When it is not offering emotional sustenance to this country’s millions of captive audience, or making them sing and dance, then Bollywood must be stirring big controversies. Historical sword-and-scandal spectacles more so.
Directors have often ended up with bloody noses. Film-maker Mahesh Bhatt, now known more for his speaking mind, says: “In our country, as elsewhere, creative freedom comes with a heavy price tag and the controversies are more engineered than a natural fallout.”
“This is not just because of increasing sensitivity to issues like caste and lineage because of political fragmentation, but also because of ‘tabloidisation’ of a 24X7 media,” he says. The dispute over Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodhaa Akbar, for example, would not have spread like wildfire had it not been for the hourly updates on theatres backing out, adds Bhatt.
Bollywood’s brush with controversy has been fairly episodic and film-makers have touched a raw nerve from time to time. Director Rajkumar Santoshi found his effigies being burnt after right-wingers objected to dialogues on Ramayana in Lajja, a story about three women and their struggle, with Madhuri Dikshit in the lead role.
“I think film-makers do take in account enough checks and balances and do not just ride rough shod over public sentiments for a creative high,” says Shriram Raghavan, the director of Ek Hasina Thi and more recently Johnny Gaddar. The Indian audience, he says, normally has evolved to accept a wide range of subjects. “The real controversy is not whipped up by the cynical common man but by people with vested interests,” Raghavan adds.
In Hollywood, reactions have been more in the realm of debate than quarrel. Film-maker Sudhir Mishra of Hazaron Khwaishen Aisi says a lot of Hollywood films on Vietnam, especially John Wayne type of films, and those dealing with Biblical subjects have been deeply controversial and offensive too. “300 (a Hollywood production) was offensive to all Iranians, Persians and me. The sensibility of the film offended me, not its technique. But that doesn’t mean I will pull down the screens,” he says. Historical movies are a double-edged sword and Jodhaa Akbar was a risk worth taking, says Ram Mirchandani, the vice-president of UTV Motion Pictures, the company that produced Jodhaa Akbar. Controversial Hollywood movies, though crtiticised, are not only widely viewed but these go on to garner awards.
Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ, a controversial and challenging adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1955 best-selling novel of the same name was nominated Best Director by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. The film was objected to for a non-explicit scene of Jesus procreating with his wife. The film did state in a pre-credits disclaimer: “This film is not based on the Gospels.”
The Time magazine review of Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll, a film even more scandalous than Lolita, declared: “possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited.” It went on to garner the Golden Globe award for Best Director; was nominated for four other Golden Globes, four Academy awards and one British Academy award.
Historical cinema will remain the hotbed of controversy and disagreement, because, in Bhatt’s words: “It essentially has to do with highly individualised assertion of memory on the part of the audience.”