In India today, there is ample potential for any statement with just the slight hint of political affiliation to divide people into two distinctive rumbustious groups. The ramblings invariably reach an abnormal level of vituperation and while one would argue that both sides are equally acerbic and unrelenting, on the face of it, at least, there is a certain sense of political inequality attached to anyone who appears to sound ‘patriotic’. The latest to experience this would be actor Kangana Ranaut.
Just a year ago Ranaut was the poster girl of the strong, independent, modern Indian woman but the moment she aired certain observations about the rampant nepotism within the Hindi film industry, which as an ‘outsider’ she not only endured but also overcame in ways that have not been seen before or since, she was no longer considered an idol. Then she made the cardinal sin of talking about the political mahaul of the country. She praised the Prime Minister’s work ethics and compared his success story with her and, to her, the two juxtaposed together spoke volumes about the India that was rising.
There is a pattern where anyone talking politics in India is readily labelled. Pundits were quick to brand Ranaut as right wing. For them, her next film, Manikarnika that features her as Rani Jhansi and, the presence of Prasoon Joshi as the film’s lyricist was enough to believe that the actor was going all out to appease the ‘right wing’. The fact that Joshi is an accomplished writer-poet pales in comparison to him being the incumbent Censor Board chairman, which, needless to say, is also considered a ‘political appointment’.
During the height of the Emergency imposed by the then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi, a film called Maha Chor (1976) had a scene where the leading man, Rajesh Khanna, a petty thief with a heart of gold, is chastising a young boy for trying to be like him and as he sings peans to the sarkar of the day there is a graffiti behind them that simply states ‘Vote for Congress’.
No one called Rajesh Khanna a Congress loyalist just like no one felt actor-director Feroz Khan was a Congress sympathiser or not-one-to-hail-the-Opposition even though his magnum opus Qurbani (1980) begins with a short film eulogising Sanjay Gandhi that is narrated by Khan himself as he dedicates his film to the memory of the ‘Prince’ and Khan bows in reverence to the ‘Mother’.
When it comes to Hindi films, the tradition has been that any bête noire of the right is immediately lapped up in the name of freedom of expression but should a person be irrationally hated just because a bunch of important opinion-makers refuse to see the ‘other side’ of the argument? There is nothing wrong in blind hatred, after all, it only reveals a symptom of someone who refuses to acknowledge certain failures of their own.
Despite clear actions such as a bunch of professionals asking people to vote a certain way or some stars talking about the changing face of India in the last four years when it comes to labels, much of the Hindi film industry operates on the simple principle of convenience and profit. At the end of the day, it seems that any political identity of an individual does not matter because even someone like a Javed Akhtar was banned by none other than the Film Federation of India the moment he championed an amendment of the Copyright Act, which would have helped musicians and lyricists rightfully get their share of royalties.
What good is it then to call out political affiliations of peers, write scathing indictments of the state of our society when you cannot stand with either a Javed Akhtar when it matters or a Madhur Bhandarkar, who was harassed for attempting a fictional account of Mrs Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi’s (mis)adventures during the Emergency?
Film historian and bestselling author