The selfie and hashtag warriors of Bollywood

The Hindi film industry stands divided between‘ selfie’ and ‘non-selfie’ bands. The split has grown starker at a time when the industry is facing an unprecedented economic crisis

The selfie and hashtag warriors of Bollywood

Namrata Joshi

The film industry of Bollywood has been notorious for never taking a stand on issues of national or global, social, economic or political concern. But something stirred it and it was at one of the earliest demonstrations by students of Mumbai University that I spotted actor Sushant Singh, writers Atika Chohan, Renuka Kunzru and Ishita Moitra, filmmakers Neeraj Ghaywan, Karan Anshuman and Sudhanshu Saria, among others. Actors like Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub headed for Delhi to get a better understanding of things first-hand.

The small group grew bigger and stronger at subsequent protests at Carter Road promenade in Bandra and in August Kranti Maidan. It was a welcome change from the obsequiousness that the industry had been reduced to. It was also a moment that neatly divided Bollywood into two groups—the “selfie with the PM” group and the non-selfie gang.

The split has grown starker at a time when the industry is facing an unprecedented economic crisis. A question mark looms large over the future of creation, production, distribution and consumption of cinema. Its image as a pop-culture institution, a major contributor to the country’s economy and India’s global soft power has taken a harsh beating. Following the Sushant Singh Rajput ‘death by suicide’ case, it was systematically targeted, especially on television, with unsubstantiated smear campaigns and orchestrated media trials.

While the young Bollywood has been supportive of the farmers’ ongoing movement against the farm trade laws, with actors like Swara Bhaskar and Sushant Singh even visiting protest sites, some of the top Bollywood names—Akshay Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Suniel Shetty, Ajay Devgn, Karan Johar among others—came together to post pro-government tweets the day after international pop icon Rihanna had drawn international attention to the struggle through her tweet.

Such has been the blind faith and obedience that Akshay Kumar and badminton star Saina Nehwal ended up posting identical messages—without so much as changing a comma or a full stop—while retweeting Anurag Srivastava, the official spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs. It made many wonder whether these templated tweets were being forced on the filmmaking community.

The scene, actually, is no different from end of 2019 when the likes of Vicky Kaushal and Ayushmann Khurrana had to toe the government line and tweeted righteously about disruptiveness and violence engendered by students’ protests.

On the other hand, actor Sayani Gupta tweeted directly to the selfie gang: “On behalf of the students of Jamia & AMU request at least one of you to tweet or message Mr. Modi condemning this act of police brutality and violence against students. The time has come to speak up guys. Yes? No? May be?”

Richa Chadha, Huma Qureshi, Sudhir Mishra, Anubhav Sinha, Swara Bhaskar, Dia Mirza, Konkona Sen Sharma and Juhi Chaturvedi among others came out in support. Renuka Shahane bravely tweeted to PM Modi: “Sir, please ask people to stay away from all your IT cell Twitter handles then. They spread the most amount of rumours, falsehoods and are totally against brotherhood, peace and unity. The real “tukde-tukde” gang is your IT cell sir. Please stop them from spreading hate”.

This time around, Bollywood top brass’s willingness to do the government’s propaganda came days after the Union Budget that laid out no provision for the crippled, COVID-struck industry. There was not a single Bollywood name in the list of the Padma awardees this year.

What’s more, following the SSR case, when the industry was getting pilloried, there was barely an intervention from people the industry had been cosying up to. Then why this alacrity to fall in line in this unequal relationship? What explains their inability to distance when they are only being used? Why allow themselves to be appropriated by the use-and-throw culture of power politics?

And why this one step backward after having taken a united two steps forward in the form of a legal pushback against massive vilification in the media? Almost all leading production houses, filmmakers, stars and industry bodies such as the Producers Guild of India and Screenwriters Association had hit back with a civil defamation suit filed in the Delhi High Court, seeking to restrain Republic TV and Times Now from irresponsible and derogatory remarks about the industry.

That case, incidentally, is still pending. The Court passed an interim order in general terms saying that media should not publish defamatory statements in violation of the programme code. Navika Kumar and Times Now have filed written statements objecting to the maintainability of the case.

There’s clearly more to it than just a severe lack of spine, unlike say Hollywood stars who took on Donald Trump in the worst of times or even the film fraternity from the South—Siddharth Suryanarayan for instance—and now Diljit Dosanjh from Punjab.

Beyond the lack of sensitivity and living in a cocoon, where all that matters is a pandemic holiday in Maldives or Mauritius, there’s also the other big fact—that the industry has been facing unprecedented turbulence since 2014. Popular film personalities therefore seem to be staying in line and aligning with the powerful as an insurance policy of sorts with happy selfies and abject supplication as security blankets for life.

Recent events have heightened the pervasive fear: charges of large-scale drug abuse, accusations of embezzlement and supplying drugs against Rajput’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty, her subsequent arrest and release on bail, the summoning of top actors like Deepika Padukone (who, incidentally, went to JNU in solidarity with the students on CAA/NRC protest), Shraddha Kapoor and Sara Ali Khan, CBI, NCB and ED probes have all created panic and anxiety.

And there’s the added fear that even the minutest of unintended mistakes in the balance sheet could get blown up and held against them. An off-the-cuff statement could invite witch-hunting as one of the more outspoken of the Bollywood lot, Anurag Kashyap, found out when a sexual assault charge was filed against him. So, not many are willing to speak. There is no one to come on record. But lots can be read and understood by the silence and the shrugs or by just joining the dots of the off-the-record gossip.

From the earliest of appointments of the puritanical Pahlaj Nihalani as the censor board chief to the censorship now being extended to even the OTT platforms; from the FTII students striking against the appointment of a dictatorial Gajendra Chauhan as the chairman and a bunch of filmmakers like Dibakar Banerjee, Saeed Mirza and Kundan Shah protesting with award-wapsi in 2015 to a few Bollywood personalities with spine calling out the compromised ones from their own tribe on social media now.

A Shah Rukh Khan talked about intolerance in the country and faced the ire of the right wing, as did an Aamir Khan, Javed Akhtar and Naseeruddin Shah.

Bollywood initially reached out to the government for its own economic good. A delegation comprising leading producers like Ritesh Sidhwani, Karan Johar, Rakesh Roshan and Ronnie Screwvala, president of the Producers Guild of India Siddharth Roy Kapur, chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) Prasoon Joshi, and actor-producers Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn met the PM at Raj Bhawan in Mumbai end of 2018 and pitched for lower and uniform rates of GST for the entertainment industry. That

wish was granted in the subsequent Budget. Those were the heady days of romance when the industry was appreciated as a “soft power” with a “global reach” and filmmakers were seen as “nation builders”.

So, Bollywood reciprocated by getting the famous selfies taken, not just with the PM in Delhi but also his political buddy Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the Shalom Bollywood event. Israel suddenly became a favoured destination for future shoots irrespective of the history of India’s stand on Palestine.

In all this, BJP had understood, harnessed and exploited the power of cinema very well especially in the light of the explosion of social media. It turned the film personalities into promotional tools or quasi-spokespersons and committed allies. They helped in its image management, especially on social media--from the endorsement of the Swachh Bharat campaign to using stars to champion the #VoteKar initiative to bringing down the former PM Manmohan Singh in a film like The Accidental Prime Minister.

Having succeeded at that, cinema is now being appropriated in more brazen ways. The sleazy narrative consciously built around Bollywood during the pandemic was enough to catch the eye of voyeuristic viewers and keep their minds away from more crucial issues and helped drive the collective gaze away from religious intolerance and communal and caste-based violence.

There has also been the persistent talk about “cleansing” Bollywood. Just like the media and other cultural and historical institutions, BJP has been intent on demolishing and reconstituting the industry—using it to its own advantage and for fulfilling its own goals. So, Uttar Pradesh pitched for Noida as the film production centre of the future which was contested by the Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray saying he would not tolerate attempts to “finish off” or shift the Hindi movie industry from Mumbai.

So, we had Karan Johar seeking the Prime Minister’s guidance on Gandhi Jayanti and promising to curate “inspiring” content about “values, valour and culture” to mark the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence (see box) even as a Taandav and Family Man have to deal with the hurdles of censorship. Rajkumar Hirani made a video—Gandhi—for the same; and reportedly some of the key Bollywood personalities including the Khans were invited for a meeting with the PM end of 2019 for participating in the initiative.

There are the card-carrying members like filmmakers Vivek Agnihotri and Ashok Pandit to name just two. Then there is RSVP Movies, which is making the film Tejas with Kangana Ranaut. Maddock, Abundantia, T-Series, Balaji, a film-maker like Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the producer Mahaveer Jain are also seen as belonging to the right side of the divide.

Jain, in fact, is known to be the mediator between Bollywood and the government. Once a small-time producer and someone from within the cadre, his production house is now being talked of as the next big content generator with two films starring Jhanvi Kapoor already in the works.

So, the ongoing tussle is unlikely to end soon. It will acquire newer and more insidious dimensions and shades. What Bollywood would need to do at large is to do some soul-searching, come out of its ivory tower and start engaging with reality.

It will have to learn to stand its ground, be on the right side of an issue and not be on the ‘right’ side and end up on the wrong side of history.

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