Tuesday, March 31, 2015



Rishi Kapoor is taking the social media by storm, commenting on contentious issues and refusing to be silenced by trolls, in a manner uncharacteristic of mainstream Bollywood

By Anna MM Vetticad

“I am angry. Why do you equate food with religion?? I am a beef eating Hindu. Does that mean I am less God fearing then a non eater? Think!!” (sic)
Such comments on Twitter are likely to raise a storm, irrespective of who the writer is. This one, however, drew anger and surprise in equal measure — anger from religious chauvinists and surprise from regular followers of Bollywood. Why surprise? Because the tweet came from @chintskap, the Twitter handle of senior Hindi film actor Rishi Kapoor aka Chintu to family and friends.
Bollywood-gazers are used to stars of mass-targeted cinema playing it safe on political and social issues. Not so the feisty @chintskap, who unleashed a string of furious tweets on the beef ban in Maharashtra, eliciting a storm of abuse from the Hindutva brigade.
Typically, venom was directed at his female relatives, his looks, age and other aspects of his personal life. The less vituperative tweets questioned his commitment to Hinduism and asked him to feed pork to Muslim guests, with one lamenting the alleged “Christianisation” of Bollywood.
Kapoor is admittedly hurt but undeterred, a pleasant change from the tradition of stars retreating — online and offline — even before bigots attack. And while he may not be the first or only mainstream Bollywood heavyweight to embrace contentious questions, he certainly remains a rarity.
In earlier times, political and social discussions were mostly seen as the preserve of documentary-makers and parallel film practitioners, not their more mainstream, commercial counterparts. The legendary Dev Anand’s reported opposition to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of 1975-77 remained an uncommon episode for a long time. Over the decades, it has usually been assumed — by the media and public — that those who take positions on crucial issues have secret ambitions of joining political parties and/or standing for elections. Some journalists and creative people have suggested that artists sully themselves by expressing their adherence to a party.
Unlike in Hollywood, where it is routine to openly identify yourself as Democrat or Republican, mainstream Bollywood avoids revealing its party affiliations. Of India’s three biggest film industries — Hindi, Telugu and Tamil — Hindi film personalities alone have persistently achieved the feat of even entering electoral politics or repeatedly campaigning during elections, and yet steering clear of prickly subjects and/or a commitment to one party or ideology.
Amitabh Bachchan’s changing (perceived or real) proximity to various political parties and individuals over the decades prompted Open magazine to put him on its cover in 2010 with the caustic headline: ‘A Man With No Convictions’. Salman Khan’s public appearance with Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad in the run-up to the 2014 elections would have done a trapeze artiste proud. Khan praised the development he had seen in Gujarat, asked the crowd if they wished to see Modi as PM, said that “the best man” should become PM, that “God” would decide who “the best man” is and that Modi should get what destiny had planned for him.
That being said, there has been a gradual change in Bollywood in the past five years. One major turning point came in 2010 when Shah Rukh Khan refused to bow down to Shiv Sena pressure to apologise for his remark about Pakistani cricketers in the IPL. Another watershed was the 2014 Parliamentary poll when Bollywood musician Vishal Dadlani, actors Jaaved Jaaferi, Gul Panag and others wore their support for Aam Aadmi Party on their sleeve. In the same year, a group of prominent citizens — including purveyors of hardcore commercial Bollywood successes — published a statement asking the electorate to vote for secular parties. Interpreting that letter as a snub to the BJP, director Madhur Bhandarkar, actors Anupam Kher, Tusshar Kapoor, Vivek Oberoi and others openly declared their support for Modi and his party.
The emotionally charged 2014 elections notwithstanding, mainstream Bollywood by and large still keeps politics at arm’s length. Do keep in mind that ‘politics’ does not mean parties and polls alone, it covers everything from cultural suppression and gender repression to communalism and the economy.
Optimists would point out that more mainstream Bollywood figures are speaking out now than ever before on potentially controversial themes, and not everyone is easily cowed down. Twinkle Khanna, for instance, has not budged despite the name-calling in response to her Twitter feed and newspaper column, which have covered a range of topics from Modi to menstruation.
It’s impossible not to note, though, that most of her colleagues prefer to remain silent or, at best, ambivalent and inconsistent. For instance, within days of bravely confronting an influential news publication for its sexism on Twitter last year, Deepika Padukone issued a statement on her position and simultaneously announced that she would say nothing further on the subject, even attending the same media group’s film awards function months later.
Meanwhile in Mumbai, Rishi Kapoor remains cheery and determined despite the invective being hurled at him. “I speak from the heart. I will not bend,” he assures me when I call. His colleagues who use the social media only to tell us about their fawning fans and films will hopefully be inspired by this spirited veteran, who has opinions on matters that matter and is not scared to air them. After all, the purpose of freedom of expression is lost if we only speak when there is nothing to be afraid of.

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

(This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on March 28, 2015)

Note: This photograph was not published in The Hindu Businessline

Related link: Anna MM Vetticad’s May 2014 column in The Hindu Businessline on the pro-Modi-versus-anti-Modi debate in Bollywood during the 2014 general election: http://annavetticadgoes2themovies.blogspot.in/2014/05/film-fatale-bollywoods-pro-modi-vs-no.html

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