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It is time to rise in defence of Bollywood

The recent media frenzy targeting actor Shah Rukh Khan following the arrest of his 23-year-old son Aryan for alleged drug possession (though it has since been admitted that no drugs were found on his person) has led to a major campaign against the film industry ecosystem that allegedly enables “drug culture”. While nothing yet has been established in a court of law, the episode is one more instalment in what appears to be a new drama series unleashed by the guardians of our public space — a war on Bollywood.

 

Watch | Shashi Tharoor on the targeting of Bollywood

Smearing the industry

Last year, there was an all-out assault on the character of starlet Rhea Chakraborty who, after months of media frenzy linking her to the death by suicide of her boyfriend, actor Sushant Singh Rajput, was arrested and detained for several days for allegedly buying drugs for him, claims she denied and which were never substantiated. This in turn had already led to a huge campaign against alleged drug abuse in Bollywood, with four other actresses being called in for questioning. No charges were made, but the process, as is so often the case, proved to be the punishment.

 

But it is not just drugs that have been used to smear the film industry. In January this year, at least 10 police complaints were filed, in more than half a dozen States across the country, against film-makers, actors and Amazon executives of a made-for-television political drama called Tandav, which allegedly offended Hindu sensibilities by its depiction of a character portraying Lord Shiva. Another crime thriller, Mirzapur, underwent similar harassment, for similar reasons; A Suitable Boy had cases filed against it over a kissing scene filmed near a temple. In March this year, properties linked to film-maker Anurag Kashyap, actress Tapsee Pannu and Reliance Entertainment group CEO Shibhashish Sarkar were raided by the Income Tax department as part of a tax evasion investigation against a company, Phantom Films, that had been dissolved in 2018.

The alarm bells have begun to go off in the minds of some in our political class. Maharashtra Minister Nawab Malik has alleged that the raids were an attempt to suppress the voices of those who speak against the central government. Jaya Bachchan — a one-time movie star herself, wife of megastar Amitabh Bachchan, and a member of the Rajya Sabha — decried a “conspiracy to defame the film industry”. The latest media campaign against Aryan Khan suggests the conspiracy is still alive.

The outsize influence

As these allegations suggest, it is not really drugs that are the issue here for the powers-that-be. The alleged violation of our narcotics laws is merely a convenient cudgel to batter an industry that is disliked for other reasons. The political establishment recognises the outsize influence of Bollywood entertainment on the minds and attitudes of the broad viewing — and voting — public. What those in power, who have demonstrated their intolerance of points of view other than their own for some time now, really dislike is not what Bollywood does behind closed doors, but the content of what it puts out — what one might call the political culture of Bollywood.

 

When I wrote my novel Show Business in 1990, some Indian critics were surprised that I would follow The Great Indian Novel with a work that dealt with the trashy world of commercial Bombay cinema. But I did so because to me, Indian films, with all their limitations and outright idiocies, represented a vital part of the hope for India’s future. In a country that is still perhaps 30% illiterate, films represent the prime vehicle for the transmission of popular culture and values. Cinema offers all of us in India a common world to which to escape, allowing us to dream with our eyes open. And with 570 million Internet users, India also offers a remarkable market for new cinema for the OTT (over-the-top) platforms — direct to our laptops and mobile phone screens — a market Bollywood is poised to dominate.

Plots and the message

In India, popular cinema has consistently reflected the diversity of the pluralist community that makes this cinema. The stories they tell are often silly, the plots formulaic, the characterisations superficial, the action predictable, but they are made and watched by members of every community in India. Muslim actors play Hindu heroes, South Indian heroines are chased around trees by North Indian rogues. Representatives of some communities may be stereotyped (think of the number of alcoholic Christians played by a “character actor” like Om Prakash), but good and bad are always shown as being found in every community.

 

I was first struck by this quality of Bollywood not long after the Bangladesh War, when the 1973 film Zanjeer offered a striking pointer to me of what Bollywood had come to represent in our society. In the film, Pran played Badshah Khan, a red-bearded Pathan Muslim who exemplified the values of strength, fearlessness, loyalty and courage. This was just a year after the bloody birth of Bangladesh in a war in which most of the subcontinent’s Pathans were on the other side, but far from demonising the Pran figure, the film-makers chose not just to portray a strong Muslim character but to make him the most sympathetic presence in the film after the hero. This would not have been possible in many other countries, but Bollywood tended to be consistently good at this sort of thing, making megahits like Amar Akbar Anthony, about three brothers separated in infancy who are brought up by different families — one a Christian, one a Hindu and one a Muslim. The message was clear — that Christians, Hindus and Muslims are metaphorically brothers too, seemingly different but united in their common endeavours for justice.

This kind of message is unsurprising, given who makes these films. Many have observed that Muslims enjoy a disproportionate influence in Bollywood, most apparent in the dominance of the trio of actors Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, and Aamir Khan for three decades (six of the 10 highest-grossing films ever made feature one of the Khans). Several other prominent Bollywood stars — Naseeruddin Shah, Saif Ali Khan and the late Irrfan Khan — are Muslim. None of them was invited when, in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducted a famous photo-op with a couple of dozen Bollywood A-list personalities flown to New Delhi for the purpose.

Possible ‘appeasement’

In today’s charged political atmosphere, generated by the ascendancy of political figures associated with Hindutva, the photo-op suggested that the “A” in “A-list” seems increasingly to stand for “appeasement” of the authorities. Many Bollywood celebrities embarrassed themselves by participating in a Government-run social media campaign to denounce global celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg for their support to our agitating farmers, earning themselves the sobriquet “#Sellebrities”.

 

The real problem is that the Sangh Parivar dislikes diversity, and the film world embodies the very idea of India’s diversity in the way in which it is organised, staffed, and financed — and in the stories it tells. Everything about Bollywood embodies the “composite culture” whose very existence is an affront to the uni-dimensional bigotry of Hindutva. And as India’s entertainment has opened itself to more and more global influence, India’s “mainstream” cinema has increasingly shown a capacity for tackling serious themes — caste discrimination, rural injustice, sanitation, women’s rights, menstruation, female sexuality, interreligious marriage, homosexuality and even global Islamophobia have featured in recent films.

A chilling effect

This worries those who prefer Bollywood to continue to limit itself to formulaic entertainment, the proverbial “bread and circuses” necessary to distract the general public from governmental failures. The plot is thickening. New Internet guidelines, whose application and operations are yet to be tested, have already prompted Amazon Prime Video to suspend plans for a second season of the popular rural political series Paatal Lok. Other releases are reported to have been postponed indefinitely. Even the prospect of official disapproval has already had a chilling effect.

Bollywood, which makes over 2,000 films a year, has long been India’s calling card to the world of entertainment. Our films and TV shows have the capacity of going global on the small screen the way Korean cinema has but Chinese has not — because censorship and intimidation stifles one set of film-makers and not the other. The remarkable creative talents available in India could make the country a global leader for such worldwide offerings. But to do that we must allow our film-makers creative freedom, stop harassing them and cease encouraging media persecution. It is time to rise up in defence of Bollywood.

Shashi Tharoor is a third-term Member of Parliament representing Thiruvananthapuram and an award-winning author of 22 books, including most recently, The Battle of Belonging


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Printable version | Dec 9, 2021 11:03:20 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/it-is-time-to-rise-in-defence-of-bollywood/article37013314.ece

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