In Mumbai, teams led and supervised by the RSS, went into societies and told men to ensure their wives and daughters do not watch any Shah Rukh Khan film in the theatres. They could, if they wanted, watch pirated versions or on TV later. I first heard this story from a Hindu industry veteran. I’ve heard different versions of the same since.
This story about the brilliant working of the ‘largest volunteer organization in the world’ cannot be verified and hence will never become news. But only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.
As the protest against the contentious CAA - Citizenship (Amendment) Act, NRC and NPR have gathered force, many celebrities have come out in support. Deepika Padukone made a political statement simply by going to JNU few days ago. A good crowd of Bollywood celebrities gathered on Carter Road on 6th January.
As more celebrities come out with direct or tacit support of students and protestors, there’s immense pressure on those who haven’t – especially the three big Khans. They have been called spineless and selfish. This smacks of abject amnesia.
While Salman Khan’s political and personal antecedents have always been dicey and we saw what Shah Rukh suffered, let’s take the case of Mr. Perfectionist who because of his immense popularity in China, is perhaps the biggest superstar in the world – Aamir Khan.
In 2006, he joined Narmada Bachao Andolan activist Medha Patkar in criticising the Gujarat government’s decision to raise the height of the Narmada dam that would displace many more tribals. He was viciously attacked.
Memory is in short supply in today’s ‘live in the moment’ age but for those who remember, the first students who took on this government and held their ground for months, were from a film school – the student of FTII - in 2015.
Aamir had come out in support of the FTII students then, and was perhaps the only A-list actor to have done so. He has also locked horns with social evils through his series Satyameva Jayate, which often covered issues that were political in nature.
Aamir found himself in the middle of a raging bushfire of controversy when just weeks after Shah Rukh’s comments in 2015, he said he and his wife worried about the rising intolerance in the nation. He was attacked again. Trolls tagged the brands he endorsed asking them to remove him. They uninstalled apps he endorsed.
In a heart-breaking interview a month after his intolerance comment
, Shah Rukh – trying to cover his dignity with his sarcastic wit – apologised. Aamir Khan – displaying a strong sense of integrity
- never has, choosing instead to face the consequences
Bollywood actors and directors are safe punching bags for the public. Besides their own little cinematic bubbles, they hardly carry any power. Yet, it is also true that their opinions are at least heard by fans, their voices having the potential to reach further than those of politicians.
But few realise the plight of a Bollywood star who has given a hit film. The attention they so vie for is in overabundance. Everyone wants something from them. Yet, if that film tanks, or they are embroiled in a faux pas – political or otherwise – people stop taking their calls. No one invites them to parties anymore. They are literally ostracised by their own community and have to engineer their way back.
Women leads are particularly vulnerable. A big female star criticised for constantly lashing out at everyone in sight, has gone through her own private hell at the hands of a yesteryears lead actor with no help from anyone. Another well-known actor I’ve worked with called a friend to ask how old did she have to say she was on her approaching birthday. She hides her real age because of the bias in the industry and amidst fans. The amount women have to spend to look good at all times, is ridiculously high. And let’s not forget the filthy abuse and threats of rape and violence they receive when they talk about anything unpopular - be it politics or the rampant sexual harassment or sexism in the industry.
Despite the glitz and glamour of the film industry, it is a lonely world. When Deepika Padukone came out about her depression a few years ago, many mocked her wondering what could be lacking in a woman as beautiful and rich as her. They forget how the talented and beautiful Jiah Khan had killed herself.
A director I am working with has framed one of his interviews which quotes him in the title: ‘I have no friends in Bollywood.’ Few outside understand how true it is.
Hence, if something goes wrong because of anything they do or speak, few have a support system that will stand in solidarity with them. It is worse if they belong to a minority community.
I personally know of films Swara Bhasker has lost because of her political views. When I told her about it she said she knew, but she just couldn’t stay silent when the nation was in such turmoil.
It is not that other stars or celebrities aren’t aware of the injustices in the country. I’ve found Aamir Khan, who critiqued one of my scripts, to be one of the most aware, articulate and passionate, yet emotionally vulnerable humans that I have ever met.
Others that I have talked to in private, are more than aware of what’s happening at any moment. What Anurag Kashyap is screaming to the world currently, most of them know for one simple reason – the Indian film industry, especially Bollywood – is one of the most secular, inclusive places in the whole world. Interfaith marriages are not an exception here, but almost a rule.
What is lacking, thus, is not empathy or courage on their side, but an inability on the side of the masses and civil society to create a safe space for them to voice their opinions honestly.
It’s not about the party in power. Very few stars spoke out on issues during the Congress regime because Congress too had their methods to take care of errant stars.
How the current regime ‘takes care’ of the stars is a case study in itself. During one of the many famous selfies with PM Narendra Modi, one star refused to post the selfie on their social media timeline. Calls went in from the PMO asking why it wasn’t up but the star made excuses. A week later after endless calls from different sources - the harassed star finally posted it.
We need to keep in mind is that cinema is not just about the stars. It is an ecosystem. For every second you see on the big screen, literally thousands of people have worked to make those 24 frames possible. The stars on screen are at the tip of an inverted pyramid that involves thousands of technicians. A slight imbalance, and not just their own, but the livelihood of those thousands could be in jeopardy.
Let us not forget the endless number of non-A-list Bollywood celebrities who have always spoken out – be it through award waapsi, the many letters and petitions they have written to the government, asking people to vote carefully through the Vote Sambhalke campaign, the Not In My Name Campaign
Hence, instead of criticising those who have not yet come out in support, protestors and civil society could do well to celebrate those who have. Because besides the usual suspects like Swara, Anurag, Varun, etc., there’s a flood of A-listers that includes Kabir Khan, Vishal Bhardwaj, Taapsee Pannu, Kartik Aaryan, Zoya Akhtar, Anubhav Sinha, Richa Chadha, Ali Fazal, Anil Kapoor, Sonam K. Ahuja etc. who have spoken out recently.
And everyone would do well to remember that it is only when we create a conducive and supportive social atmosphere not just for the masses but also for the cine stars, that they feel safe to speak their minds honestly. Helping them to speak up is as much our responsibility, as it is theirs.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications
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