On 6 November, Bollywood actor Anupam Kher led the ‘March for India’ protest to the Rashtrapati Bhavan along with a group of writers and artistes. Alleging that the ‘Award Wapsi’ campaign was defaming the country, Kher led the march as a counter-protest. Calling it a ‘tolerance march’, Kher said, “India is a very tolerant country. Some people have coined the term ‘growing intolerance’. They are very few. Not every Indian thinks like that. We are secular people. We do not believe in pseudosecularism, selective outrage or selective patriotism.” Kher’s bandwagon included eminent public and film personalities such as writer Madhu Kishwar, filmmakers Madhur Bhandarkar and Priyadarshan, actor Raveena Tandon and singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya.
When the 139-day-long FTII strike ended, 12 filmmakers came together to express their solidarity with the protesting students. Not only did they support the dissenters, they also protested against the growing atmosphere of violence in the country. “National awards have always meant a lot to me,” wrote noted documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. “They were more precious than international awards precisely because they represented those rare moments when the government of India became willing to uphold the spirit of our secular, socialist and democratic Constitution. Today, this spirit is evaporating.”
Until recently, very few film personalities had expressed dissent with the government. The last episode of such dissent happened in April 2014 when a section of artistes had signed an open letter, just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Signed by well-known filmmakers such as Imtiaz Ali and Vishal Bhardwaj, the letter asked voters to ‘protect’ the country’s ‘secular foundation’ and called for a rejection of ‘communal hatred’. In not so many words, the set of artistes had made the clarion call to reject the politics of saffronisation.
Predictably, the letter and its cry for ‘secularism’ was dismissed by a set of personalities including Madhur Bhandarkar who joined Kher in his ‘tolerance march’. Calling the letter “unwarranted paranoia”, Bhandarkar tweeted, “Shocking to see some colleagues, under the garb of stopping divisive forces, are themselves dividing a secular place like Bollywood.” Adding that he would hope for ‘sense to prevail’, Bhandarkar called for a ‘thumping victory’ for Narendra Modi in the 2014 General Election. The letter and its critique, was forgotten until now, when a set of filmmakers proceeded to make their statement against the government.
Indian cinema has always had a strange relationship with dissent. Not only is it tough to express an opinion against any event in the country, the State has often hindered its artistes from filming anything ‘political’. In that sense, one cannot blame the artistes in India. Most of the time, the task of an actor or a filmmaker, to get their movie across to an audience, is an uphill struggle. It is also a matter of survival and one that relies on other factors including finding suitable producers and distributors. Thus, the industry survives much on networking and the adequate nods of politicians.
Yet, even in such dire circumstances, some filmmakers choose to present narratives that aren’t in sync with the State. These movies, often made on a shoestring budget without the blitz of stars, are also the ones that suffer the brunt of the State’s high-handedness. For instance, in the 1990s, under the BJP regime, censorship had given way to outright rejection of films critical of the government. In 1993, Anand Patwardhan’s Ram ke Naam, was prevented from being screened at a college in Mumbai by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the RSS. Since right-wing organisations repeatedly stopped the film’s screening, Patwardhan has officially released it on YouTube.
While Patwardhan’s film got embroiled in long legal battles, the tussle over Rakesh Sharma’s 2004 documentary, Final Solution, on the 2002 Gujarat riots, points to the present rift in the industry. From 16 October 2003 to 13 October 2004, Anupam Kher was the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). It was during Kher’s tenure that the documentary was rejected by the CBFC owing to the board’s alleged fear of it ‘inciting violence’, even when it had received international acclaim. The documentary was later cleared on 7 October, 2004 when the Congress-led UPA coalition came to power.
Even a mainstream filmmaker like Vishal Bharadwaj was forced to face similar hurdles. Under the UPA regime, for instance, when Bhardwaj’s 2014 film Haider, a fictitious story based in Kashmir, reached the CBFC, the film underwent massive cuts on account of certain ‘controversial’ scenes. One of the cuts included the censoring of a visual showing an army personnel torturing prisoners in jail. Though there has been documented evidence of custodial torture in Kashmir, the Board was ‘uncomfortable’ with the length of the scene.
If films were censored and prevented from being screened owing to their ‘political’ content, recent episodes of actors facing backlash on expressing opinions on social media is a first. When actor Farhan Akthar expressed concern over the beef lynching incident, several social media trolls pounced upon him and dragged his Muslim surname into the affair. The same has been happening on a regular basis with actor Swara Bhaskar. Quite vocal with her views on the BJP; Swara has always shared and posted political commentaries on her wall. The trolls on her page have been rabid in their criticism of the actor each time she has taken on the BJP government.
Soon after Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, Amitabh Bachchan, according to a prime witness in the anti-Sikh riots case, was seen live on TV raising his hands and shouting “khoon ka badla khoon se lenge” (blood for blood). When an actor of that stature allegedly bayed for the blood of Sikhs, no one in the film fraternity or the political class criticised him. But, in the wake of a set of filmmakers protesting democratically against the government, questions on the mode of protest have been raised. “When I gave up the award, I was expressing dissent in a democratic way,” says Dibakar Bannerjee, filmmaker. “When others criticised me for my mode of my protest for whatever reasons that they had, they were marking their protest democratically. The point to note here is that there has been no killing so far in the expression of these opinions. And that is how democracy works.”