Why Bollywood stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan kept shut about farmers marching to Mumbai

An industry that is essentially pro-establishment is acutely aware of its vulnerability if it falls foul of the powers that be.

 |  8-minute read |   17-03-2018
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Heaps of bananas, biscuits, dates and water bottles in cardboard boxes lined the sides of the roads on the night of March 11 to greet more than 35,000 weary farmers who had marched more than 180km to Azad Maidan, Mumbai, to make their demands heard.

Even as ordinary Mumbaikars poured out of their homes offering help and succour, and film personalities such Atul Kasbekar, Shirish Kunder, Riteish Deshmukh and Nandita Das tweeted in support, the big stars of Bollywood were conspicuously silent and absent. No Kapoors, Khans and certainly no Big B. The bigger you are the more cautious you have to be, and an industry that is essentially pro-establishment is acutely aware of its vulnerability if it falls foul of the powers that be.

However, it was not always like this.

From the time of Sunil Dutt and Nargis began the trend of going to the border to entertain jawans, stars have raised funds for flood victims, held annual Umang shows for the police to encourage and show solidarity, as well as individually contributed to various social causes.

Legendary director Bimal Roy’s son Joy Bimal Roy remembers, “My father belonged to the film world at a time when this unspeakable name 'Bollywood' was not even a blip on the horizon. In those times, the chief minister of Maharashtra, YB Chavan, instituted a fund which was meant specifically to aid the victims of any calamity that befell India.

"The collection drive was spearheaded by the top actors of the day who would move through the city standing atop an open truck exhorting the adoring masses milling around to donate generously for the victims of the earthquake, floods, drought or whatever. They usually managed to mop up quite a tidy sum of money. 

"Contrast this with today's scenario. If there was even a remote possibility of such an occurrence today, the stars would need one truck each to accommodate their entourage, their body guards, the make-up person and hair person to do frequent touch-ups as the whole tamasha is being covered on national network, their spot boy to hold an umbrella overhead lest they faint in the heat, and, of course, their groupies to cheer them on. This is Bollywood. That was Indian cinema. And never the twain shall meet.”

While Joy is pointing out the publicity-driven media optics that decides the nature and extent of a star’s engagement with public affairs, there is another factor to consider.

More recently, if not collectively, but individually, Aamir Khan, Shabana Azmi, Rahul Bose and Deepika Padukone, to name a few, have vocally espoused causes and supported a range of issues from the Narmada Bachao Andolan to tsunami relief to AIDS.  But when one goes from causes that are comparatively safe to ones that are politically charged, one is moving into choppy waters.

In 2006, during his support to displaced farmers during the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Aamir Khan’s remarks against the Gujarat government and the then chief minister Narendra Modi evoked violent protests in the state.

The Gujarat government even decided not to allow the release of his new film Fanaa. In a subsequent interview, Aamir said, “I want the people of India to see that here is a political party (BJP) that does not believe in democracy. Here is a party that does not believe in the rights of poor people. I believe in democracy and if I believe in a cause. I will support it. Nobody can tell me to keep quiet.”

Aamir had also flayed Modi's Gujarat government over the 2006 violence in Vadodara and had hinted at the Gujarat riots as well without mentioning them specifically.

But after the Modi government came to power at the Centre, his meeting with the PM in 2014 resulted in a guarded climb- down from his earlier position and he tweeted saying he was satisfied that he had received assurances that the government would look into “all matters” that were raised in his show Satyameva Jayate.

We have not heard him speak about the Narmada Bachao Andolan ever since.  When he did comment to the media that his wife was thinking about relocating to another country after seeing religious intolerance growing by the day, he was pilloried and name-called on social media. 

In journalist Swati Chaturvedi’s book, I am a Troll, a former BJP IT cell member revealed that Snapdeal was pressurised  to drop the actor as brand ambassador after the saffron party's social media cell turned up the heat on the brand.

In November 2015, when Shah Rukh Khan was asked in an NDTV interview to comment on the growing trend of hate crimes in India, especially over religious issues, he said, “It is stupid… It is stupid to be intolerant and this is our biggest issue… Religious intolerance and not being secular in this country is the worst kind of crime that you can do as a patriot.”

The interview went viral and caused a huge uproar in which Shah Rukh was labelled an “anti-national.” A call to boycott his subsequent movies was issued, with political parties threatening to destroy any multiplex that would screen them. Ultimately, Khan had to apologise for his comments. 

Earlier in February 2010 the Shiv Sena had asked the actor to apologise for a comment which he had made in favour of Pakistani players before unleashing attacks on the film My Name Is Khan which was about to be released. Karan Johar apologised on his behalf. In an interview he said, "I did it because the stakes are very high and I did it because my partners and my distributors have an issue." 

In 2015, Sonam Kapoor and Sonakshi Sinha took to Twitter to condemn the meat ban imposed by the Maharashtra government on the occasion of a Jain festival, and interest groups that saw this as an attack on “Hindu” traditions trolled them on social media mocking them that they were bimbos who were paid to look hot and not air their opinion in public.

When late actor Om Puri appeared on TV to discuss the ban imposed on Pakistani artistes in India following the Uri attacks, he spoke up in support of the artistes. The jingoist fury unleashed on him by the anchor and the panelists who responded with the clichéd “army standing on the border” trope provoked him more and he burst out, “Who had asked the soldiers to join the Army? Who told them to pick the weapons?” With predictable results. Puri subsequently had to apologise in the most grovelling way.

When taking any opposite stance, or critiquing the government brings opprobrium, scorn and hatred down on a star, not just from the party that runs the government, but also from millions of fanatical followers of that party, it is hardly justifiable to expect that star to be a beacon of society’s conscience.

The recent Kisan Long March  was organised by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the farmers' wing of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), along with other farmers’ unions. At the moment, the Communists are the most-hated and despised political entities in India, in fact hardly a force to back if anyone has any sense or regard for his personal safekeeping.

The word "Left" is treated on a par with "intellectual", which is probably considered a worse abuse.

The late Om Puri said in 2012, to an outraged public, in the early stages of metamorphosis into the present trolls and bhakts, "They (Naxals) are not terrorists because they don't resort to irresponsible acts of terror by planting bombs on streets. Naxals are fighters who fight for their rights. They don't harass the common man and the poor."

It was probably the bravest thing a star of his stature could have said at that time. One does not know whether the much reviled hammer and sickle will rise up again in this land with dignity, but it was the common man and the poor of Mumbai who showered flower petals from their balconies and rooftops upon the farmers. It is they who lined the streets and received them with all their hearts.

And it is perhaps they who will bring about any social change, or be the custodians of our conscience in the future.

Unlike the stars, they have little to lose.

Also read: Why the farmer crisis is far from over




Gautam Benegal Gautam Benegal @gautambenegal

Award winning animation filmmaker, artist, author, and social commentator.

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