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Bollywood divided on award wapsi and ‘intolerance’

For the first time, the otherwise-neutral film industry, stands divided. While one faction is returning their awards, the other is set to march against them tomorrow in the capital.

Sahitya Akademi, Sahitya Akademi awards, Sahitya Akademi award winners, Writers protest, Sahitya Akademi writers, Art historian Rainer Rochlitz, Jawaharlal Nehru, IE columnist Those who have returned their awards deny that their anger is limited to the present government.

In April last year as the country was readying to vote in a historic Lok Sabha election, a little more than two dozen film professionals wrote an open letter. Circulated among members of the Hindi film industry, it appealed to the voters to choose a secular party to “protect the cultural diversity and pluralism of the country, which is secular, rejects communal hatred and embraces tolerance”.

Undersigned by prominent names including directors Imtiaz Ali, Vishal Bhardwaj, Govind Nihalani, Zoya Akhtar and Kabir Khan, among others, it not only made news but also drew the ire from a set of other film personalities. Several, including Mukesh Bhatt (whose brother, filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt was one of the signatories to the letter), Madhur Bhandarkar, Kirron Kher, saw this as an attempt to sabotage the chances of the Narendra Modi-led BJP at the Centre.

In the 18 months since Modi came to power and the letter has been long forgotten, the crevice that had emerged within the industry then seems to have expanded into a growing chasm.

A section of the film industry, following the stand taken by the literary figures who returned their Sahitya Akademi awards, and irked by the FTII fracas has decided to turn in their respective National Awards. This includes veterans such as Saeed Mirza and Kundan Shah alongside Dibakar Banerjee and documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan.

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All those who have joined the dissent club seem to belong to the alternative space in the film industry – their respective work has been non-conformist when it isn’t questioning the establishment and its ways. Take for instance Shah’s political satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaronor Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! Banerjee’s Shanghai, ironically, tells the story of a state’s insecurity of the Left ideology that results in the murder of an ideologue – a film that might be more relevant today than it was two years ago when it released.

Hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise that these filmmakers have taken such a strong public stand. Also, many of them are either FTII alumni or closely associated with the institution. They have found support in some unexpected quarters in mainstream cinema.

In an interview recently, veteran Gulzar voiced his support for the writers returning their awards and also asserted that he has “never witnessed this kind of religious intolerance”. The backlash on social media was widespread and vicious but not enough to deter one of Bollywood’s biggest superstars, Shah Rukh Khan, from reiterating Gulzar’s thoughts. On his 50th birthday earlier this week, Khan said, “There is extreme intolerance in India”.


Another section of the film industry – Anupam Kher is one of the key figures, apart from the likes of Shyam Benegal and Hema Malini – have dissed the returning of awards. There are also those in the industry who believe an artist is bound to be concerned about political and social issues but returning awards isn’t the right expression of it. This includes actors such as Vidya Balan who says the National Award has been given to her by the people of the country.

But the lines seem to have been drawn: on Saturday, Kher will lead a “counter protest march” (the Congress held one earlier this week) in the capital against the return of awards. Joining him will be Bhandarkar and Ashoke Pandit who was last in news for his stand against the All India Bakchod’s stand-up comedy show, Roast.

To watch the two factions of the industry at loggerheads is something new. The current, brave “new wave” in cinema may have taken forward the parallel cinema movement that has existed for decades but the film industry’s interest in political matters has never quite gone beyond their medium of expression. For the most part, Bollywood has maintained a painfully diplomatic stand on issues, choosing to not take on the government that, to a large extent, acts as their benefactor.


So what has prompted them to raise their voice now? It’s a question that each is countering to his or her best ability. Those who have returned their awards deny that their anger is limited to the present government. They say it is directed towards the current state of the nation and “increasing intolerance”. Perhaps Kundan Shah has the answer. At the press conference held to announce the return of the National Awards, when asked the same question, he quipped, “We made a mistake that we didn’t return awards before. Do we have to repeat that mistake now and remain quiet?”

First published on: 06-11-2015 at 04:13:05 pm
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