Reel Life: Be Kirk Douglas, not John Wayne

Hollywood’s dark phase holds a mirror up to B'wood. It’s time to shun the conspiracy of silence and plumb the moral core to be on the right side of history. Bollywood too needs to get back its voice

A still from 'Trumbo'
A still from 'Trumbo'

Namrata Joshi

The 2015 biographical film Trumbo may not figure in most people’s list of favourite ‘films about films’ but the recreation of the most turbulent phase in the life of Hollywood screenwriter, long time champion of workers’ rights and a member of the Communist Party USA, Dalton Trumbo, is both portentous and cautionary for the Indian film fraternity. It holds a mirror up to Bollywood while it is going through one of its lowest phases in history.

At the very end of the film, while receiving the Writers Guild of America Laurel Award, Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston) recalls the dark, fearful time in late 40s, when a witch-hunt was started against artistes—like him—with communist allegiance. At that time most of the colleagues either remained silent or snitched and two-timed them.

The refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee led to a one-year jail sentence for ten from Hollywood, including Trumbo. The troubles didn’t end at that. Those on the blacklist continued to be unfairly targeted once they came out of prison. Denied jobs, many ended up facing bankruptcy and destitution and death in penury.

In his speech Trumbo doesn’t look back in anger. He refuses to search for heroes and villains in the sordid tale. In fact, he sees a tragic solidarity in the then polarised Hollywood: “We were all victims because we were compelled to say or do things we otherwise would not have... We delivered or received wounds which we truly didn’t wish to exchange.”

This, despite witnessing betrayal from within. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) variously refers to him and the others as one of the “dangerous radicals”, “registered communists”, “traitors”, “community controlling airwaves and movie screens” that “needs to be identified as enemies”. More treachery followed from filmmaker Sam Wood, the Motion Picture Alliance, actors Ronald Reagan and Edward G. Robinson who initially sold off a Vincent Van Gogh painting to fund their legal defence, only to abandon them later.

There was a rare actor like Lucille Ball who came out in support and spoke about the right to speak and be heard. All civil liberties go hand in hand, she says. If one goes, the other gets weakened.

The film’s portrayal of the complicity and duplicity in Hollywood makes one square up to the deep fissures that have emerged in the last few years within Bollywood. And specifically at the deafening silence on the arrest of superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s son Aryan Khan in an alleged drugs case which, over time, appears to be riddled with more messy twists and turns and gaping plot holes than a bad film script.

It’s again for the brave young guns to step in where the seniors have steadily refused to tread. “Qabeele mein jab zyaadatar buzdil aur khud-parast hon, to sardaar ke ghaayal hone par khaamoshi ka tamaasha hi hota hai, yalghaar nahin (If the majority of people in a clan are cowardly and selfish, then when their own leader gets afflicted, it is followed by a spectacle of silence than a reprisal),” wrote writer-lyricist-poet Hussain Haidry.

Jashn mein to ajnabi bhi shaamil hona chaahte hain. Shok mein jo shaamil nah ho, wo apna nahin (Even strangers want to be part of a celebration; the one who doesn’t share in mourning, can never be one’s own),” tweeted writer-lyricist-poet Puneet Sharma.

Reel Life: Be Kirk Douglas, not John Wayne
Asim Khan

At one level it’s tough to imagine and a tad brutal to assume that people would not be affected at all with the arrest of their friends’ or proxy family’s child, someone they would have been godfather/godmother to. It’s as personal as it can get, hits close home.

I even read the urgency to get the show going, the noise around the upcoming Diwali biggies as a poignant sign of desperation. To somehow pump up the economic oxygen in the post Covid downturn, more so at a time when the political, religious, social and moral forces are already intent on choking Bollywood.

This chakravyuh, unfortunately, has been of Bollywood’s own making. Its roots lie in the industry’s inability, in the last couple of decades or more, to see itself as part of a larger social spectrum, as a stakeholder in the issues that face the nation, a participant in the vital debates and discussions of the day. It has wilfully boxed itself in the limited role of an entertainer for the masses and hasn’t aspired to be more than a business that must keep logging profits.

And so, this need to go to any lengths to please the powers that be, little realising that the protectionism and extortion are eventually two sides of the same coin and that in the alacrity to arm yourself, you could actually be rendering yourself more vulnerable. To use an exchange in Trumbo, entirely out of context, Bollywood has understood “bad box office” more than “bad politics” which is “bad news”.

In all this mess, the obsequious superstars and the various toothless associations have been more a liability than an asset and the moralistic, hypocritical, middle class that Bollywood has patronised as its audience has been out to righteously vilify it even while being an avid voyeuristic consumer of all the muck thrown around it since the last one year.

Aryan Khan in NCB custody
Aryan Khan in NCB custody

Like media, Hindi cinema has emerged as nothing more than the cog in the wheel, two sides of the same strategy: control the messenger, turn them propagandists, be they the purveyors of news or of fantasies. As Trumbo itself asserts, “movies are the most powerful influence ever created”.

There is a scene in Trumbo in which actor John Wayne talks about “liking Hollywood” but “loving America”, the kind of jingoism that has been getting nourished by the leaders of Bollywood as well. Then there’s the split between those who think that the Congress has no right to investigate how people vote, pray or make movies and the other half that thinks it has the right to go after everything it thinks is a threat.

I saw something similar transpire six years back at the opening of the Jio Mami Mumbai Film Festival at the Gateway of India. Filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee had returned the national award in solidarity with the protesting FTII students. A couple of industry biggies were running him down for it, opining that he was going to an extreme and being needlessly confrontational.

Banerjee has said time and again since then that by letting the students down at that vital moment, Bollywood along with the Indian parents and the middle class had opened the floodgates to the vitiation and bigotry in full display now.

Courage is contagious, reads a placard in one of the protest scenes in Trumbo. It has long been time for Bollywood to become brave, shun the conspiracy of silence and plumb its moral core. Yes, it’s a lonely battle in which there will be losses and pain than any major gain.

But entirely worth it to be on the right side of history. Trumbo had the highest paid writing job. But he didn’t care for it. Instead, he came out and boldly spoke against “indictment of opinion” and “criminalisation of thought”. “This is the beginning of American concentration camp,” he warned.

And it’s not as though the Bollywood glitterati can’t do it. “The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus. But the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan,” says Trumbo. His convictions carried him through as he went about cleverly subverting the very system that was out to destroy him. He ran a successful enterprise, along with family and friends, of churning out bad scripts for B Films of King Brothers Productions, all under a pseudonym.

Alongside he also wrote Roman Holiday (credited to his friend Ian McLellan Hunter) and The Brave One anonymously, even bagging the Oscar “that small, worthless golden statue, covered with the blood of my friends”, without being able to receive it personally or on his own name.

The support from the likes of actor Kirk Douglas who defied the blacklist and made him write Spartacus and gave him credit for it and filmmaker Otto Preminger who had him adapt Leon Uris’ Exodus helped him become more than a “ghost writer”.

Douglas later said in an interview: “I was threatened that using a blacklisted writer for Spartacus – my friend Dalton Trumbo – would mark me as a "commie-lover" and end my career. There are times when one has to stand up for principles.”

After the Writer’s Guild award ceremony, Trumbo’s wife Cleo (Diane Lane) says with relief: “It’s over, isn’t it? And we made it.” Trumbo eventually also made it to his rightful Oscar for Roman Holiday with Cleo receiving it posthumously on his behalf in 1993.

“We have our names back again,” Trumbo said triumphantly in an interview. And that made it all worth it. Bollywood too needs to get back something it has lost for long: the voice, individual as well as collective.

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