SRK to Anupam Kher, Bollywood has shown some spine

Hindi film stars, unlike their counterparts from the south, have seldom gone beyond a point when it comes to taking a stand.

 |  6-minute read |   09-11-2015
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Popular Hindi cinema and the people who are a part of it have seldom displayed a political stand as clear as some of them have in the recent past. We have been so used to expecting a safe stance when it comes to matters both on and off screen from actors or filmmakers that when a Shah Rukh Khan speaks his mind on the growing intolerance in the society or an Anupam Kher leads a march to reaffirm India’s tolerance compass, we can’t help but notice the appearance of a spine amongst other celebrated anatomical parts of these stars.

Kher’s "March for India" was a response to writers' decision to return their Sahitya Akademi awards, and that of some individuals from the film fraternity to return their national awards as a mark of protest to the growing social intolerance. Filmmakers including Dibakar Banerjee (Khosla ka Ghosla), Harshwardhan Kulkarni (Hunterr) as well as documentary filmmakers Anand Patwardhan (Jai Bhim Comrade), Rakesh Sharma (Final Solution) and Nishtha Jain (Gulaabi Gang) had also cited support and solidarity to the striking students of the Film and Television Institute of India (the strike has since been withdrawn).

In the hullaballoo that followed most interviews at press junkets, or film or literary festivals, or any place where a filmmaker/actor, who had won a national award was sighted, the filmmaker/actor was asked whether he/she, too, would return the award. Some like Kamal Haasan flatly refused by saying that in his opinion this wasn’t the best way to show dissent. While filmmaker and screenwriter Zoya Akhtar said she "would have given up national award if I had it", the four-time national award winner Kamal Haasan questioned the motive of the actions and added that Mahatma Gandhi didn’t give up his British degree while opposing them. He also added that a jury and not the government gave these awards and he wouldn’t want to insult the jury.

Also read: Anupam Kher's public protest against a protest is awful neo-fascism

Kher’s decision to mobilise and lead the counter "tolerance" march has been lauded by some and criticised by some. The people who showed up for the "March For Freedom" were largely those who believed that the campaign to smear the Central government and the general image of India as a place for global investment has been fanned by a handful of vested interests. Argumentatively, Kher does have a major point. The present government’s high-handedness may be the reason behind intolerance towards those expressing any kind of an opposing view, but if India was truly resembling a totalitarian state, which some opinions seem to suggest, then would the media be free to openly criticise it on a daily basis? Reading the headlines today seems like India has all of sudden become one of those Eastern Bloc nations before the fall of the "Iron Curtain" and that these voices are the ones that have escaped the oppressive regime.

One of the reasons Kher undertook the march was to send a message that the perception of India in international fora is being affected because it was being branded intolerant. For good or worse the actor compared past incidents such as the Emergency and the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits to the present scenario and questioned what was today’s level of intolerance being compared to. Those who witnessed the Emergency would vouch that anyone who had a contrarian view to that of the Indira Gandhi government, which imposed the Emergency, found themselves at the receiving end of the state’s wrath. The entire Opposition was jailed along with journalists who refused to toe the line and even the film business wasn’t spared.

The last time an actor did something on the lines of Kher’s march was Dev Anand when he launched a political party to take on the Congress. The government blacklisted Dev Anand and had his name expunged from all official communication during the imposition of Emergency because he refused to endorse Sanjay Gandhi’s youthful leadership on a public platform. Along with Dev Anand, Kishore Kumar was hounded by income tax authorities because he refused to perform free of cost on the government’s orders and Shatrughan Sinha’s films were banned owing to his proximity to Jayaprakash Narayan, the spearhead of the anti-Indira movement.

Also read: Anupam Kher's March for India was more than a mere protest

Film stars have often been used, misused and abused by politicians. Sometimes familiarity compels an Amitabh Bachchan to become a giant killer in order to take on HN Bahuguna, a sitting Congress chief minister of Uttar Pradesh who was forced by Indira Gandhi to resign in 1975, or Rajesh Khanna to stand against LK Advani in New Delhi in the 1991 general election, or Govinda to become a pawn to oust the heavyweight Ram Naik in Mumbai North in the 2004 Lok Sabha election. Many a times campaigning becomes a payback for tax breaks or awards or some such favour. Hindi film stars, unlike their counterparts from the south, such as superstars MG Ramachandran or NT Rama Rao, who went on to become the chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh respectively, have seldom gone beyond a point when it comes to taking a stand. While Kher or Shah Rukh or any other star connected with either group might not scale the same heights, as MGR or NTR anytime soon, the fact that they are expressing their stance on matters concerning the nation is a marked departure from the past.

When a Rajinikanth can sway the course of an election with a single statement it becomes imperative for stars to be vocal about their opinions. It’s not just the fans that seem to welcome Shah Rukh as well as Kher being vocal but also fellow actors Anil Kapoor, Ritiesh Deshmukh, who supported the Shah Rukh’s stance and Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, who congratulated Kher for "countering the intolerance boogy". Acts of violence need to be condemned and justice, if delayed or denied, must be demanded and there’s no stopping people from expressing dissent in any which way they want. Accepting awards or returning awards and especially the timing is a very personal thing.

So Dilip Kumar didn’t deem necessary to return the "Nishan-e-Imtiaz", Pakistan highest civilian honour, even during the Kargil War as he believed that the award was giving to him for bridging the cultural and communal gap between India and Pakistan and the Kargil War had nothing to do with it. Gulzar was fine with receiving the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration even though the very person on which the award is named banned his film (Aandhi) and imposed curbs under the Emergency. Some might want to return awards and some might not but the bigger point is that Bollywood for once is openly talking about what it feels and doesn’t this sign of freedom of expression, ironically enough, signify the age of tolerance?

Also read: Anupam Kher needs to stop misleading people


Gautam Chintamani Gautam Chintamani @gchintamani

Cinephile, observer of society and technology and author of the of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna.

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