Long before Akshay Kumar, there was Kishore Kumar. The singer-actor crooned his way into the hearts of millions but his genius was not confined to his melodious voice. In 1975, soon after the Emergency was declared, Indira Gandhi’s government was keen to get Bollywood to push her 20 point programme and asked the singer to perform at a Youth Congress rally. Kishore Kumar refused. In a patently vindictive action, the then information and broadcasting minister, VC Shukla ‘ordered’ a ban on the singer across All India Radio and Doordarshan. Kumar was not alone in the film industry in standing up to the Emergency. Others like Dev Anand, Manoj Kumar and Shatrughan Sinha also refused to toe the line.
Long before the present stars of Indian cricket, there was Bishan Singh Bedi. The legendary left arm spinner tangled with authorities on more than one occasion. In 1974, he protested against the meagre allowances that were being given to the players on tour. The cricket board banned him for a test. On another occasion, he ran foul of the administrators for demanding hot water facilities for the team in peak winter. He lost his English county contract for raising his voice against the unfair use of vaseline by English fast bowler, John Lever. More recently, he protested against a statue being erected of the late BJP leader, Arun Jaitley at the Ferozeshah Kotla ground, even asking for his name to be removed from a stand named after him. All through his career, Bedi has been a rebel without a pause!
So where are the Kishore and Bedi equivalents in today’s world? Why is it that today’s film and cricketing superstars are so unwilling to stand upto any form of executive power and instead resort to obsequious chamchagiri, the latest example being the flood of near identical tweets on farm laws? Those who haven’t ever said a word on hundreds of farm suicides are suddenly expressing their concern over the kisaan protests. But by being so obviously part of a central government organized social media counterblast in response to a single tweet on farm protests by Rihanna, a popular American singer, our iconic stars have reduced themselves to copy paste propagandists, seemingly lacking a mind of their own. In a regime obsessively paranoid about image management, the hugely popular stars, living in their own Mammon-induced bubble, were pawns in a perception war, remote controlled by an all-powerful Big State, any defiance of which could lead to unforeseen consequences.
It isn’t as if this is entirely a post 2014 phenomenon. Controlling or at least co-opting popular culture icons has been a favorite pastime of political parties in power. The Nehruvian Congress for a long time enjoyed an ideological dominance in the Hindi film industry: both Nehru and Indira actively cultivated film stars from Raj Kapoor to Dilip Kumar to Nargis Dutt. From a Balraj Sahni to a Shabana Azmi, the left too had a strong presence in film and theatre for many decades. Now, as society has become more sharply polarized, the ideological cleavages are more apparent even in the world of cinema. For every Anupam Kher there is a Naseeruddin Shah, for a Kangana Ranaut there is a Taapsee Pannu, for a Madhur Bhandarkar there is an Anurag Kashyap. When the state bestows patronage on its ideological fellow travelers and ruthlessly targets its critics, the temptation to follow the leader is that much greater. The sheer brazenness with which this is now done has led to a shrinking space for those who truly value their independent views.
Fear of retribution then is a key factor in pushing our celebrities to toe the official line in a manner that reveals the hollowness of any constitutional commitment to free speech and democratic values. An autocratic state spreads its tentacles in a manner where no one is immune to its pressures. VC Shukla-like figures abound in the political system today, individuals for whom abuse of power is almost second nature. From opening up income tax files to lodging enforcement directorate FIRs, state agencies are routinely used to expose the soft underbelly of the rich and famous. The Rhea Chakraborty case last year is a classic example of how untrammeled state power can terrorise the film industry: the danger of a knock on the door from the Narcotics Control Bureau is omnipresent.
Moreover, it isn’t just the ruling political elites who are guilty of threat and intimidation: we now have self-styled vigilante groups, state sponsored social media armies and even random citizens who act as big bullies, unleashing a deadly campaign of cyber abuse and violence. The common strand that unites these forces is their strident espousal of a majoritarian nationalism that effectively criminalises even the slightest expression of dissent as anti-national. In Hollywood, stars like a Meryl Streep who speak truth to power are celebrated, in India they are censured.
Recall when a few years ago actors Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan were accused of speaking out on the rising culture of intolerance in society. The street protests against the stars were engineered by an array of groups aligned to the Hindutva ideology, all aiming to question the ‘patriotism’ of the Khans, their surname making them particularly vulnerable in a climate of rising religious bigotry. By threatening to boycott their films, coercing sponsors to withdraw their ads, the protestors were also consciously targeting the financial viability of these high value brands. The stakes involved in a mega film production are just too high for most people to take a risk. This might at least partly explain why a top producer-director like Karan Johar had to personally apologise to a political figure like Raj Thackeray for the ‘hurt sentiments’ of the Marathi manoos ahead of the release of his film Wake Up Sid.
Ironically, while most of our A lister celebrities have chosen the path of least resistance, it is those on the fringes of the fame industry who are braver and bolder. Perhaps because they feel they have less to lose, they tend to be more courageous. Take for example the growing tribe of popular stand up comedians. A Kunal Kamra has refused to bend before a Supreme Court’s contempt notice while many others carry on regardless with their plucky entertainment acts. But when a stand up comedian like a Munawar Farooqui is arrested and kept in jail for a month for an act he didn’t even perform, you ask yourself: how long before they too are reined in? As Kishore Kumar might well have sung: Yeh Kahan Aa gaye hum!
Post-script: While our film stars bend, what of our champion cricketers who are surely less dependent on government support? Well, when the key official in the cricket board is the son of the second most powerful person in the country, do we really expect our cricketers to do anything else but discuss farm laws at pre match team meetings!