What Bollywood could learn from South Cinema

On the day when a group of alleged Karni Sena protestors attacked a school bus in Gurugram, the guest co-ordinator of my 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. It was almost as if the targeted violence against the film Padmaavat didn’t really matter enough to them since it wasn’t ‘their’ problem. Their conspicuous silence is a reflection of the times in which we live in where 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: a cabal of self-serving individuals, so trapped by fame, money and stardom, that they have little time to reflect on the world beyond. Yes, their larger than life image can make them 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 target of a vicious campaign by right wing forces. Recall also how Amitabh Bachchan’s house was attacked by MNS workers when he chose to inaugurate a girls college in UP. Or the fact that Deepika Padukone had to face death threats after she defended her role in Padmaavat.

And yet, the fact that the industry holds such sway over the hearts and minds of millions is precisely the reason why they, 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 Swach 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 with tacit political support? If stars are more than happy to act as cheerleaders for the ruling class, what stops them from showing the very same rulers the darker side of their governance?

Hindi film stars will tell you that the stakes are much too high for them to even dip their toes in the murky waters of politics. Contrast their reluctance to utter a word with the manner in which a Prakash Raj, the southern film star, has launched a no-holds-barred attack on the politics of hate and violence, be it then in defence of his slain friend Gauri Lankesh or while questioning the claims of gau-rakshaks to be protectors of Hinduism. Raj may not have the national appeal of the Khan triumvirate, but he is a multiple national award winner who has acted with great success in movies across the southern languages (Hindi film watchers will probably best remember him for his memorable role as a villain in Singham).

Raj’s diatribe against the BJP and the Modi government in particular have left him open to the criticism that he is running a political agenda with the tacit support of ‘anti-national’ left-liberal forces. You could argue and challenge his provocative remarks but to label him anti-national is typical of a polarized polity where the right to dissent is under increasing strain. Instead, Raj should be seen as part of a southern film tradition where actors have chosen to fearlessly wear their political ideology on their sleeve rather than compromise with the establishment to protect their star status.

Then, be it an NT Rama Rao in Andhra who challenged the Congress and Rajiv Gandhi at the height of their power in the 1980s with a rousing cry of ‘Telugu pride’, or an MGR who became an iconic folk hero for the Dravida movement, or more recently when a young Tamil film actor like Vishal attempted to fight the RK Nagar by-poll in Chennai as an independent candidate against the ‘corrupted’ politics of the state, there has been a willingness to confront the status quo which makes southern stars stand out. It is perhaps that same tradition which today is inspiring a Kamal Haasan to strike out into the minefield of Tamil politics, or indeed, even a Rajnikanth 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 citizen. Indeed, over the years, southern film-makers and actors have made a conscious attempt to consistently make a brand of cinema that echoes a deeper social and political belief system. In the case of an MGR, the scripts were designed to portray the actor as a folk hero who would stand up to wrong-doers,
thereby making it even easier for him to transition from celluloid to the political world. NTR too, deliberately used his screen image as a weapon of political propaganda.

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 those who have built their on screen persona by playing heroic figures who can vanquish all evil.

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 broad-chested political leaders who have remained shamefully silent in the face of brazen mob intimidation?

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