Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been cannily using noted Indian celebrities since 2014 as his messengers. This cohabitation has accelerated in the election season, as not only are a string of actors and pop artists joining his party, many others are happy to lend their shoulders for the job.
In the midst of a closely contested election, Akshay Kumar, a leading Hindi cinema actor spends an entire morning; live on national television, having a “fun” and “apolitical” chat with the incumbent prime minister, who is also a candidate. The same actor has worked in at least two films dedicated to the theme of two key initiatives of the same government in the last couple of years.
Another icon of the Hindi cinema, Amitabh Bachchan, has been brand ambassador not only for Gujarat, Modi’s home state, but again for many of his pet schemes. One actor has played Modi in a glowing biopic that was timed for release right at the beginning of the elections. Two actors, from the same family, are Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidates in the upcoming elections as are a number of other regional actors and of course pop singers, cricketers and several bureaucrats, who eventually came out of the closet and officially sported the BJP colours, in order to help the party in the current elections.
This is not the first time that Modi has turned to Bollywood to promote himself or his agenda. On March 12, he tweeted 29 times in an hour, urging famous Bollywood personalities to influence their fans to vote in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. He got support from all the leading people from Bollywood. Even though the tweet itself was politically neutral, the endorsements of the message by the stars were soon projected as endorsements of Modi and his party.
Just a few weeks before, a delegation of Bollywood celebrities met the Prime Minister in New Delhi to discuss the ‘role of film in youth empowerment’. Ayushmann Khurrana, Alia Bhatt, Vicky Kaushal, Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor, Ekta Kapoor, Karan Johar and other film stars clicked a groupfie with the Prime Minister and shared it on their social media, seen as another soft endorsement of the PM and his party.
However, a large majority of the film industry has simply watched from the sidelines as the political and social tensions have risen across the country and even on the numerous occasions when the industry itself has been in the crosshair. From arbitrary censorship and attacks on film sets and cinema theatres to abuses and threats heaped on the handful of their colleagues who had the courage to speak their mind, a very large majority of the film personalities have been stoically silent.When will Bollywood speak up?
It was not long ago when the movie Padmaavat faced the most illogical protest across India from the KarniSena, a Rajput caste group, and some other political parties. A regional leader of the BJP announced a reward of nearly USD 1.5 million for anyone who beheaded Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the director of the movie and Deepika Padukone, the leading actress.
Not just Padmaavat, in 2016 the film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil too had faced similar protests as the film featured Pakistani actor Fawad Khan. With the brewing tension between India and Pakistan, after the September 18 Uri attack, Karan Johar was forced to post a public video, saying that he will not work with any Pakistani actors in future. In 2014 parties like Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal wanted the movie PK to be banned because they thought Aamir Khan starrer PK was making fun of Hinduism.
In February, Cobrapost, an investigative website had exposed some of the Bollywood celebrities like Jackie Shroff, Shreyas Talpade, Vivek Oberoi, Amisha Patel and others, who had agreed to share BJP’s propaganda messages on their social media for money. The sting operation had shown how through social media posts Bollywood celebrities manipulated their followers to vote for BJP.
Silence of the lambs
In 2015, two of the biggest stars, Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan, did dare to express concern regarding the growing intolerance and attacks on Muslims in India. Within hours of their statements, both were savagely attacked by extreme right wing trolls on the social media, who termed them anti-national and asked them to go to Pakistan, a favourite rhetoric of the Hindu extremists against anyone who falls out of line with their views. The attackers were not some unknown members of the BJP.
They were led by Yogi Adityanath, now the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in the country with a population of 220 million (Germany, France and the United Kingdom put together). Yogi compared Shahrukh to Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed just because the actor had dared to voice his concerns about intolerance and reminding India’s youths to live by the secular principles that modern India was founded on.
Last year, veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah said he was worried for children in today’s India, to which he was immediately castigated by one of his own colleagues, Anupam Kher, a vocal supporter of the BJP, asking Shah how much more freedom he wanted. Kher and his fraternity, however, have maintained an eerie silence even when the filmmakers’ own freedoms have been attacked by the fanatic right wingers with an increasing frequency over the last five years. However, the attacks seemed to have been enough to quieten the actors who had spoken out, with the exception of Shah.
Bollywood should ape Hollywood
The Indian film industry, that often imitates Hollywood, churning out blatant and bad copies of the Hollywood hits, could also learn developing a spine so evident in Hollywood, whose leading lights don’t hesitate to speak their mind on the state of their country and its politics. In fact, most of the Hollywood’s stars have taken up cudgels against the United States President Donald Trump in very high-profile public battles, blasting Trump and his policies, especially his anti-Muslim tirade.
While accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes, in January 2017, Meryl Streep didn’t shy away from speaking her mind and used the platform to question Trump. Streep isn’t alone in her criticism. Lady Gaga, George Clooney, Anne Hathaway, Alec Baldwin, Robert De Niro have all at one point or another spoken against Trump’s dubious politics. Not just the actors, but even leading chat show hosts like Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Kimmel, Trevor Noah and others too have spoken bluntly and satirically against Trump on their chat shows.
“If he was smart, he’d be even more dangerous. He’s dangerous as it is. He’s terrible, and a flat-out blatant racist and doubling down on that, and it’s good that he does because he’s going to sink himself… At this point, we’re at a crisis in this country with this fool, who never should have gotten into the position that he’s in,”Robert De Niro had said of Trump in August 2017. Celebrated writer, J K Rowling, best known for her Harry Potter series had said Voldemort, the villain in her books, was ‘nowhere near as bad’ as Trump.
Stinging as they were, none of these outpourings faced any criticisms from the film fraternity or even the mainstream media. None were asked to leave the United States or had their patriotism questioned. Vital lessons that Kher and several of his colleagues in Bollywood need to urgently learn.The more courageous ones
But it is not all gloom and doom. On April 4, days before the first phase of the elections, over 600 theatre artistes and performers released a statement asking people to vote against the BJP and its allies as the ruling party had given ‘free rein to Hindutva goons’. The joint statement in 12 languages had as signatories’ filmmakers Anurag Kashyap, Konkona Sen Sharma and Amol Palekar, actor Naseeruddin Shah, playwright and actor Girish Karnad, and Sanjna Kapoor, co-founder of Junoon, a theatre and arts organisation.“Vote to empower the weakest, protect liberty, protect the environment, and foster scientific thinking,” the statement said.
A total of 103 filmmakers have signed a petition on the website artistuniteindia, where they ask people to not to vote for BJP. “Our country is going through the most testing times ever. Though culturally vivid and geographically diverse, we have always stayed united. As a nation. It has indeed been a great feeling to be a citizen of this wonderful country,” begins the letter.
It further says, “But all that is at stake now. Fascism threatens to strike us hard with all its might if we don’t choose wisely in the coming Lok Sabha election. Period.” The support for the online movement has been mobilised by Sasidharan, the director of Sexy Durga. The film had faced plenty of hurdles with the Censor Board because its title was perceived to “offend religious sentiments”.
Creative freedom, the ethos of cinema, literature, art et al, has taken a severe beating in the last few years, with political parties and fringe groups dictating the content and ‘approving’ film scripts and other forms of artistic expressions.
“It becomes increasingly clear how in over his head and incapable this man is of being president of the United States. The good news is that our other institutions—meaning press, finally, and judges and senators—have proven that the country works. There is a check and balance,” actor George Clooney had told USA Today, a daily newspaper, in August 2017.
Unfortunately, in India, most of the media stands compromised and exposed, while judiciary seems to have become toothless, while the tax authorities and law enforcement agencies simple tools of a government desperate to hold on to power.