31/12/2015 3:43 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

2015: The Year Bollywood Spoke Up About Political Issues That Mattered

Ritam Banerjee via Getty Images
BOMBAY, INDIA - APRIL 07: Bollywood superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan takes part in discussions about how to resolve the current impasse between multiplexes and film producers over sharing equal revenue in Bollywood at J. W. Marriott on April 7, 2009 in Bombay, India (Photo by Ritam Banerjee/Getty Images)

This year, Bollywood coughed, cleared its throat, shook off the Instagram filters it comes wrapped in for us and blurted out things that sounded frightfully similar to fears paralysing the minds of us un-filmi people. I say 'frightfully' because a section of the country seemed to be taken aback by the fact that Hindi film stars should possess and consequentially air opinions about issues that aren't Karan Johar's next production or Amitabh Bachchan's Diwali party.

Bollywood's participation in politics till now had been restricted to actors and actresses — way past their prime — joining political parties as a secondary vocation. The names that spring to our minds are Hema Malini, Jaya Prada, Shatrughan Sinha etc. Stars who had not formally signed up with a political party, on their part, zealously maintained a cautious distance from commenting on any issue that would remotely amount to making even an insinuation against a political party. Governments changed, controversies came and went, Bollywood's most popular and powerful didn't even murmur a thing out of line, outside the script prepared for them by anxious PR vehicles.

Then, the political atmosphere, that had become deeply polarised over the past year finally seemed to have permeated through into the seemingly real-world-proof existence of Bollywood celebrities.

In July, students of Pune's Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) organised a singeing protest against the college administration, who in turn threatened to suspend students who wouldn't fall in line. The appointment of Gajendra Chauhan — an actor with a fairly dubious resume — as the chairman of the premier institute had touched a raw nerve not just among students of the institute, but across the country. While even those rallying for BJP at all times (we're looking at you, Anupam Kher) found it difficult to defend Modi-devotee Chauhan as the head of the institute, reaction against him came in sporadic bursts from various corners of Bollywood. However, the big Bollywood backing came in the way of Ranbir Kapoor sending a message of support to the FTII students via a video. Among other things, he said, "I think all they require is an aspirational figure to look up to... with a body of work they can be inspired from. When you come from an institute of art, I think there needs to be a freedom of speech."

Kapoor made it amply clear that he neither thought Chauhan as someone students will aspire to be like nor was his resume befitting a man who can inspire film students. The actor's outspokenness, given that he rarely comments on films that are not his, came as a surprise for many. Two things were clear here: one, Kapoor very well knew making a statement against Chauhan would amount to making a statement against BJP. Two, that knowledge did not hold him back. And that's perhaps because the point Kapoor was making was a legitimate one, as were the demands of the FTII students.

Then, in September, Sonam Kapoor snapped on Twitter: "Our country is going to remain a 3rd world nation because of the intolerant misogynistic close minded few." With the tweet, she shared an article on the ban on possession of beef, implemented in Maharashtra by the BJP government. Having found its troll meat for the day, Twitter went berserk. While some of the tweets were good-natured and humorous responses based on the assumption that Kapoor found the beef ban 'misogynistic', a lot of hate came hurtling towards her on the social networking site. It was as if people were getting back at her with her seemingly incorrect use of the word 'misogyny' for her having called out anti-minority sentiment that seemed to be running high in various public spaces of the country.

Sonakshi Sinha, who also posted a tweet calling India 'Banistan' around the same time, had to put up with all sorts of insults aimed at her body, her career, and her person. It should be noted here that Sinha's father Shatrughan Sinha is a BJP leader himself.

The sentiment driving the backlash against the two actresses was pretty much the same — Bollywood better be minding their own businesses and abs; their opinions on politics are not welcome.

Kapoor and Sinha's experiences, in Bollywood terms, were just a trailer to what was waiting to unfold in the next couple of months.

This year proved to be unfamiliar territory for many Bollywood fans and people who have been conditioned to treat politics and Bollywood as two separate universes, mostly known to exist exclusive of each other except for award functions and shaadis involving big industrialist families.

Later in the year, November to be precise, Shah Rukh Khan said during a television interview that he believed that 'intolerance' was on the rise. Never mind that he also said intolerance seems to be spiking across the world, not just India — his comments, taken conveniently out of context, unleashed a monster that we had only suspected exists somewhere behind the facade of civility people like wear at all times. Anti-national, terrorist sympathiser, Pakistan lover — all sorts of abuses came flying at him thick and fast.

And before these enthusiastic upholders of patriotism could even catch their breath, Aamir Khan seemed to echo his colleague's sentiment when he said during an interaction with a newspaper editor that his wife Kiran Rao had asked him if they should consider moving out of India. The rest is history that we aren't likely to forget in a hurry — if shocking verbal violence and hatred can make things memorable, that is. While the rest of the industry was more or less quiet after Shah Rukh Khan's comment, the likes of Anupam Kher and Raveena Tandon, sworn Narendra Modi supporters, lashed out at Aamir Khan. The new battle lines drawn in Bollywood were not based on consequences of drunken brawls anymore; they were drawn on the basis of whether or not you choose to criticise the ruling political party.

This year proved to be unfamiliar territory for many Bollywood fans and people who have been conditioned to treat politics and Bollywood as two separate universes, mostly known to exist exclusive of each other except for award functions and shaadis involving big industrialist families. The alarm with which the self-proclaimed 'patriot' brigade reacted on social media was, interestingly, proof of the kind of influence actors have on the country. A kind of voice that's far more readily heard, and accepted, by large numbers of people. Numbers which tower over the collective hatred of the hashtag brigade. Following three incidents of men being lynched on the suspicion of cow slaughter and the inconclusive probe into murder of rationalists, several writers and intellectuals returned awards conferred on them by the government. This happened across October and November.

In India, for better or worse, mainstream films form the cornerstone of cultural understanding for a sweeping majority. And film stars are people who define success, ambition, life itself for many. So when Bollywood, even if hesitantly, decided to lend a shoulder to the movement to hold the government accountable for the antics of its political subsidiaries, it alarmed many. The response was far from pretty, but neither of the Khans, were willing to back down or retract their words. A film industry with a spine and an informed voice could be one of the strongest sentinels of democracy, freedom of speech and cultural autonomy. This year, Bollywood took a nervous step in the right direction. Supporters of basic freedoms will hope that they are not retraced in haste.

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