On October 2, Prakash Raj, a celebrated actor who has dabbled in multiple film industries, minced no words when he called out Prime Minister Narendra Modi for choosing to remain silent on the murder of activist and journalist, Gauri Lankesh.
"I am worried about the PM's silence. Is he trying to endorse cruelty espoused by some of his followers," he questioned.
Raj particularly pointed out the people who celebrated the brazen, remorseless and cold-blooded killing of Lankesh, on Twitter. Among those who were joyously celebrating her death were people followed by Modi's official account on the micro-blogging site.
What is unique about Raj's comments is that his is one of the few dissenting voices emerging from the collective film industries of India, that questioned the establishment which Lankesh extensively wrote against.
Other than the usual few (Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das) not many actors from the Hindi film industry condemned Lankesh's death, let alone questioning the PM's silence over the cowardly attack on the journalist.
At this point, more than ever before, our cultural institutions bear the responsibility of speaking truth to power. And while it's the moral responsibility of every artiste to question the regime and look at its increasing hegemony with skepticism, Bollywood, which is one of the country's most influential industries, cannot afford to look the other way in a bid to preserve its commercial interests. Not anymore.
While nobody is going to hold a filmmaker or an actor accountable for their lack of political engagement (and one can't because they are not activists), should that entirely absolve them from taking a stand? In majoritarian politics, it's the responsibility, nay, duty, of leading figures in akrts to ensure they represent the voices of the marginalised.
In January 2017, a fringe group that goes by the name of Rajput Karni Sena, thronged the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansal's historic-epic Padmavati, pulled the director's hair, slapped him across the face. The group had a problem with the depiction of Queen Padmavati, who they feared, was being shown romantically involved with Sultan Alaudidn Khilji, a claim Bhansali denied. Despite the brazen attacks, no arrests were made. It's hard to imagine for a group to conduct such planned attacks (which were captured on camera) and get away with it, unless they have some form of insidious support from the State.
The final compromise that was reached between the Sena and Bhansali wouldn't be out of place in a Banana Republic: Bhansali had to give them in writing that he won't show intimate scenes between the Queen and the Sultan and, according to reports, he also has to show the film to the Sena before its release.
But what if Bhansali wanted to subvert? What if he wanted his narrative to deviate from history? Historical fiction is a popular genre across continents and as a filmmaker practising his vocation in the world's largest democracy, Bhansali should be able to exercise his right without the fear of repercussion.
These are exactly the privileges that are currently under threat and the film industry, which in itself remains a divided lot, needs to come together as a community and make their voices heard, and not only when it serves their purpose, but also when it goes beyond that.
This year it was Bhansali. In 2016, it was Karan Johar, targeted by the MNS (a Mumbai-based spin-off of Shiv Sena that thrives on divisive politics) for having cast Fawad Khan in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The threats reached such a point that Johar had to issue an apology to ensure the safe release of his mega-budget romantic drama.
This sets a very dangerous precedent. The fact that Johar bowed down to such elements emboldens them to do it over and over again. And we weren't like this.
We used to be stronger than this.
In the communally charged year of 1998, Deepa Mehta's Fire, a film about lesbian lovers, was targeted by the Shiv Sena as it deemed lesbianism as 'alien to Indian culture.' Despite a Censor Board clearance, Sena, a ruling party in Maharashtra at the time, attacked cinema halls in Mumbai, Delhi, and Kanpur, disrupting the screenings and stirring a debate about State-sponsored hooliganism.
The film was eventually banned albeit temporarily.
You'd imagine Mehta bowing down, issuing an apology and moving on? Nope. Bollywood rallied against the ban. Mahesh Bhatt, Dilip Kumar, Shabana Azmi and Deepa Mehta led protests against saffron forces, marched on the streets, went to courts, and got an order to get the film re-released, without any cuts.
Yes, Dilip Kumar's house was surrounded by protesters, yes there were threats, but in hindsight, what we remember is an industry standing up for itself. And winning.
In 1989, Shabana Azmi took to the stage at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) held at Delhi and strongly condemned the brazen murder of theatre activist Safdar Hashmi by the political goons. She didn't stop there — Azmi went on to call out the ruling Congress party for its alleged role in the murder. Fun fact: IFFI was organised by the government and HKL Bhagat, the then I&B Minister, was sitting in the audience.
In 1975, Kishore Kumar refused to bow down to diktats laid out by Indira Gandhi via her propagandist-in-chief VC Shukla. Gandhi wanted Kumar to sing a song at a Congress rally in Mumbai. He plainly refused, a decision that'd get him banned from the state broadcaster, All India Radio and Doordarshan.
If you go further back in time, in 1949, ace filmmaker Balraj Sahni and poet-lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri even spent time in prison for their scathing critique of the Nehru government.
The point remains the same: Bollywood was known to take a stand, even if it came at a price, which it almost always did.
Sure, the times we live in have changed drastically and unlike solo producers, we now have colossal studios bankrolling films, whose only concern is to get return on their massive investments. How can a film star sabotage millions in revenue for the sake of politics?
After all, when Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan spoke out against the growing intolerance, it resulted in their respective films (Dilwale, PK) losing out on sizeable revenue due to their political outspokenness.
But one must not lose sight of the longterm consequences of political pacification because of immediate financial gratification.
The only way to combat this is to have a unified voice that cannot be stifled by arbitrary protests. Bollywood, as a unit, must demand complete security from the policing machinery, whenever there is a threat to their jobs. It cannot work out when an Amitabh Bachchan (who has never taken a stand on anything, not even against the BMC after the 29 August floods in Mumbai) happily takes over the title of the brand ambassador of Gujarat, after Aamir Khan is sacked from that very position for speaking out against intolerance.
Bollywood must recognise the intensity of the power that it can wield if it decides to collectively come together and put the weight of its stars to champion a cause. At the same time, it can't happen if there continues to be a very real nexus between the two institutions.
We needs more celebrities like Prakash Raj. We need our own Meryl Streeps, our George Clooneys, our Mark Ruffalos, our Katy Perrys. Sure, the freedom afforded to people in the US may vastly differ in its scope, but shouldn't we compare ourselves to countries that are better off, as opposed to the ones where the idea of protest in itself is a joke?
Bollywood's many inhabitants may feel they are soft targets, they are vulnerable, that there's a very real price to pay — but the reason why they are vulnerable in the first place is because the establishment fears their exponential reach.
It takes advantage of their divisiveness and creates a fear psychosis.
But together, the flame of dissent cannot be extinguished.
It'll only show us a way out of the darkness.
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