Monday, May 12, 2014


(This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline on May 10, 2014)


Introline: Bollywood seems to have finally shed its political apathy and its infamous reticence

We were all set for the shoot. Lights: check. Camera: check. Makeup: check. My star guest — one of the hottest women in Bollywood — was just entering the room when her publicist whispered in my ear, “Ma’am is requesting you not to ask political questions.” Meaning? No questions about Shah Rukh Khan, right?
In my experience, Hindi movie stars tend to avoid comment on political issues, but they rarely try to pre-censor an interview. This particular actress, however, is known for getting her agent to convey this request to journalists before every long-format Q&A. On earlier occasions, I had laughed it off because I wasn’t interested in her reactions to political affairs then. This was different. This was a month when her industry was engulfed in politics; when Shiv Sena had threatened to block the release of SRK’s My Name is Khan (MNIK) unless he apologised for his remarks about Pakistani players in the IPL. It goes without saying, I refused to agree to her condition and did the interview my way.
This memory from 2010 has flashed through my mind repeatedly this month as a battle rages in Mumbai’s film circles between pro-Modi and no-Modi groups. These people openly sparring over ideology… could they possibly be from the same industry that was once notoriously non-committal about politics or terrified of it?
Unless you’re living in a vacuum, you know where this is coming from. This April, a group of eminent citizens, mostly from Bollywood, issued an appeal to the electorate in the ongoing general election “to vote for the secular party, which is most likely to win in your constituency”. The letter was signed by a cross-section of film personalities including, surprisingly, makers of money-spinning hardcore commercial cinema.
They did not name any politician or party. However, in what must surely rank as a self-goal, BJP supporters in Bollywood have exploded in protest, translating the call to vote for secularism as a call not to vote for Narendra Modi. This is a “conspiracy” to “divide” our industry, they say.
A film journalist cannot but rub her eyes in disbelief as this storm refuses to subside. In the past, political apathy has been a hallmark of Bollywood, unlike some of the other Indian language industries, and in sharp contrast to Hollywood. Even stars who join political parties have rarely publicised their stance on combustive issues. Equally bizarre are some who have canvassed for politicians during polls. In the 2009 election, Salman Khan took the cake, the bakery and the wheat field with it, when he campaigned for candidates from both the BJP and the Congress! I am not supporting parties, I am supporting friends, he explained.
Over the years, even as Bollywood’s right to free speech has continuously been attacked, most victims have bowed to bigots. It’s only fair to point out that protests against art in India usually include physical violence, with the state doing little to protect its people. For political, religious and social groups, targeting artists, especially commercial film folk, is an easy route to publicity. With money and personal safety at stake, Bollywood often asks how they can be blamed when they opt for self-censorship and apologies.
Well, the point is, artists from other fields have shown far greater courage in confronting political goons. So have Mumbai’s documentary makers and some parallel cinema luminaries. Mainstream players in Bollywood though (with a few exceptions such as Mahesh Bhatt and Shabana Azmi) have consistently played it safe.
What then has prompted the change in 2014? A widespread sense of urgency regarding the election this year is one factor. The Aam Aadmi Party’s emergence has also fired the imagination of many who see among the party’s recruits ‘respectable’ folk who don’t fit the stereotypical image of netas. It must be pointed out though that the winds of change have gradually been blowing away the industry’s infamous indifference since 2010.
If time in the Gregorian calendar is divided into BC and AD, then this Bollywood calendar of political evolution can be divided into BM (before MNIK) and AM (after MNIK). When Shiv Sena challenged Shah Rukh four years ago, Bollywood insiders and viewers witnessed the unprecedented phenomenon of a megastar refusing to be cowed down. Spurred on by public and media support, one by one most film personalities — though not all — spoke up for him. Ultimately, despite delays within Maharashtra which hurt the bottomline, MNIK got an all-India release and became a massive hit.
Sometimes, it takes just one courageous individual to discover that a bully is a coward. SRK tugged at the Shiv Sena’s beard and Uddhav Thackeray lost face. The price has been that AM, religious right-wingers have consistently singled out SRK for propaganda and abuse. History must credit him though for forever changing Bollywood.
The ongoing row over Modi is another turning point AM. As more film personalities express political views publicly, there will be strength in numbers and the risk of violence will hopefully decline. Don’t lament an imagined end of unity, dear Bollywood-gazers. Celebrate instead that Bollywood’s political apathy has finally ended. Silence cannot be an option for India’s most high-profile entertainers.

(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)

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