Bollywood finds political voice in intolerance debate

November 6, 2015

The Indian film industry finds itself unexpectedly swept up in a debate over growing religious intolerance that critics say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration has failed to contain.

Bollywood has traditionally stayed away from politics and not taken a stand on hot-button topics. This time around, the film industry is at the centre of the debate.

A man walks past a graffiti-painted wall of a toilet at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, June 26, 2015. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/Files

In October, students of the Film and Television Institute of India agreed to end a four-month strike and return to classes after the failure of negotiations with the government over its controversial appointment of a new chairman. The same day, ten film-makers returned National Awards given by the government to protest against the naming of a member of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to head the country’s premier film school.

“The students’ demand for a transparent, corruption-free process cannot be subverted and branded as leftist or anti-this or that,” Dibakar Banerjee, one of Bollywood’s best known directors, told Reuters via email.

A string of writers have already returned government awards in protest against the rising number of attacks on religious minorities in India. In recent months, a man was beaten to death amid rumours he had slaughtered a cow and another was murdered for espousing atheism, incidents that have stoked fears for India’s tradition of tolerance. Twenty-four film-makers, including Kundan Shah and Saeed Mirza, returned awards on Thursday.

This week, Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan was attacked by Yogi Adityanath, an outspoken BJP lawmaker, after Khan said intolerance was rampant in India.

“I don’t remember a time when Bollywood was this vocal, but then things aren’t what they used to be earlier either,” said columnist and author Shanta Gokhale.

Protests against the government have been countered by vociferous support for Modi, with actors such as Raveena Tandon and Anupam Kher branding those returning awards “opportunistic”.

India’s presidential palace, Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi March 29, 2014. REUTERS/Vijay Mathur/Files

Kher, whose wife is a BJP lawmaker in the northern state of Punjab, told Reuters he didn’t have any political ambitions but felt strongly about the issue.

“I don’t think the industry is divided, but yes there are certain sections which think differently from us,” he said.

On Saturday, Kher and others are expected to march to the Rashtrapati Bhavan (President’s Palace) in a bid to prove the country is not slipping into anarchy and intolerance.

Bollywood has always had a token presence on the Indian political scene, despite popular actors such as Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini being elected to parliament.

When activists of the hardline Shiv Sena party, now a junior member of Modi’s ruling collation, threatened to block the release of Shah Rukh Khan’s 2010 film “My Name is Khan“, the movie industry barely registered a protest. In the past, film-makers have apologized to the Shiv Sena, fearing attacks by its activists, rather than risk box-office failure.

People buy tickets at a counter in a multiplex movie theatre in Mumbai November 22, 2008. REUTERS/Arko Datta/Files

“When you are aiming to sell dreams, there is very little space for reality,” said Gokhale. “The industry has never been driven by the ideological motive, only the profit motive.”

Gokhale said it is unlikely that this new-found political voice would manifest itself in movies produced by the world’s largest film industry.

“They still want to dance around trees and beat up the bad guys,” she said. “Our movies aren’t going to change.”

(Editing by Tony Tharakan; Follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay and Tony @TonyTharakan. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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