When Bollywood had a spine: Shabana Azmi’s 1989 video on Safdar Hashmi’s murder is viral

At a government event in 1989, Shabana Azmi boldly called out the Congress for the murder of CPI(M) cultural activist Safdar Hashmi.
When Bollywood had a spine: Shabana Azmi’s 1989 video on Safdar Hashmi’s murder is viral
When Bollywood had a spine: Shabana Azmi’s 1989 video on Safdar Hashmi’s murder is viral
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Shabana Azmi is known to speak her mind, and the fiery actor has never been silent about the political upheavals in the country. In the wake of the attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University by masked men and women on Sunday evening, reactions have been pouring in on social media on what is perceived as the BJP's attempt to clamp down dissent.

JNU has been repeatedly targeted and demonised by right-wing forces in the past few years as it is considered to be the bastion of left liberal politics. In the last few years, it has also become common to brand those questioning the government as 'anti-national' or 'urban naxal'. In this context, an old video of actor Shabana Azmi boldly reading out a statement condemning the murder of street dramatist and communist Safdar Hashmi, has been doing the rounds.

Back in 1989, Shabana not only mentioned the crime, she also held the Congress party responsible for it. To top it all, Shabana did so at an event run by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, at a time when the Congress government was in power.

The incident took place in January 1989 at the opening ceremony of the International Film Festival of India at the Siri Fort auditorium in Delhi. Called onstage, Shabana was asked which directors, in her view, had brought out the best in her. Calmly, the actor took the mic and said, "My views on my directors and the new wave can be reserved for a later date. What is very important right now is that we've been distributing some leaflets in the audience. My fear is that not all the leaflets have been equally distributed. And so, I choose this occasion to read out our protest, please bear with me."

As the audience broke into applause, Shabana took out a piece of paper and read out the statement, "While performing a street play in Shahibabad township, only 15 kilometres from Delhi, on 1st January, Safdar Hasmi, member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a well-known cultural activist, was murdered in broad daylight by followers of the Congress (I) supporting candidate. Apart from working in theatre, Safdar also contributed to the cinema as a critic, actor and commentator.We filmmakers and film lovers wish to register our protest against a system that on the one hand claims to promote creativity and on the other, connives in the murder of cultural activists."

Safdar Hashmi's theatre group JANAM frequently put up anti-establishment plays that questioned corruption and spoke up for the rights of the working classes. On January 1, 1989, JANAM was putting up a performance of their play Halla Bol (Raise Your Voice) during the Ghaziabad municipal elections in a village in Shahibabad when the troupe was attacked. Safdar was fatally wounded and he died the next day. Just two days after his death, his wife and comrade Moloyshree Hashmi went to the same spot with the JANAM troupe and completed the performance of Halla Bol. 14 years later, 10 people, including Congress party member Mukesh Sharma, were convicted for the murder.

Shabana has been speaking out against the BJP-led government's policies and actions too in recent years too. She has also tweeted about the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the horrific attack on students and professors at JNU on Sunday evening.

Several social media users have pointed out that 30 years ago, it was possible for a top Bollywood personality to go onstage during a government event and vocally express their dissent in public - an act that many believe will not go unpunished in today's political climate. Others have also compared the guts that Bollywood stars exhibited in those days when compared to the situation now, when a faction is either actively promoting the Union government's views on all issues, or choosing to remain silent.


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