On the day when a group of alleged Karni Sena protestors attacked a school bus in Gurugram, the guest co-ordinator of our prime time TV news show came to me with an unusual problem: no one, she said, from the film industry was willing to speak up against the Sena. We eventually managed to convince film director Anubhav Sinha to give an industry viewpoint. Indeed, barring a few of the usual suspects – Shabana Azmi, Javed Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Swara Bhaskar and a few others – we barely heard a squeak from the captains of the industry, including film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, on the Padmavaat controversy. Their conspicuous silence is a reflection of the times in which we live; people with power and influence prefer not to rock the boat.
This isn’t the first time that the Hindi film industry has been exposed for what it is at one level: a cabal of self-serving individuals, so trapped by fame, money and stardom, that it has little time to reflect on the world beyond. Yes, their larger than life image makes such people soft targets for any Sena seeking its 15 seconds of fame. Witness the manner in which innocuous statements on intolerance by Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan a few years ago made them the focus of a vicious campaign by right wing forces. Or how Amitabh Bachchan’s house was attacked by MNS workers when he inaugurated a girls’ college in UP. Or how Deepika Padukone faced death threats for her lead role in Padmavaat.
Yet, the fact that the industry holds such sway over the hearts and minds of millions is precisely the reason why stars, as high profile public figures, should stand up to be counted. If film stars can line up to be brand ambassadors for government-sponsored programmes like Swachh Bharat and Incredible India, what stops those same stars from using their clout to speak up when their basic right of free expression is being stifled by self-styled vigilantes? If stars are more than happy to act as cheerleaders for the ruling class, what prevents them from showing the very same rulers the darker side of their governance?
Contrast the reluctance of the Hindi film industry to utter a word with the manner in which Prakash Raj, the southern film star, has launched a no-holds-barred attack on the politics of hate and violence, be it against the Karni Sena, Dalit atrocities or gau-rakshaks’ claims of being protectors of Hinduism. Raj may not have the national appeal of Bollywood heroes, but he is a multiple national award winner who has acted with great success in movies across several languages (Hindi film watchers will probably best remember him for his memorable role as a villain in Singham). Raj is part of a southern film tradition in which actors have chosen to fearlessly wear their political ideology on their sleeve rather than compromise with the establishment to protect their star status.
NT Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh challenged the Congress and Rajiv Gandhi at the height of their power in the 1980s with a rousing cry of Telugu pride. MG Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu became an iconic folk hero for the Dravidian movement. More recently, a young Tamil film actor, Vishal, attempted to fight the RK Nagar by-poll in Chennai against the ‘corrupted’ politics of the state. All show a willingness to confront the status quo which makes southern stars stand out. It is perhaps that same tradition which is today inspiring Kamal Haasan to strike out into the minefield of Tamil politics, or indeed, even Rajinikanth to seek a spiritual journey into public life.
Perhaps, the regional stars of the south are more rooted in their culture, a rootedness that makes it easier for them to identify with the concerns of the average citizen or fan. Indeed, over the years, southern film-makers have made a conscious attempt to make a brand of cinema that echoes a deeper social and political belief system. Hindi cinema, by contrast, appears to inhabit a universe increasingly disconnected with the lives of the aam aadmi, a world in which nothing seems to matter other than the weekend box office returns. It is that bubble which needs to be busted, a comfort zone from which the stars need to break out. Surely, taking on a Karni Sena isn’t such an onerous task for our superstars?
Post-script: The censor board chief, Prasoon Joshi, chose to give the Jaipur Lit Fest a miss because he feared the wrath of the Karni Sena. The silence that has followed is deafening. If our film world cannot stand up to bullies, what of our political leaders who have remained tongue-tied in the face of brazen mob intimidation?