When a Rs 10-crore bounty on the heads of Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali was announced, barely a word of protest was heard from their peers in Bollywood. A question being posed in the media, both traditional and social, is: Why?
The perceptible logic behind this is the oppressive environment in the country. Bollywood’s silence can even be attributed to the de facto power that so-called fringe organisations enjoy in India. One tends to excuse this silence by assuming that it is very risky for even celebrities to speak against organisations that openly threaten violence.
However, India is still a democracy, even if it doesn’t seem like one at the moment. It is not unreasonable to expect at least a few powerful Bollywood celebrities to condemn brazen death threats against their own. To understand why they haven’t done so, one must look at what exactly Bollywood is, and whether it really has a strong incentive to defend art and freedom of expression.
A portmanteau of “Bombay” and “Hollywood,” Bollywood is an apt name for the Hindi film industry, as it has always adhered to Hollywood’s philosophy of treating cinema as a business. India’s tryst with colonialism also left scars that manifest themselves through an innate desire to be more like the West, which has always reflected in Bollywood’s cinema.
However, Bollywood differs greatly from Hollywood in one crucial aspect. While the Los-Angeles based industry is controlled by large studios — corporations that do not function according to the wishes of a few individuals — Bollywood is almost entirely run by individuals who inherit their positions.
Hollywood’s capitalistic set-up ensured that there was enough competition for the industry to grow and evolve. It ensured that there was enough space for both art and commerce and that the line between the two wasn’t rigid. Artists could be stars and vice versa. To come from nowhere and rise to the top wasn’t just a possibility, but a regular occurrence. Talent mattered, art mattered.
Even in the dark days of the Cold War, when communists in Hollywood were persecuted by the government and blacklisted in their own industry, there was resistance from artists. Today, even relatively less well-known Hollywood personalities speak out against, and even publicly mock, their own president. They speak up for freedom of speech, and against inexcusable conduct, as in the case of Harvey Weinstein and many others accused of sexual assault and harassment.
Some of this definitely owes to the cultural milieu of the United States. But it’s also about how Hollywood is a film industry made up of actual artists who genuinely care about freedom of speech because their livelihood depends on it. It is also relatively more egalitarian, as even smaller celebrities are empowered to voice controversial opinions.
This contrasts sharply with the clan-based system of Bollywood. As power and wealth have always been concentrated in the hands of a few families, the industry has remained small and insular and guards its borders firmly. Those who control the industry care less about art than their pockets. With the reins of the industry being passed down along family lines, talent is obviously scarce.
What Bollywood creates, by and large, isn’t really cinema, and is definitely not art. While many good artists and craftspersons are involved in the making of films, the most powerful people in the industry, who get most of the credit for its product, are producers and, even more so, stars. Ironically, these very people are generally the least qualified to be working in cinema, and cannot be called artists by any stretch of imagination.
In such an environment, when other films or film personalities are under attack, like in the case of Padmavati, Padukone and Bhansali, industry bigwigs have no reason to speak out. They’re not artists, and art isn’t their livelihood. Film stars and producers don’t really have a stake in freedom of speech because they have never pushed any boundaries. Their primary commitment has always been to their pockets and their public image, not to cinema or art. Self-preservation matters more to them than preserving artists’ right to free speech.
Since the powerful have no incentive to defend art, and the artists aren’t really empowered enough to do so, it is completely natural that when a member of the ruling party offered a bounty to anyone who chopped off the heads of two of the industry’s own, all that was heard from Bollywood was deafening silence.