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Why do Bollywood’s most powerful icons choose silence?

It is a fact that some of the most powerful among the stars are excessively deferential to those in power

mumbai Updated: Jan 30, 2019 23:20 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Bollywood,Naseeruddin Shah
Actor Naseeruddin Shah was slammed for voicing his opinion about personal safety in the country.(HT Photo)

What does it take to stand up for anyone, anything? Ask 91-year-old Nayantara Sahgal, writer and Sahitya Akademi awardee who travelled all the way from Dehradun to Mumbai this week to speak a few home truths about why one should not be silent in “dangerous times” because the regime, the oppressors who want to snatch away freedoms and multi-culturalism, will come upon us.

Ask the 80-year-old scholar and social activist Pushpa Bhave, who took the stage after Sahgal at the iconic Shivaji Mandir, in her wheel-chair, to emphasise that freedoms must be guarded. Ask Jayant Pawar, playwright and writer, who braved his ailment and had his speech read out by playwright Atul Pethe, asking us to see where the intolerant fiend resides – in our homes and workplaces, among family and friends, among those in the audience, in the adjacent seat, or within us.

At the event ‘Come, Let’s Unite’ woven together by a coalition of Marathi writers, actors, and journalists to honour Sahgal after the ignominy earlier this month – when organisers of the Marathi Sahitya Sammelan withdrew their invitation to her to be their chief guest – the question was ever present, in different ways and differing registers.

So what does it take to stand up for anyone or anything? Star power, financial immunity, political might? Or values of liberty, justice, social harmony, compassion, courage, commitment to Constitutional ideals? Perhaps courage overrides others.

Sahgal was particularly scathing of the Hindi film industry, which despite being in Mumbai, did not stand up for one of its own recently. It was unfortunate that no one from the star-spangled industry supported actor Naseeruddin Shah or even his right to an opinion, she said; Shah was trolled and termed a “traitor” for expressing his “anxiety” for his children in today’s India. This was the same industry, Sahgal said, which had the spine to challenge censorship of even a word, in creative ways. At one point during the British regime, the word “azadi” was banned from being used on celluloid, but writers and actors had the courage to bring the word into dialogues and song lyrics, she recalled.

Who can forget how renowned film personalities had stood up to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting or Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency? The celebrated cases were about singer Kishore Kumar and actor-filmmaker Manoj Kumar. The singer refused to popularise Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 20-point programme; his songs were banned on All India Radio and Doordarshan, sales of his gramophone records were frozen. Manoj Kumar, whose film ‘Dus Numbri’ was banned, pursued a court case spending lakhs of rupees and sleepless nights. The iconic Satyajit Ray criticised the Emergency, Mrinal Sen opposed it despite his party’s support for it, and Dev Anand even launched the National Party to oppose it but wound it up because he received no support from his fraternity.

We are now in an era when A-list film stars and powerful producers think nothing of endorsing politicians and delight in taking selfies – or backfies – with the PM, unmindful or uncaring of the “undeclared Emergency” as social commentators term it. Aamir Khan spoke up, suffered, then made peace and bowed to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. Akshay Kumar has made sure that he is on the right side of the regime, come what may. Salman Khan was at the swearing-in of this government.

It is, of course, not obligatory for film or cricket stars or industry leaders to be political but it is a fact that some of the most powerful among them are excessively deferential to those in power, unwilling to speak up against some practices, reluctant to bat for freedom of speech and expression which is at the root of all creative pursuits. They may differ but they do so in private. Sure there’s Swara Bhaskar, vocal and unafraid. Why haven’t other powerful names found their voices? They perhaps fear reprisals or simply lack courage.

When Sahgal can travel from Dehradun to remind us that it is essential to stand up and speak up for harmony and inclusiveness, it ought to mortify younger, iconic figures of Bollywood living in Mumbai. Chances are it did not. As Amol Palekar, once of Bollywood, said at the event, censorship of ideas and words should concern us all.

First Published: Jan 30, 2019 23:20 IST