Bollywood’s best-known stars are becoming apologists for creative freedom amid an increasingly impatient Indian society.
By Neha J. Bhatia on January 29, 2017

Sanjay Leela Bhansali, winner of four National Film Awards – among India’s top government-led honors 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, meanwhile, had 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. 

Thirty years after an Indian film contributed to populist politics’ 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 greater 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.

A video statement released by Johar prior to the film’s release was rebuffed for its pandering undertone – especially since he promises during the monologue to not “engage with talent from the neighboring 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”.

That statement in its entirety 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 to.

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 don’t quite enjoy the same freedom of expression as their American counterparts; to some extent, this may not be an entirely inaccurate view. 

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 plotlines 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.

This juxtaposition isn’t to accuse Bollywood’s members of lacking gumption, especially since the industry’s problem of zipped lips won’t end with challenging its stars to match their US counterparts. Hollywood’s directors, producers, and actors are helped by the larger base their products and brands cover. For instance, with 1,602 productions the Indian film industry produced the highest number of feature films in 2012, but the 221 Bollywood 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 estimates. Ergo, it isn’t entirely surprising if a Bollywood actor locks away their views from a fanbase – at home and away – that doesn’t hesitate from turning its back on its stars. Padukone, the eponymous lead of Bhansali’s Padmavati, assuringly tweeted on 28 January that “there is absolutely no distortion of history” in the movie. It is infuriating that she feels the need to reassure a misguided public group of accurate creativity – an astounding contradiction, almost – in her work. 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.