Bollywood's silence will not save it

Last year's incessant media hounding of actor Rhea Chakraborty was only a trailer for what was to come.
Shah Rukh Khan in a grey T shirt and black mask coming out of jail after visiting Aryan Khan
Shah Rukh Khan in a grey T shirt and black mask coming out of jail after visiting Aryan Khan
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Bollywood was synonymous with escapism for an adoring Indian public until a few years ago; it has now become the bogeyman that the political class throws at the masses, serving simultaneously as a huge distraction as well as a grim warning. The people who sold us eternal love, righteous anger, and a thirst for justice on the big screen have now transformed into immoral, ‘un-Indian’ louts whose targeting inspires a disturbing sense of schadenfreude in many of us.

Last year’s incessant media hounding of actor Rhea Chakraborty was only a trailer for what was to come. For a while now, Bollywood has been painted as a cesspool where privilege and exploitation party together. It's not that there is no truth to these allegations. The industry certainly has serious issues that it must confront, from nepotism to sexual harassment. But what we're seeing unfold on television channels and social media today is a far cry from a genuine attempt to fix these problems. This ugly witch hunt has only one purpose — alienate and punish those who don't bend when asked to.

Shah Rukh Khan, through his son Aryan, is the latest to be dragged through the mud after the 23-year-old was found in a party on a ship where drugs were allegedly in circulation. Though no drugs were found on Aryan, he is yet to be given bail in a judicial system where bail should be the norm. Though this was supposed to be an operation by the Narcotics Control Bureau, a BJP worker and a self-styled detective were present during the arrests, even escorting Aryan Khan to the NCB office. There is no pretence about what's going on. Why bother sheathing the sword when it’s the blood everyone wants to see?

SRK is an outsider who became the Badshah of Bollywood. It was a time when it was possible for three Khans to rule the roost in an industry that primarily caters to the Hindi heartland. In the India we live in now, it seems inconceivable that such a thing could ever happen again. An India where the right wing calls for the boycott of products because the models aren’t wearing bindis. An India where an accused in a bomb blast has become an MP and is now threatening filmmakers with dire consequences if their films ‘offend Hindu sentiments’. An India where the Home Minister of a state defends the violence meted out to a filmmaker in a city under his control, because the name of a web series ‘offends Hindus’. An India where communalism has become the norm, and we’re supposed to feel proud that it is so.

An India where love across differences is a conspiracy, not an expression of the heart.

In 2014, those of us who feared that this would happen were told that all of this is "fringe". But in 2021, it is clear that the plan was always for the fringe to bulldoze and take over the mainstream.

SRK is pretty much Bollywood royalty, considering the star status that he enjoys. Yet, there have been very few of his colleagues who have spoken out publicly in support. Bollywood is no more the big surnames and the outsiders; the inventors and the imitations. It is the sell-outs, the rebels, and the fence-sitters. There’s the group that makes ‘nationalistic’ movies and profits from twisting history to suit a narrative; the same people who copy-paste pro-government tweets in tandem. People who have indulged in shaming, bullying their colleagues, supported calls for genocide, and have been rewarded for their efforts.

There’s the much smaller group that speaks out and faces vitriol on social media day in and day out (apart from IT raids, leaked WhatsApp chats and the threat of arrest).

And then there’s the largest group of all, the silent ones who don’t wish to get into a ‘controversy’.

It’s easy to see why this is so. A film is worth several crores, and the film industry has always been a soft target for political parties wanting to score a point, or fringe groups that wish to grab headlines. In 1995, for instance, a Muslim fundamentalist group threw crude bombs on director Mani Ratnam for depicting a Muslim woman falling in love with a Hindu man in his film Bombay. Without any sense of irony, Hindutva supporters today argue that their objection to interfaith love in cinema or any other media is similar and must be indulged (needless to say, they also enjoy state support).

In a country where democracy is increasingly turning into a farce, it must be tempting now more than ever to be quiet rather than speak up. But if there’s any lesson to be learnt from recent events, it is that nobody is truly safe from fascists.

In 2019, actor Ranveer Singh was among those who attended PM Modi’s Bollywood meet on what sort of films the industry should make; the bonhomie between the PM and Ranveer was much written about. In 2020, his wife and actor Deepika Padukone was questioned by the NCB and hounded by the media over leaked WhatsApp chats on drugs. (Earlier that year, Deepika had openly expressed her solidarity with the JNU protests — just a coincidence, of course.) In 2016, director Prakash Jha had claimed that Karan Johar’s remark on rising intolerance in the country was purely a figment of the latter’s imagination. It’s the same director who was roughed up in Bhopal a few days ago over his web series. During this attack on the Ashram sets, the Bajrang Dal was looking for its lead star, Bobby Deol, brother of BJP MP Sunny Deol.

Make no mistake, they will come for you, even if you believe yourself to be on the same side. It is escapism to think otherwise, and Bollywood must pinch itself back to reality. Picture abhi baaki hai.

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