The Bollywood disconnect
By Taran N Khan
3 November 2015
COLUMN: India’s film fraternity needs to shake off its distaste for the ‘political’ and speak up.
The past few weeks has been a season of the so-called ‘awards wapsi’ in India. It began when more than 35 of the country’s leading authors and poets returned their awards to the Sahitya Akademi, India’s national academy of letters. These are awards that are prestigious symbols of literary achievement. The move came as a protest against the literary body’s silence on the murder of rationalist and writer M M Kalburgi (a receipient of the Akademi Award), and incidents like the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri, near Delhi, for allegedly eating beef. Writer after writer returned their award to protest what they saw as assaults on free speech and dissent. Nayantara Sehgal, who was among the first to return her award, wrote that her gesture was “In memory of the Indians who have been murdered, in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent, and of all dissenters who now live in fear and uncertainty”.
After an unseemly delay, these protests were finally acknowledged by the Akademi, which issued a resolution condemning the murder of Professor Kalburgi and other intellectuals. By this time, however, reverberations from this unprecedented movement were felt across the country and abroad. This gesture of dissent by writers was soon followed by a letter of protest by various artists, as well as by leading scientists who returned their honours. A group of ten filmmakers (including Anand Patwardhan, Dibakar Banerjee, Nishtha Jain and Rakesh Sharma) too issued a powerful statement and returned their National Awards. Their criticisms were wide ranging, addressing the government’s “stonewalling” of students protesting the appointment of officials at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, and the growing intolerance in India. However, in Mumbai’s mainstream film-industry circles, these events may as well not have happened.
Given the slavish devotion with which many of our stars emulate Hollywood, it is a pity the imitation stops at speaking up at prominent platforms.
One rare and early voice speaking up in support of the writers was the noted director and poet Gulzar. “We have never witnessed this kind of religious intolerance,” he said in a television interview, “At least, we were fearless in expressing ourselves.”
Predictably, the venerable 81 year old then had to face the full wrath of online bhakts, who flooded him with their trademark mix of vitriol and poorly punctuated abuse. Gulzar was attacked for being a ‘Muslim’, due to his nom de plume (his actual name is Sampooran Singh Kalra and he is from a Sikh family) and for his ‘selective outrage’ (his 1975 film Aandhi was banned during the Emergency). In fact, Gulzar is no ordinary Bollywood lyricist. His 1996 film Maachis depicted the Congress government’s atrocities in Punjab in the 1980s, and his angry poetry in response to the Delhi gangrape in 2012 became part of the popular imagination of the time. Within the film industry, Gulzar commands great respect and stature. But when the storm over his comments broke, only a few names from this fraternity stepped forward to defend him. Most remained silent.
Around the same time, the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist outfit from Maharasthra, carried out a campaign of intimidation againsts Pakistani actors working in Indian films. Their targets were Mahira Khan and Fawad Khan, who are due to promote their upcoming films. This provoked a wider response, with several actors, directors and musicians speaking out against Sena’s diktat. But if it comes to a clash, will there be concerted opposition to such bigotry from within the powerful industry? Or will things go the way they did recently, when a concert by Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali was cancelled after the Sena voiced its objections. At the heart of these questions is Bollywood’s uneasy relationship with crisis, and how it responds to issues it calls ‘political’.
Those who make movies are, on the whole, soft targets – the larger the stakes, the higher the risk of a film attracting lawsuits or fatwas, as well as political groups of all shapes and sizes out to get quick mileage. This makes the people involved (particularly the image-conscious actors) wary about ‘mixing’ politics with their work. In 2006, actor Aamir Khan visited and supported a dharna staged by the Narmada Bachao Andolan in Delhi. His film Fanaa was ‘unofficially’ banned in Gujarat after this, and faced protests by the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). (He has since famously met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was then chief minister of Gujarat, to discuss ‘social issues’ raised on his TV show Satyamev Jayate.) Earlier, director Mani Ratnam was forced to screen Bombay (1995) for the Maharashtra politician and founder of Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray, before it was allowed to be screened in Mumbai. The overall sentiment, unspoken but nevertheless understood, is that politics is bad for business, and not the domain of the entertainment industry.
At the same time, this does not stop stars and filmmakers from rallying around a certain kind of ‘cause’. The most troubling example of this was seen after the Bollywood actor Salman Khan was convicted in a hit-and-run case by a Mumbai Sessions court earlier this year. The popular star received a flood of support as Bollywood closed ranks around one of its own, offering sympathy and commiseration. In a different way, younger celebrities like Deepika Padukone are using their clout to speak out on issues like mental health and body shaming. All of these are necessary and important, but they are not controversial, or risky, in the way the current situation is.
Part of the reason behind this uneven response is that Bollywood represents a range of politics and voices. It is a well documented paradox that the liberal image of the industry and the perceived openness of its people is matched by its deeply conservative values while responding to social struggles. As most people in Mumbai will tell you, this is often quite simply because business comes first.
Here I would make a distinction between making films that revolve around ‘social issues’, such as Gangaajal or Rang De Basanti, or the more recent Piku, and responding to the world around us. It is on the latter that Bollywood throws its lot in with silence, or, at most, mild disapproval matched by inaction. Given the slavish devotion with which many of our stars emulate Hollywood, it is a pity the imitation stops at speaking up at prominent platforms. There are no fiery speeches at awards ceremonies, no turning down of honours or titles on principle. This disconnect with the political climate of the nation is now becoming uncomfortable.
Whichever side of the divide you place yourself on, there is no denying that this divide exists, and that it is coming to define our everyday lives in India. The renowned Hindi writer Uday Prakash was the first author to renounce his award from the Sahitya Akademi in September. “I have never seen such hostility before,” he said, referring to the climate of intolerance for dissent. It is not only disappointing, but unfitting for artists engaged in cultural production to remain aloof or isolated. For better or worse, a vast number of young Indians look to cinema actors as role models, making this an important time to speak up for pluralism and tolerance. Moreover, the message needs to come from not only individuals, but powerful unions and collectives, of writers, actors, producers and musicians. Rather than being insular, now is the time for cinema to offer solidarity with protesting writers and others creative communities, as the group of dissenting filmmakers have done.
Besides this small group (that hopefully will grow), there are other exceptions to the silence. Some, like Anupam Kher, have spoken up to criticise those returning their awards. Others like Mahesh Bhatt have a record of engagement on a range of issue over the years. Two moments stand out for me from recent times, the first being actor Shruti Seth’s graceful handling of the misogynistic comments she faced after she criticised the prime minister’s ‘Selfie with Daughter’ campaign on Twitter. Second is actor Farhan Akhtar’s anguished open letter after the Dadri incident, where a man was murdered in his own home. The now suspended agitation at FTII also drew support from some of the biggest names in Mumbai, many of whom are former students of the institute. More recently, the Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan spoke about the “extreme intolerance” in the country today, adding that, if needed, he would give up his awards in a symbolic gesture.
These are undoubtedly important voices. Surely there can be more, that are louder and more frequent. If Bollywood was to shake off its distaste for crisis and speak out for the pluralism it represents for so many of us, it would be sure to find resistance and abuse, but also appreciation.
~Taran N Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist who writes on cinema, Islam and gender. She has been traveling to Kabul since 2006 where she worked closely with Afghan media producers and filmmakers. Her work can be seen at www.porterfolio.net/taran.
~This article is part of a series of column on cinema by Taran N Khan for Himal. Read her earlier column on what is it about funny women that scares Bollywood?