India’s pluralism has been based on the agreements and disagreements of its various cultures. Attempts to stitch it into a homogenous whole have always led to strife. 2015, unfortunately, has been dominated by forces that have attempted to artificially homogenise or crush voices that protested this in various spheres. Writers silenced, a rationalist killed, historians dropped from history panels, political appointments in institutions leading to student strikes. It could have been business as usual. But it wasn’t.
In 2015, the idea of India was fought for on culture’s turf. A slew of writers, actors, directors and scientists spoke out against the spirit of intolerance and fought back with a weapon crafted this year — award wapsi, the returning of government awards to mark their protest. Showbiz’s biggest names spoke out against intolerance; the opposite camp defended its non-existence.
2015 was also the year of individual artistic milestones. A grand costume drama made in Tamil and Telugu and dubbed in Hindi achieved phenomenal commercial success in the Bollywood market. A film on caste, love, morality, gender and sex, Masaan, won two big awards at the Cannes. The television industry got a new system of ratings. The results reveal that family serials remain top-rated shows. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Shah Rukh Khan
The first Bollywood superstar to speak out against the growing intolerance in the country. “Not being secular in this country is the worst kind of crime you can do as a patriot,” he said. In an industry known for its diplomatic silence on matters political, such views made him a target for hate comments. BJP MP Yogi Adityanath compared him to Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Sayed, while Hindutva proponent Sadhvi Prachi called him a “Pakistani agent.” Rightwing groups tried to stop the screening of his new film, Dilwale, in some Mahararashtra and MP theatres.
The first Indian actress to get a lead role in an American TV show — ABC’s Quantico which premiered in September this year. She plays a half-American half-Indian FBI recruit Alex Parrish, who is falsely accused of a terrorist crime. Definite that she didn’t want to do the stereotyped-Indian side-role, Priyanka said in a recent interview to Hindustan Times: “I’d like to do roles that transcend race, turn the world colour blind!”
The actor led a ‘March for India’ rally organised by the RSS’s cultural wing Sanskar Bharati against artistes who had protested growing intolerance by returning their awards. He was joined by director Madhur Bhandarkar, actor and BJP MP Paresh Rawal, playback singer Abhijeet, among others. Historians, journalists, film personalities, writers were all targeted. “Presstitutes suck up to Europeans, Presstitutes go to hell” went one slogan. “The day Shah Rukh Khan’s movie is released, free tickets are distributed to Muslims,” said actor Raja Bundela. Kher claimed the protestors who had returned their awards were trying to “defame” the country. His march brought out the division in the film industry between the people protesting intolerance and the other side insisting there was none.
The other big star to join the chorus against intolerance. He said he’d felt a sense of growing disquiet, despondency and alarm. He revealed that his wife Kiran had even asked if they should leave the country, which he pointed out, was a “disastrous” thing to say. Aamir was trolled on social media, asked to “go to Pakistan,” and told that he was tarnishing India’s image.
Salman Khan stayed in the news for delivering one of 2015’s biggest blockbusters Bajrangi Bhaijaan. It collected over Rs 100 crore in the opening weekend itself. He also hit the headlines in December for being acquitted by the Bombay high court in a 2002 hit-and-run case. The verdict got mixed reactions; while some “celebrated” his acquittal, others lamented that justice had been denied.
One of the few front-ranking writers of contemporary Hindi fiction to enjoy a multi-lingual readership, Uday Prakash was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novella Mohandas in 2010. In 2015, Prakash was the first writer to return his Sahitya Akademi award to protest the official silence over the murder of Kannada writer MM Kalburgi. His gesture triggered a wave among Indian artists to mark their protest by returning government awards and led to heated debates on social media and in artist circles.
Grand historical narratives are built by the exacting labour of microscopic research and evidence, and then put up for critical examination. A renowned historian of ancient India, Romila Thapar has been unflinching in her conviction that this has to be a historian’s ‘method’. She is on top of the Hindutva brigade’s blacklist for repeatedly calling their historiography into question. She was dropped from the advisory panel of the Indian Historical Review.
The TV series Mahabharata brought actor Gajendra Chauhan oodles of public attention in the 80s. As the elder Pandava Yudhishthir, he could do no wrong. In the next decade, he rarely set a foot right, appearing in B-grade Bollywood films such as Jungle Love and Khuli Khidki. His appointment as the chairperson of India’s premier film institute FTII led to a 139-day student strike. Chauhan’s appointment raised fresh questions about the Centre’s attempts to take over institutions. of culture.
The minister of state for culture has made his ministry a talking point by being liberal with controversial statements. Some of his gems — “I respect Bible and Quran but they are not central to the soul of India as Gita and Ramayana are”, “We have renamed the road after someone (Kalam) who was a humanitarian and a nationalist even though he was a Muslim.”
Appointed the censor board chief within 10 days after artist Leela Samson quit over issues of interference, Nihalani’s tenure, so far, is memorable for its periodic ‘guidelines’ of what is considered out of joint with Indian culture. Making the list are 13 cuss words in English, 15 in Hindi, muting of the word ‘lesbian’ (as in Dum Laga Ke Haisha) and the banning of 50 Shades of Grey in India. The most recent victim: the new Bond film, Spectre, whose snip of the kissing scenes he passed without watching the film. There are insider grumbles as well. Even fellow members of the Central Board of Film Certification have charged him of running it as his “personal fiefdom”.
Ghulam Ali controversy
In October, the Shiv Sena threatened to disrupt a Ghulam Ali concert in Mumbai, saying they were opposed to any kind of cultural ties with Pakistan, reviving an old battle against visiting Pakistani artistes. A disheartened Ali cancelled his concerts in India. There are Pakistani singers and actors (such as the popular Fawad Khan) already working in India, but they could face hurdles in case the Shiv Sena decides to target them as well.
Notices to English entertainment channels
In the latest example of TV censorship, English entertainment channel Star World was issued a notice by the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council for showing “obscene and vulgar” content. The scene in question was from the American show, Grey’s Anatomy, and had showed a lesbian doctor talking to a male colleague about her failure to stimulate her partner sexually. Last year, Comedy Central was pulled up for Stand up Club and Popcorn. Apparently, the content appeared to “deprave, corrupt and injure the public morality and morals.”
Under Pahlaj Nihalani’s stewardship, the Censor Board came under fire for several inexplicable cuts, such as the decision to cut short a kiss between Daniel Craig and Monica Belluci in Spectre or the 16 cuts it ordered in Angry Indian Goddesses (despite the film being given an A certificate). He also came in the eye of a storm for making a six-minute film on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s achievements.
An unusual phenomenon hit the box office in July. Bahubali, a grand costume-revenge action drama directed by S Rajamouli (marketed as India’s most expensive motion picture) was made in Tamil and Telugu. Then it was dubbed in Hindi and released across Hindi-speaking markets. The gamble paid off — and how. The film easily sailed past the Rs 100 crore figure. This was probably the first time that a south Indian film dubbed into Hindi did such phenomenal business. The success of the movie could pave the way for similar projects in the future.
But will the web take over TV?
The lack of viewing options for modern urban viewers interested in homegrown content (they are not the target for saas-bahu serials) has resulted in web series which really came into their own this year. A big studio like Yashraj, entered the fray with two web shows (10 million views and counting). The real trend-setters though were smaller, edgier, independent young production houses such as Viral Fever, which brought fresh, new stories to the web. Several big companies are now preparing to launch their versions of webseries.
Proliferation of book festivals
There are at least 80 book festivals now in India. In 2015, some months had three. But the connection betwen quality book-reading and such jamborees is still unclear. Festivals have become more about writer-spotting and the eagernesss to be seen as a book-lover. A spin-off of such fests are literary spats. What writer Aatish Taseer said to William Dalrymple who was trying to invite Taseer to the 2016 Jaipur litfest, makes it to the top of our spat-list: “Say nice things about my book if you want me to come…”
India’s growing art footprints
Indians were selected to curate or participate in big-ticket art events globally. Photographer Pablo Bartholomew curated a Burma show; Subodh Gupta debuted in Hauser and Wirth, New York; architects Prasad Shetty and Ruchira Gupta debuted at Venice Biennale, the RAQs collective exhibited their photo-constellations in Holland. A major shocker for the art-world was the gruesome murder of artist Hema Upadhyay and her lawyer; her artist-husband Chintan has been arrested on the basis of new evidence.
The Shivaji issue
The Maratha icon was in the news when a PIL stopped the highest award of the Maharashtra govt, the Maharashtra Bhushan, from going to writer and historian Babasaheb Purandare . In Purandare’s books, Shivaji is presented as pro-Brahmin and anti-Muslim. Purandare’s critics say he has distorted Shivaji’s parentage as well.
The Rushdie book
Two Years eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights, Salman Rushdie’s much-awaited 12th novel got mixed press. Critics pointed out that Rushdie’s cast of exotic characters evokes déjà vu – Rushdie has written about such figures in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The book turned out to be a case of too many expectations and fulfilling some. Some end-of-the-year good news for the writer is that P Chidambaram, the minister of state for home in the Rajiv Gandhi government that banned Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, has now said that the ban was ‘wrong.’
‘Saffronisation’ of institutes
The appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as FTII chairman; ICHR chief Sudershan Rao recommending three historians of Sangh Parivar’s history wing to its top panel; three prominent Marxist historians dropped from the NCERT board ; Surya Namaskar made compulsory in 48,000 Rajasthan schools; observance of Christmas as Good Governance day in central educational institutions — institutes of higher learning with a legacy of plurality of expression and questioning appeared to get a saffron makeover this year.
Masaan wins two big awards at Cannes
Director Neeraj Ghaywan’s debut film Masaan won two awards at the 68th Cannes Film Festival this year, making it the best year for India since 1988 when Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay won two major awards. Masaan revolves around issues of caste, love, morality, gender and sex. It got the FIPRESCI (International Federation Of Film Critics) award and a Prix de l’Avenir (a special jury prize for promising debut films), the latter shared with Iranian film Nahid. Ghaywan thanked his mentor, film director Anurag Kashyap, who he had assisted in the latter’s epic film, Gangs of Wasseypur.
The MSG row
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, head of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, wrote, directed and acted in MSG — The Messenger of God (and its sequel MSG2). His devoted followers thronged to theatres, but critics said the films were “excruciating”. There were widespread protests against the film by Sikh groups who alleged that it glorified the man who had several criminal cases against him. The Punjab government banned the film.
AIB Roast under fire
Early this year, comedy group AIB put out a YouTube link to its show AIB Knockout held in Mumbai in late 2014, where Karan Johar was the Roastmaster and Bollywood stars Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh were the ones being “roasted.” The no-holds-barred language and ribald, edgy jokes created a huge controversy and AIB had to take the link off the Net. FIRs were filed with the Mumbai police against the organisers as well as the participants. AIB also had to apologise to some Christian groups for offending their sensibilities.
The shocking flop: Bombay Velvet
Anurag Kashyap, the poster boy of the indie film movement, finally made a big-budget, big star cast, period film this year. But Bombay Velvet crashed at the box office, sending shock waves in the film industry. The director was ferociously trolled on social media; last month he admitted he had indeed messed up and made a “Rs 90 crore art film.”
New system of TV ratings
A new system of TV ratings was introduced — BARC India, an industry body supported by broadcasters, media agencies and advertisers. It was granted registration for operating as a television rating agency by the I&B ministry. BARC replaces TAM, the research agency which used to do TV ratings till now. The results however are not significantly different. Hindi serials like Saathiya continue to be among the top-rated shows. In October, BARC introduced rural data to determine what rural India is watching.
It’s 10 years of Dastangoi this year. First performed in its modern avatar on May 2005 at IIC, Delhi, the people behind it were Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, one of Urdu’s well-known theorists, his nephew and writer-director Mahmood Farooqui (currently facing a rape allegation), Anusha Rizvi, his wife and director, and Danish Husain, the Delhi artiste who was Farooqui’s most frequent partner on stage. A marriage between poetry and performance, the dastaans, mainly about the adventures of Amir Hamza, believed to be an uncle of the Prophet, also incorporated stories from Partition and the life of Manto.
A culture war broke out between Odias and Bengalis on Twitter over the ownership of one of India’s favourite sweetmeats this year. Odias believe Rosogolla was served as prasad in the Jagannath temple before it reached Bengal. Their story of ‘tradition’ takes off from Lord Jagannath bringing the sweet for his wife Goddess Bimala. Bengali literature, however, points to famous confectioner Nabin Chandra Das, who is said to have ‘discovered’ the “culinary game changer”. This battle is not over yet.
Silencing of ideas
Attack on Communist politician Govind Pansare , rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, writer MM Kalburgi; attack by groups on Tamil writer Perumal Murugan making him give up writing; Malayalam critic MM Basheer forced to stop his Ramayana column, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad stopping the screening of documentary ‘Muzzaffarnagar Abhi Baki Hai’ at Delhi University, Tamil folk song artist Kovan arrested on charges of sedition, IIT Madras shutting down Ambedkar-Periyar study group – 2015 was the year when ideas outside the mainstream socio-political narrative were brutally put down.
39 writers returned their Sahitya Akademi awards, filmmakers Saeed Mirza, Kundan Shah, Dibakar Banerjee and Anand Patwardhan returned their National Awards, scientist PM Bhargava returned a Padma Award after 107 senior scientists signed an online protest petition. Acts of intolerance gave birth to a ‘movement’ of award-returning. The government silence on the murder of writers gave ballast to award wapsi — two words that entered India’s cultural and protest lexicon in 2015.
Did Aurangzeb, who destroyed several Hindu temples, do it mainly to target his political opponents? Was Tipu Sultan an anti-imperial hero or an Islamic fanatic? In 2015, one of these two historical icons was wiped off a city —APJ Abdul Kalam replaced Aurangzeb as the name of a road in Delhi — while the other set a state, Karnataka, aflame. The renaming of Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road and Karnataka’s celebration of Tipu Jayanti fuelled furious debates about how India should look back — to its history and its historical figures — and whether attempts at re-writing history were really about settling scores.
A MIXED BAG
Though big films will rule, 2016 will also see a slew of sports movies, biopics and indie productions. TV channels will continue to cater to the lowest common denominator, so there is to be no respite from saas-bahu soaps.
Watch out for: There’s a Khan-fest for fans. In Raees, set in Gujarat, Shah Rukh Khan plays a bootlegger. He will also be seen in Fan, a film about a diehard fan of Shah Rukh Khan. Aamir Khan will be seen in Dangal where he plays a Haryanvi wrestler. Salman Khan will also star in a film about a wrestler, Sultan. Karan Johar returns to direction (he made Student of the Year in 2012), with Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, starring Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma.
Popular and high culture spreads its wings in 2016. The Jaipur Litfest, the Indian literary world’s most high-profile outing, now goes to the USA. 2016 will see Indian artists showcased in international museums.
Watch out for: A year where a range of Indian artists will get a chance to shape global artistic discourse. The RAQs collective will be curating the Shanghai Biennale. The Dhaka art summit 2016 includes commissions by artists Dayanita Singh and Amar Kanwar. International museums like Tate Modern, UK, will be showcasing Indian artists. The first phase of restoration of Qutub Shahi Tombs by the Aga Khan Trust for culture is also slated for completion.