Amitabh Bachchan’s insightful words at the Penguin Annual Lecture 2013 in New Delhi provided food for thought
This year’s Penguin Annual Lecture held recently at Thyagaraj Stadium was an insightful talk by the iconic actor Amitabh Bachchan to an audience who welcomed him with a thundering applause and ovation. To the listeners’ delight the lecture and its conclusion with Amitabh reciting a poem — in his inimitable style — by his well-known poet-father Harivanshrai Bachchan made the evening worth remembering.
At the heart of Amitabh Bachchan’s talk were two issues – the unfair treatment of popular Indian cinema as “Bollywood: degenerate, trivial, trashy, flashy hocus-pocus”, and illiteracy pervading the country — especially among women.
The Hindi cinema unites the entire people of the nation – a task unaccomplished by our greatest politicians, said Amitabh. “Feature films are a great popular passion of India, cutting across all social divides of caste, class, region and religion, gender and even language. Pageant for peasants and an art for aesthetes, it churns and churns,” the actor remarked. He argued that post-Independence Hindi popular cinema gave India a new sense of collective imagination and to this end it pursued “truth” rather than “reality”.
Challenging the tag of Indian popular cinema being escapist, the superstar argued that whether suffering is the only facet of reality that can lead to recognition of “truth” and was portrayal of the “real” the only means to convey the ultimate truths about the human condition. “Might it be the case that aestheticising suffering into art is a more genuine endeavour?” he asked. He concluded by stating that: “Ultimately an art object is transcendent, beyond good and evil, beyond suffering. It is autonomous; a self-generative act purely governed by its own criteria, whether that object is a painting, a piece of music or a film. It should have no utility whatsoever.”
The seasoned actor transitioned from the idea of cinema as pure art meant to delight, to a specific truth needing urgent recognition by all of us. “Everyone can watch an Indian film, but not everyone can read a book,” he pointed out. He paraphrased his point thus: “we all have a very real dog sitting on a very real collective foot, a very big one, and inside it sits a very real and significant part of our nation that largely consists of women who cannot read, who do not have the choice.”
While describing illiteracy one of the biggest detriments to true progress and freedom in our country, Amitabh cited statistics to illustrate the dire need for literacy as well as socio-economic empowerment for women in India, Urging the audience not to merely think about this issue but also to do something, he concluded with a thought-provoking remark: “Your daughters will never truly be able to read in India, independently, autonomously, equally, with true justice to their talents and intelligence, because true equality can only exist when a whole culture embraces it, not only an elite part, for a culture is the sum of its parts.”