests yelling at one another with an anchor egging them on. The issues are amplified by the use of dramatic hashtags pushed on social media.

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