SORRY SILENCE


Bollywood’s best-known stars are becoming apologists for creative freedom amid an increasingly impatient Indian society.

NEHA BHATIA, CONTRIBUTOR


Sanjay Leela Bhansali, winner of four National Film Awards – among India’s top government-led honours for its film industry – was attacked in an act of vigilante justice on 27 January, 2017 while on the sets of his next production. National news outlet NDTV reported that Bhansali was assaulted by members of the Rajasthan-based Rajput Karni Sena for allegedly “distorting” history in Padmavati, the movie he was shooting for in the western state. The period drama, based on the life of a renowned Rajput queen allegedly shows “love scenes” between its leads, and this was considered inaccurate enough to beat up the filmmaker.

Censorship isn’t new to Bollywood, as is exemplified by the banning of Kissa Kursi Ka (1975), a seventies’ production considered by many to be a thinly-veiled spoof of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her infamous son, Sanjay. Completed in 1975, director Amrit Nahata had to wait two years – until India’s Emergency law was lifted in 1977 – for his movie to see the light of the day. The film’s prints had also been burned by Sanjay, it was later declared by a legal committee in a decision that is held partly responsible for Gandhi’s defeat in the following general elections.

Before the Storm

Thirty years after an Indian film contributed to populist politics’s descent, the tables have turned. There’s little doubt that its artists’ lack of public comment about socio-political issues is among one of Bollywood’s most-reported problems today, but perhaps a larger concern the industry faces is how it has compelled its stars to become apologists for diversity of opinion and creative freedom.

Karan Johar’s October 2016 release, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, reduced the producer/director to a heap of haplessness as he struggled to distribute his film following Mumbai political party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s (MNS) protests, conducted in light of a terrorist attack suspected to have been perpetrated by a Pakistan-based group. The fracas that followed saw Johar fighting to ensure his $10.3m (INR700m) film – starring popular Pakistani actor Fawad Khan – wouldn’t sink on the market, and eventually led him to settle with MNS leader Raj Thackeray in a meeting highly criticized by local media outlets.

“It isn’t entirely surprising if a Bollywood actor locks away their views from a fanbase – at home or away – that may not hesitate from turning its back on its favourites.”

A video statement released by Johar prior to the film’s release was rebuffed for its pandering tone – especially since he promises during the monologue to not “engage with talent from the neighbouring country” in the future. Equally rebuked amid the controversy was the Hindi film industry which, critics claimed, didn’t do enough to resist MNS’s threats.

In contrast, numerous actors and directors – including Johar – have now come out in support of Bhansali. This, after Gulab Chand Kataria, the home minister of Rajasthan said it is “natural to be angry”, even as he added that the sentiment shouldn’t be expressed by “breaking the law”.

Fascism before art, or art before fascism?

That statement is ironic for many reasons, not in the least for its innate contradiction: even as he admits that lawbreaking isn’t a solution, Kataria’s acceptance of the Karni Sena’s “anger” abdicates the creative license that Bollywood – like any other commercial-artistic industry in India – implicitly has a stake in.

When Meryl Streep championed the need for artistic freedom during her speech at the Golden Globes this January, an array of op-ed writers emerged on the Indian media landscape asking for a similar performance from their stars. The Khans and the Kapoors, it was voiced, must do more to fight for their peers’ rights to create art of their choice. Later, a Buzzfeed write-up in the industry’s defense claimed that Indian stars aren’t covered by the same legal framework as their American counterparts and in most ways, that is a solid argument.

“Bollywood’s weakness, it appears, isn’t a lack of culturally pertinent voices; its inability to hear the voices it already has – socially aware or otherwise – is the problem that needs fixing.”

But because comparing Bollywood and Hollywood has historically attracted criticism (‘We’re a unique industry’, the former group routinely exclaims), it’s key to note the timing of this change of position. While the term ‘Hindi-language film industry’ is still preferred over ‘Bollywood’ to downplay the similarities between both segments, the migration of actors such as Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone has paved the way for objective discourse about their more tangible differences, if any do exist.

Production scales and plot lines aside, what offers the contrast between Bollywood and Hollywood is the people they are made up of. While the Hindi-language industry witnessed the Ae Dil Hai Mushkil controversy unfold in October, Hollywood stars Mark Ruffalo, Susan Sarandon, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Shailene Woodley were involved in a protest of their own. Their sentiment – anger, as India’s Kataria might want to term it – was directed at the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline on tribal land, which could eventually harm drinking water for its surrounding residents.

The privilege of free speech

This juxtaposition isn’t to accuse Bollywood’s members of lacking gumption, because the industry’s problem of zipped lips won’t end with challenging its stars to match its US counterparts. Hollywood’s directors, producers, and actors are helped by the larger base their products and brands cover. For instance, at a count of 1,602, the Indian film industry produced the highest number of feature films in 2012, but the 221 Bollywood – Hindi-language – films made during the year are only a small part of the 668 films released in the US over the 12 months, according to one set of figures. Ergo, it isn’t entirely surprising if a Bollywood actor locks away their views from a fanbase – at home or away – that may not hesitate from turning its back on its favourites.

Padukone, the eponymous lead of Bhansali’s Padmavati, reassuringly tweeted on 28 January that “there is absolutely no distortion of history” in the movie. It is frustrating that she feels the need to placate a public group of her work’s accurate creativity – an astounding contradiction in itself. It is embarrassing that Shah Rukh Khan – among India’s best-known global representatives – must assure MNS’s Thackeray of his Pakistani co-star Mahira Khan’s non-participation in the promotional activities of their 2017 release, Raees.

Hindi-language film stars, much like their Hollywood counterparts, run the risk of losing commercial and popularity contests should their fanbase shun them over an opinion held by a minority. But where select Hollywood stars like Woodley march to protest a social issue – regardless of whether it affects their work and income – their Mumbai counterparts now seem more risk-averse than they ever have in the industry’s modern history. Bollywood’s weakness, it appears, isn’t a lack of culturally pertinent voices; its inability to hear the voices it already has – socially aware or otherwise – is the problem that needs fixing.

About the Author

Neha Bhatia

Twitter

Editor of a trade magazine. Enjoys watching reruns of bad-to-horrible Hindi films in her spare time. Trashy Bollywood music and the Kapoor family are her niche. Tweet Shah Rukh Khan gifs to her @jaydawt.

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Bollywood’s best-known stars are becoming apologists for creative freedom amid an increasingly impatient Indian society

NEHA BHATIA, CONTRIBUTOR


Sanjay Leela Bhansali, winner of four National Film Awards – among India’s top government-led honours for its film industry – was attacked in an act of vigilante justice on 27 January, 2017 while on the sets of his next production. National news outlet NDTV reported that Bhansali was assaulted by members of the Rajasthan-based Rajput Karni Sena for allegedly “distorting” history in Padmavati, the movie he was shooting for in the western state. The period drama, based on the life of a renowned Rajput queen allegedly shows “love scenes” between its leads, and this was considered inaccurate enough to beat up the filmmaker.

Censorship isn’t new to Bollywood, as is exemplified by the banning of Kissa Kursi Ka (1975), a seventies’ production considered by many to be a thinly-veiled spoof of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her infamous son, Sanjay. Completed in 1975, director Amrit Nahata had to wait two years – until India’s Emergency law was lifted in 1977 – for his movie to see the light of the day. The film’s prints had also been burned by Sanjay, it was later declared by a legal committee in a decision that is held partly responsible for Gandhi’s defeat in the following general elections.

Before the Storm

Thirty years after an Indian film contributed to populist politics’s descent, the tables have turned. There’s little doubt that its artists’ lack of public comment about socio-political issues is among one of Bollywood’s most-reported problems today, but perhaps a larger concern the industry faces is how it has compelled its stars to become apologists for diversity of opinion and creative freedom.

Karan Johar’s October 2016 release, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, reduced the producer/director to a heap of haplessness as he struggled to distribute his film following Mumbai political party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s (MNS) protests, conducted in light of a terrorist attack suspected to have been perpetrated by a Pakistan-based group. The fracas that followed saw Johar fighting to ensure his $10.3m (INR700m) film – starring popular Pakistani actor Fawad Khan – wouldn’t sink on the market, and eventually led him to settle with MNS leader Raj Thackeray in a meeting highly criticized by local media outlets.

“It isn’t entirely surprising if a Bollywood actor locks away their views from a fanbase – at home or away – that may not hesitate from turning its back on its favourites.”

A video statement released by Johar prior to the film’s release was rebuffed for its pandering tone – especially since he promises during the monologue to not “engage with talent from the neighbouring country” in the future. Equally rebuked amid the controversy was the Hindi film industry which, critics claimed, didn’t do enough to resist MNS’s threats.

In contrast, numerous actors and directors – including Johar – have now come out in support of Bhansali. This, after Gulab Chand Kataria, the home minister of Rajasthan said it is “natural to be angry”, even as he added that the sentiment shouldn’t be expressed by “breaking the law”.

Fascism before art, or art before fascism?

That statement is ironic for many reasons, not in the least for its innate contradiction: even as he admits that lawbreaking isn’t a solution, Kataria’s acceptance of the Karni Sena’s “anger” abdicates the creative license that Bollywood – like any other commercial-artistic industry in India – implicitly has a stake in.

When Meryl Streep championed the need for artistic freedom during her speech at the Golden Globes this January, an array of op-ed writers emerged on the Indian media landscape asking for a similar performance from their stars. The Khans and the Kapoors, it was voiced, must do more to fight for their peers’ rights to create art of their choice. Later, a Buzzfeed write-up in the industry’s defense claimed that Indian stars aren’t covered by the same legal framework as their American counterparts and in most ways, that is a solid argument.

“Bollywood’s weakness, it appears, isn’t a lack of culturally pertinent voices; its inability to hear the voices it already has – socially aware or otherwise – is the problem that needs fixing.”

But because comparing Bollywood and Hollywood has historically attracted criticism (‘We’re a unique industry’, the former group routinely exclaims), it’s key to note the timing of this change of position. While the term ‘Hindi-language film industry’ is still preferred over ‘Bollywood’ to downplay the similarities between both segments, the migration of actors such as Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone has paved the way for objective discourse about their more tangible differences, if any do exist.

Production scales and plot lines aside, what offers the contrast between Bollywood and Hollywood is the people they are made up of. While the Hindi-language industry witnessed the Ae Dil Hai Mushkil controversy unfold in October, Hollywood stars Mark Ruffalo, Susan Sarandon, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Shailene Woodley were involved in a protest of their own. Their sentiment – anger, as India’s Kataria might want to term it – was directed at the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline on tribal land, which could eventually harm drinking water for its surrounding residents.

Captain Hook

This juxtaposition isn’t to accuse Bollywood’s members of lacking gumption, because the industry’s problem of zipped lips won’t end with challenging its stars to match its US counterparts. Hollywood’s directors, producers, and actors are helped by the larger base their products and brands cover. For instance, at a count of 1,602, the Indian film industry produced the highest number of feature films in 2012, but the 221 Bollywood – Hindi-language – films made during the year are only a small part of the 668 films released in the US over the 12 months, according to one set of figures. Ergo, it isn’t entirely surprising if a Bollywood actor locks away their views from a fanbase – at home or away – that may not hesitate from turning its back on its favourites.

Padukone, the eponymous lead of Bhansali’s Padmavati, reassuringly tweeted on 28 January that “there is absolutely no distortion of history” in the movie. It is frustrating that she feels the need to placate a public group of her work’s accurate creativity – an astounding contradiction in itself. It is embarrassing that Shah Rukh Khan – among India’s best-known global representatives – must assure MNS’s Thackeray of his Pakistani co-star Mahira Khan’s non-participation in the promotional activities of their 2017 release, Raees.

Hindi-language film stars, much like their Hollywood counterparts, run the risk of losing commercial and popularity contests should their fanbase shun them over an opinion held by a minority. But where select Hollywood stars like Woodley march to protest a social issue – regardless of whether it affects their work and income – their Mumbai counterparts now seem more risk-averse than they ever have in the industry’s modern history. Bollywood’s weakness, it appears, isn’t a lack of culturally pertinent voices; its inability to hear the voices it already has – socially aware or otherwise – is the problem that needs fixing.

About the Author

Neha Bhatia

Twitter

Editor of a trade magazine. Enjoys watching reruns of bad-to-horrible Hindi films in her spare time. Trashy Bollywood music and the Kapoor family are her niche. Tweet Shah Rukh Khan gifs to her @jaydawt.

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