Sunday, 2 April, 2023
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From Nehru to Modi, Bollywood always faced political attacks but this capitulation is new

For Nehru, Bollywood was a medium to increase India’s soft power globally, and not just a tool to boost his electoral prospects.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assiduous courting of Bollywood has begun to yield results, whether it was his effort to co-opt them into the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan beginning in 2014, or his encouragement of its newfound attempts to help in “nation-building”. If he has appropriated ‘How’s the Josh’, the famous line from this year’s biggest hit, Uri: The Surgical Strike, Bollywood has reciprocated with its filmmakers falling over themselves to register every possible nationalist title – from Pulwama to Balakot, Abhinandan to Surgical Strike 2.0 – in the aftermath of the Pulwama suicide bombing.

This may be motivated more by self-interest rather than national interest, given the incredible numbers Uri… has collected at the box office — over Rs 230 crore and counting. Bollywood’s only commitment is to itself. Over the five years of the BJP-led government at the Centre, there has been a remarkable outbreak of nationalism among the inhabitants of Bollywood, which has manifested itself in various ways.

One of Mumbai cinema’s biggest stars, Akshay Kumar aka Mr Bharat, devoted two movies to a cause dear to PM Modi’s heart: Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, about the behavioural change required to end open defecation, and Pad Man, which focuses on menstrual hygiene. Another star Kangana Ranaut, Ms Bharat, has used her star power to back the filming and release of Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, which has stirring dialogues written by the poet du jour Prasoon Joshi. Sample this: ‘Joh sab chhodkar khada hai, wahi sabse bada hai’.

Also read: Have a slew of recent Bollywood films changed the way Indians view war?

If anyone has doubts about the power of cinema to affect politics, all they have to do is remember the month Sanjay Gandhi spent in jail in 1978 after the Supreme Court held him guilty of burning the prints of Kissa Kursi Ka (1977), a movie that spoofed him and his pet project, the Maruti car. A former prime minister’s son, once the most powerful man in India, was afraid that a film would damage his public image at the height of Emergency. The film had been submitted to the Central Board of Film Certification in April 1975, which sent it to a revising committee, which, in turn, sent it to the information and broadcasting ministry that raised 51 objections.

Kissa Kursi Ka wasn’t the only movie to face the state’s wrath during the Emergency. Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975), which was loosely based on Indira Gandhi’s relationship with husband Feroze, was banned 26 weeks after its release when the Emergency was declared. It was re-released only after Indira Gandhi lost the general election in 1977.

Popular Indian cinema, and Hindi cinema in particular, has always had an integral role in the public imagination and in the conception of the nation state. But Bollywood as it is known has not always been subservient to the political party of the moment.

During the Emergency, singer-actor Kishore Kumar risked the wrath of the information and broadcasting ministry because he refused to sing for Geeton Bhari Shaam, a programme organised by the Youth Congress in support of the family planning programme. Kishore Kumar’s songs, as a result, were banned on All India Radio. Dev Anand’s films stopped being telecast on Doordarshan, and All India Radio expunged all references to his name from its programmes because he refused to speak in appreciation of Sanjay Gandhi and the Youth Congress for a programme in 1976. Anand was to later call Sanjay an “overambitious tree planter” (referencing his tree plantation programme) in Romancing with Life: An Autobiography. He would also form his own party, National Party of India, in 1979 but with little success.

But under Modi, the industry is in total capitulation mode, and it comes after open and veiled threats on several counts to several stars.

Also read: The double life of Anupam Kher: Hollywood’s favourite desi & BJP’s pin-up patriot

When Shah Rukh Khan spoke of religious intolerance taking India to the dark ages in 2015, he was accused of treason by BJP MP (and now Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister) Yogi Adityanath.

Again in 2015, when Aamir Khan mentioned a comment from his wife Kiran Rao about being afraid of living in India, not only was he criticised, including by his own colleagues, but also had to face a social media campaign that demanded he be dropped by the brands endorsing him.

As for Karan Johar, he had to not only agree to a deal brokered by Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to get the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena off his back for casting Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil in 2016, but also air a public apology reiterating his patriotism.

This constant bullying may have been by non-state actors (although this isn’t always the case as several BJP parliamentarians and senior party leaders have been at the forefront with their attacks), but with no public statements from those in power, including Modi, it seems to have the tacit approval of the state.

In his book Neta Abhineta: Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics, Rasheed Kidwai says Modi’s Bollywood project is similar to Jawaharlal Nehru’s understanding of the power of Indian cinema. Nehru, he notes, was an avid watcher of movies and “Nehruvian socialism as a theme appealed to many filmmakers, especially in the initial years after Independence”. This was despite other leaders such as C Rajagopalachari and Morarji Desai viewing it as a “dark world wallowing in sin”; CBFC being “unduly strict”; entertainment tax in certain states being as high as 150 per cent; and then Information and Broadcasting Minister BV Keskar banning film songs on All India Radio for a time.

Kidwai also mentions Nehru’s closeness to Prithviraj Kapoor, the patriarch of the Kapoor acting dynasty, and his admiration for Lata Mangeshkar. Those were the early years of recognising Indian cinema’s global influence. In her book Raj Kapoor Speaks, his daughter Ritu Nanda quotes Nehru telling Prithviraj: “What is this vagabond (Awara) that your son has made? Stalin was talking about it all the time.”

But while Nehru’s relationship with Bollywood was one of love and mutual appreciation, Prime Minister Modi’s is mixed. While there are some, such as Paresh Rawal and Anupam Kher, who are clearly fans of the prime minister, the more recent associations with Salman Khan, who turned up to fly kites with the then prime ministerial candidate in Ahmedabad in 2014, and Akshay Kumar, who routinely endorses “nationalist causes” (from Swachh Bharat to Bharat Ke Veer, which helps families of fallen soldiers), seem to have more to do with mutual convenience.

Also read: Bharat Mata Ki Jai: Not patriots, Indians now want to be patriotism police

In the long history of Bollywood politics, perhaps its finest years were when the government had two former film critics at its helm — prime minister late Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, who both wrote for Organiser. Those were the years when Bollywood veterans such as Dev Anand and Javed Akhtar were part of the historic bus ride to Lahore (1999) and when the promise of a new millennium of peace saw the making and marketing of a new kind of peaceable, Pakistan-friendly patriotism through movies such as Veer Zaara and Main Hoon Na in 2004.

And even as the fog of war descends on us, perhaps it is good to be reminded by Kidwai that when Dilip Kumar was being vilified by the Shiv Sena for having been conferred with Pakistan’s highest civilian honour, Nishan-e-Imtiaz, it was then prime minister Vajpayee who urged him to ignore Bal Thackeray and receive the award. That was 1998. How far we have regressed in 21 years!

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  1. Kaveree Bamzai appears to be very knowledgeable on the subject of Bollywood in general, and its magnetism for India’s prime ministers, including the present incumbent Narendra Modi. But she has forgotten to mention one name that I find particularly weird and sickening — Amitabh Bachchan. Ever since Mr Modi has become the prime minister, AB is all over the ad world on TVs. The corporate world seems to have sensed the PM’s liking for him, so even the product ads are smeared with this gentleman’s awkward face and gait. Not to mention umpteen ads about shauchalayas teaching us ethics of shitting. Only for a brief lull when Amitabh Bachchan’s name figured in Panama Papers, he has been on the TV screens 24X7.

      • Don’t tell me! Are you saying that Amitabh Bachchan could have become India’s President??!!

        The way I see it, despite Mr Modi’s rant of “na khaoonga na khane doonga”, the entire gang of 130 odd highbrow hooligans of India, whose name was there on the list of Panama Papers, could save their skin ONLY because AB was one of them, and AB had “Mr Clean’s” protection. If Modi government had gone ahead with any of the names, the obvious media cry would have been, “why not AB”? Pakistan went ahead with their list, and no less than an ex-PM, Nawaz Sharif is already behind bars in that country.

  2. Not sure how many Indians vote the way their stars would urge them to. The stars themselves as a worldly wise lot, sway with the breeze.

  3. Totally biased article and not to be read…… The author’s mind doesn’t reflect the mood of the people…… Even the fourth estate has failed this great country…..

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