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Attack on Sanjay Leela Bhansali shows Bollywood can no longer afford to stay silent

The 'Padmavati' controversy has shaken up the Hindi film industry.

 |  6-minute read |   31-01-2017
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At the recently concluded Screen Actors Guild Awards, Stranger Things actor David Harbour delivered the most passionate anti-Trump speech of the evening without mentioning US President Donald J Trump himself. We can only guess some of the adjectives that the president would use for Harbour’s defiance on his Twitter: Overrated. Sad. Biased...

Surrounded by the predominantly young cast of his Netflix series, which was recognised as the best ensemble in a drama series, Harbour said, “As we act in the continuing narrative of Stranger Things, we 1983 Midwesterners will repel bullies. We will shelter freaks and outcasts, those who have no home. We will get past the lies. We will hunt monsters! And when we are at a loss amidst the hypocrisy and the casual violence of certain individuals and institutions, we will, as per Chief Hopper [the character Harbour essays on the Netflix series], punch some people in the face when they seek to destroy the weak and the disenfranchised and the marginalised! And we will do it all with soul, with heart, and with joy. We thank you for this responsibility.”

As Winona Ryder gave the most quizzical expressions to her co-star’s fiery rant, a thousand miles away there were a few valiant professionals from Bollywood who stood up for their shaken peer – Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

On Friday, January 27, an angry mob of Karni Seva workers assaulted the filmmaker for their unwavering belief that he was distorting history in his upcoming film Padmavati. One of their allegations included that the film has a dream sequence which shows Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji being intimate. That the miscreants from the Rajput organisation walked away free after openly attacking the crew and damaging the set is shocking to say the least.

karni_013117030646.jpg Members of Rajput Karni Sena landed on the sets of Padmavati in Jaipur's Mehrangarh Fort and vandalised the film's set.

The film fraternity, often accused of not being united and only watching out for themselves, responded with fury at the violence and humiliation. A lot of them chose social media platforms to express themselves with hashtags like #IStandbySLB.

Sushant Singh Rajput dropped his surname "Rajput" from his Twitter handle in protest. “We would suffer till the time we're obsessed with our surnames. If you're that courageous, give us your first name to acknowledge.”

However, the actor was not the most vocal Rajput advocate of Bhansali. That honour went to the fearless Anurag Kashyap.

“At the same time 'Shame on you Karni Sena', you make me feel ashamed to be a Rajput.. bloody spineless cowards...,” wrote Kashyap on Twitter. Of the many tweets on the matter, Kashyap’s most daring one said: “Hindu extremists have stepped out of twitter into the real world now... and Hindu terrorism is not a myth anymore.”

National Award-winning filmmaker Hansal Mehta added: “The political environment in our country is encouraging for fringe elements and the attack on cultural freedom. We need to smell the coffee.” The silence of the Centre on the fiasco which is severely damaging to the image of the state, governed by their party, speaks volumes.

Hrithik Roshan, who has worked with the filmmaker in Guzaarish, had an elaborate point to make on the presumption made by thugs even before reading the script.

“If the people have a card (disclaimer) in the beginning of the film, stating that it is absolutely true to fact... One can take action against that,” he told IANS. “But when the card says that this has been inspired by something and not true to (real life) events, then why would anyone raise an objection? With Padmavati, how do you know that Mr Bhansali is going to have that card in the starting or not? To just assume and act like this (makes me) absolutely furious.”

Sonam Kapoor took to Instagram to support the filmmaker who gave her the big break with Saawariya. Posting an old tweet of Prime Minister Narendra Modi which stated “Art can’t have any restrictions or limits”, she wrote: “A gentle reminder sir... a couple of days after republic day if we as an industry have to deal with such humiliation for expressing ourselves, it's frankly very disheartening. Please stand up for us... #Padmavati”. Her comments were full of trolls attacking her.

These are not easy stances to take and more so in the testing times we now find ourselves in.

Actors, a few of whom are privileged, powerful and influential, are not expected to always share their point of view on relevant issues such as the effect of demonetisation, or on religious intolerance. It perhaps explains why the Bollywood royalty which includes Amitabh Bachchan and the three Khans – Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh – have been silent and not joined the Padmavati protests so far. We have already seen the repercussions.

Ask Aamir Khan who suffered backlash after expressing concern on the social climate in the country. Look at actress Trisha Krishnan whose mother sought protection after her daughter, long associated with PETA, was targeted by Jallikattu supporters.

But the Bhansali episode is a telling reminder to Bollywood that they cannot be quiet in the face of rampant bullying. They are well aware they could suffer the same fate as Bhansali did in Jaipur. Does it mean that filmmakers exercise self-censorship and now stop making biopics or historical epics? What’s next?

Filmmakers submit scripts to the ministry of information and broadcasting for approval much like in Iran, where they need the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance's approval. Karan Johar’s tweet demonstrated that the incident has shaken Bollywood. “Thoughts of what has transpired with Sanjay Bhansali today are just not leaving me!! Feeling helpless and angry!! This cannot be our future!”

Farhan Akhtar said: “My fellow film folk, if we do not unite now against these recurring incidents of bullying, it's going to get much worse. #IstandbySLB"

And that’s the fear. If a dystopian future needs to be avoided, then the industry has to speak up. They have to look at Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Meryl Streep, Mahershala Ali, David Harbour and find creative ways to voice their dissent and rage.

Ultimately, we all need to #IStandbySLB.

Also read: How Karni Sena harassed Team Padmavati to honour hurt 'Rajput' pride



Suhani Singh Suhani Singh @suhani84

The writer is Senior Associate Editor, India Today.

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