High time we respect our artists and job creators

Indias vibrant and multi-faceted film industry in times of Udta Punjab
Voices Friday, June 17, 2016 - 14:55

The Central Board of Film Censor (CBFC) has covered itself in ignominy in l’affaire Udta Punjab. They have placed themselves between the ludicrous and the cunning - in other words they have displayed the anger of losers when it was found out that versions of the film were available online before official release today.

Would the government of India allow any other sector of economic activity to be bandied about by incompetent bureaucrats and vindictive political appointees? If pharmaceutical patents had been stolen would we have reacted in the same way? Let that sink in – chances of an artist’s work cracking the super hit-code is almost as difficult as finding that winner molecule. Artists are not products of assembly lines. There is no next car or truck to better the last model. Every work is best and unique. Yes, let that sink in.  If Udta Punjab is disturbing, it is because the reality is much worse. Films cannot exaggerate beyond life – they can only freeze a moment.

Bollywood is our mirror and our attitude towards it is telling of our hypocrisy. Scratch the surface in Udta Punjab – or any film which has social commentary as a theme - and you will see how two-faced we are when it comes to confronting reality. A work of art that does not capture an emotion including a troubling one is not worth the trouble. Indian society troubles at many levels at the same time. There are no safety nets and a body like the CBFC cannot pretend to provide one.

There is another reality we are ignoring when it comes to our film industry. In addition to generating emotions, this is an area of economic activity that reportedly generates sixty thousand crores in revenue. It has something for all Indians and it is a global brand. How many sectors in India can claim this kind of impact? People outside India know the Tata group. They also know Bollywood. Let that sink in. This is India’s home grown brand, one that has defined itself in bits and pieces to develop a sweeping canvas that accommodates all tastes.

Yet, when the Prime Minister travels abroad with a business delegation, there is rarely if ever anyone representing the film industry. I find this ridiculous. I suspect this happens because the world of film and entertainment do not fall into the category of what would be considered serious business in India, comparable to manufacturing, sustainable development or information technology. This industry is a ready-made product for Make in India, but often falls off the list when delegations from abroad meet Indian businesspeople. Indian production houses do work for foreign governments (promotionals, advertorials for example) but this is their labour of love and not the result of any government backing and support.  Let us use the controversy around Udta Punjab to clear some space and acquire some status for our filmmakers.

India’s 103-year-old film industry is also the world’s largest producer of films. India’s film industry of which Bollywood is the largest is a massive job-creator. Numbers are hard to come by and I suspect none exist. A Google search for the film industry says this sector of economic activity comprises film production companies, film studios, cinematography, film production, screen-writing, pre and post production, film festivals, distribution, actors, directors and film crew personnel. There are also musicians, music companies, poets – the list touches so many aspects of daily life.

The global recollect of Bollywood is massive. I have travelled to every continent in the world under various hats. From the taxi driver to top businesspeople Bollywood is recognised almost in the same breath as the Tata group. Try it next time when you travel abroad – ask people what they know about India. Bollywood dance classes, Bollywood clothes styled to western patterns, Bollywood weddings in real settings – yes, the world laps it all up. My neighbour in a Swiss village near Geneva is a fan of Kajol. The family watches Hindi films. Others have Bollywood themed parties.

Our film industry spurs other industries beginning with tourism and gastronomy. I can’t explain the latter except that it is part of the package, but tourism is a straight line to Swiss Alps where many films are shot. Raj Kapoor’s Sangam was the first film to be shot in Switzerland in 1964, but it was the 1967 film Evening in Paris that first used the majestic Alps for all the singing, dancing and romancing. In 1995 Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol contributed hugely to making Switzerland a tourism destination for upwardly mobile Indians. Bollywood parties at the annual meetings of the world’s business and political leaders at Davos are a dime a dozen.

Behind films there is art. Behind art there is hard work. Behind hard work there is passion, belief, trust and hope. A good storyteller packs the punch of all of the above. By all accounts Udta Punjab has done that – told a very disturbing story of the drug problem in Punjab. It takes a perverted mind thriving in denial to say the film hurts sentiments or is an unfair portrayal of the reality. If the film was so unbearable, dear CBFC, how much worse is the reality?

It is high time India respects its film industry. Since that will not happen automatically, here’s a suggestion to anyone who might be reading this. The film industry must have its ‘eyes and ears’ in Delhi. Not the largely irrelevant Rajya Sabha nominees who till date have gained for themselves rather than for the industry they represent but people who care about the metier. India’s film industry needs a presence in Delhi that is robust and strong, willing to call out stupidity or unnecessary interference in the process and the product. This will allow the artists to work in peace. Udta Punjab saw unparalleled consolidation of the film fraternity speaking with one voice. It is vital to build on this momentum.  The film industry in South India handles politics more deftly because many Chief Ministers have come from the industry. They offer valuable lessons to Bollywood.

As for us, the viewers, we trust our filmmakers to entertain us, so why don’t we trust them to show us the warts in our society? Is it because we think they are not intelligent enough to understand India’s development agenda or its economic and social ambition? Udta Punjab should have been promoted widely. It has a public health message at its core.  An unhealthy nation cannot be a prosperous one.