On October 28, 12 Indian filmmakers announced their decision to return their National Awards. At first glance, it looked like they were joining the writers who had earlier returned their Sahitya Akademi awards as a mark of protest against “rising intolerance” in the country. But one factor set this particular incident apart — it was the first instance where the otherwise apolitical film industry had decided to take a political stand. And those voicing their opinion publicly weren’t documentary filmmakers alone, but also included names from the mainstream, such as Dibakar Banerjee.
“Most of us have allowed our work to speak for us all these years,” says veteran filmmaker Saeed Mirza, who was among the second batch of film professionals who returned their awards. “But it is an artist’s responsibility to react if he or she sees gross exploitation of citizens’ rights. With various incidents in the recent past, such as the murders of activists and the lynching over beef in Dadri, it was time to do more than just speak about it through our work,” he adds.
In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, citizens’ awareness and interest in politics increased manifold. Social media gave their opinions a platform. But there have been traces of increasing unrest within the industry regarding the country’s governance since that time. Take, for instance, the letter drafted, signed and circulated by prominent members of the industry, such as directors Imtiaz Ali and Zoya Akhtar, where they appealed to people to vote for a “secular government” in the Lok Sabha elections last year. The letter, viewed by several as an attempt to weaken the wide support BJP enjoyed then, saw Mahesh Bhatt clash with his brother and partner Mukesh Bhatt, who was an ardent supporter of the party and also was of the opinion that the film industry should remain neutral on political matters.
However, the industry became much more vocal this year. One of the first incidents that made the mainstream react was the protest and eventual legal action against the live stand-up show, AIB Roast. Featuring Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor, alongside the comic group AIB, it brought the government both ire and support from the film industry. “It was, in a way, the first instance of clampdown on freedom of speech since the ‘obscene’ show was a private, ticketed event,” explains Bhatt, whose daughter, actress Alia Bhatt, was also named in the FIR alongside Deepika Padukone for merely laughing at the humour in the insult comedy.
But the Roast was perhaps only an indication of the things to come. The appointment of Pahlaj Nihalani as the chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and of Gajendra Chauhan as the head of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, further divided the industry.
One of the first protests by FTII students in Mumbai, against the appointment of Chauhan and four other panel members, had film personalities such as Kiran Rao, Rajat Kapoor and Onir leading the silent march to Carter Road holding placards. This, over the next few months, was followed by several similar instances where stars and industry folk, including Ranbir Kapoor, expressed solidarity with the FTII students as they went on strike, protested and even fasted. It eventually concluded with a bunch of Indian filmmakers, tired of government apathy towards the students and religious minorities, returning their awards.
“It has become imperative that we see the government’s stonewalling of students’ protest in a context. The Information & Broadcasting Ministry has appointed people with a narrow vision in the institutions under them. FTII, Children’s Film Society and CBFC are examples that the film fraternity has objected to. Meanwhile, we have watched the murders of rationalists and writers such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi with dismay. These are clearly not random acts of violence. People are being murdered for their beliefs and opinions.
There seems to be no attempt to unravel the larger picture and bring to book extremist groups that believe in ruthless violence to eliminate those who hold a counterview from theirs. There has been no official condemnation of these groups and we question this silence,” reads an excerpt from the letter by filmmakers such as Banerjee and Anand Patwardhan, addressed to the Prime Minister and the President.
Some might argue that these protesters still largely remain film personalities whose work has largely been political and on the fringes of mainstream. But the latter broke its silence when Nihalani, in his position as the CBFC head, announced his intention of “cleaning up” Indian cinema by banning cuss words. Several celebrities, such as Anurag Kashyap, Anushka Sharma, Aamir Khan, publicly voiced their disapproval by attending a closed-door meeting between the industry members and the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting (I&B), Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, in Mumbai, over the issue.
These stray instances over diverse issues have been followed by stars publicly expressing concern over “increasing intolerance” in the country. Gulzar, Shah Rukh Khan and later, Aamir Khan at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards in November, spoke on the issue. While Shah Rukh later apologised for his remark, Aamir at the event said, “There is a sense of fear more than there was earlier. I do feel there is a sense of insecurity.”
However, these instances have left the industry divided. Some feel they are politically motivated to target BJP that is leading the government. “The murder of the rationalists happened under Congress rule as did the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits and the Sikh riots of 1984. Why did no one speak up then?” says Ashoke Pandit, documentary filmmaker and board member of CBFC who has, in the past, taken on Nihalani over the banning of cuss words. But those who have spoken up now — some even returning their National awards, the biggest acknowledgement and appreciation of a film professional’s work — say that if they do not stand up and register their protest, they would become a part of the process that is “flattening out the country’s beautiful landscape of diversity”. Patwardhan says, “As common citizens who don’t believe in armed struggle, this is our weapon of protest.”