Can Bollywood stand up and drive change?
Hindi film fraternity has gathered often for charity relief in cases of national calamities but their record in taking care of their own who have fallen on bad times is poor. That could be changed
There is more than a grain of truth in the view being aired of a concerted attempt to defame Bollywood, to paint popular stars in a poor light and to simultaneously discredit the non-BJP government in power in Maharashtra. The shocking revelations following the arrest of Aryan, the son of Shah Rukh ‘Badshah’ Khan, leave little doubt that there is a lot wrong with the working of the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) under its current head in Mumbai, Sameer Wankhede.
He hopefully will be removed soon but the way one officer can twist and concoct a story as alleged is a concern that should not go away in a hurry. The allegation from an independent source that he was approached to tamper with the WhatsApp data of Aryan Khan is a measure of the totality of the collapse of the investigative machinery, and further lends credence to allegations that the entire game was to defame and extort money from the richest and the best-known star of Bollywood.
This is classic banana republic stuff, happenings that are more seen in ill-governed lands ruled by gang lords or chieftains, not indicative of a constitutional set-up at work in the financial capital of India. The rot runs deep at two levels – the political level by stoking communal divides and then the exploitation of these divides by racketeer bureaucrats, with or without blessings from above, and sometimes to help fast track bureaucratic careers.
BJP functionaries like Kirit Somaiya who met with the family members of the discredited officer do no favour to the BJP and only lend credence to the argument that the party and the Centre have a hand in this dirty game. It is now incumbent upon the political leadership in its own interest if nothing else to put a stop to this. The government must hold the officer to account if the entire central machinery is not to be brought into disrepute.
Bollywood in general has faced the music from the NCB for more than a year now, dating back to the suicide last year of Sushant Singh Rajput, with Central agencies muddling in local area police matters that they should best keep away from. In all this, it is the film stars who have come out well, showing dignity and stature amid the trauma brought on by NCB and other action.
How should Bollywood react?
The industry’s reach and influence surpass all other media. So far, Bollywood is more noted for the stereotypical depiction of the good policeman fighting the bad politician. Violence in uniform is glorified and sanctified, broadly speaking. It is often the role reserved for a filmi hero. The dynamic of the elected leader is not much understood.
In contrast, Bollywood now has first-hand experience of an allegedly bad officer versus a politician in Nawab Malik who has patiently exposed some of the wrongdoings while stressing all along that he is concerned about justice for some 100 other undertrials who have been victims of an overzealous NCB. Param Bir Singh is another example of a disgraced cop, ousted from the position of Mumbai police commissioner, no less, now reported in hiding.
These stories are as much the truth as is the case of the bad politician. But to overtell one side builds the notion among common folk that only policeman and sundry bureaucrats are do-gooders, leading to a warped sense of how different arms of the establishment work, the restraints with which investigative agencies must operate and a poor appreciation of the constitutional framework that is the only safeguard against excesses.
Bollywood in general and Shah Rukh Khan in particular will serve the nation rather well if they take it upon themselves to support movie making that is more nuanced, and are supportive of the rights of all those who are victims of establishment overreach. He can pick up the fight for the cause of those who continue to languish in jail because they did not have the legal firepower that Aryan benefitted from.
Yet, many from the Hindi film world may not have that stuff in them. They have gathered often for charity relief in cases of national calamities but their record in taking care of their own who have fallen on bad times is poor. That, too, can change if there is a sense of the political coupled with public service that mainline Bollywood can begin to embrace.
Some attempts have been laudatory but it’s mostly the reinforcing of dominant, oft-repeated and slanted narratives. To change will demand rising to a higher cause, with sterling examples like the late real-life and on-screen heroes like Balraj Sahni and Sunil Dutt, both of whom spoke up and took positions. It will mean Bollywood stars learning to speak a new language, engaging in new spaces and finding ideas for a new wave of films that are in service of democracy, diversity, plurality and the rights of the underprivileged – everything that is under attack today in India. What force such a Bollywood can mean and what strength can it lend for a national cause!
Shah Rukh Khan once said: “First get rich, then become a philosopher.” It’s now time for him to look up to Balraj Sahni, who told a JNU convocation in 1972: “Whenever I lost courage, my life became a meaningless burden.”
(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)