A new story is playing in the Hindi film industry. In many ways, and as it has often done, it mirrors themes of the larger social and political landscape. But this time, the drama is mostly off-screen. And the central tension that is driving the plot has a harder, more explicitly political edge. A government that has won a large mandate, not once but twice, has armed itself with a strategy of winner-should-take-all. Spaces political and non-political will be encroached, even if this means weaponising agencies and laws, and using prime-time megaphones to signal that there’s only one game — and one new sheriff — in town.
But Bollywood has always been a special place. It is not that the Hindi film industry has not played politics, or hasn’t ever been politically played. Yet, despite the Emergency, films with political themes and film stars who took the political plunge, in spite of the Censor Board and Income Tax department wielded as instruments of control, the intimacies between film and politics in Bollywood, unlike in the country’s south, have been flickering — and much has been left to the imagination. Now, as the Sushant Singh Rajput case becomes a turning point, and the spectre of a purge takes shape, that precious ambiguity stands imperilled.
While the government’s aggressive bid to colonise the Hindi film industry is visible, and digital platforms may well be next, it is also clear that Bollywood needs a better-judged, more thoughtful script. In its push back, 38 leading cinema associations and production houses have sought a “perpetual and permanent” court injunction against two TV channels seen as proxies for the ruling establishment from making “irresponsible, derogatory and defamatory remarks”. While the outrage against the media’s “parallel and private investigations” is understandable, by seeking a gag order, Bollywood is standing up by seeking to intimidate.
The attempt to control Bollywood by the political establishment requires a more creative response, one that does not speak the language of the aggressor, or ends up shrinking free speech. For all its warts and despite its timidities and nepotism, the Hindi film industry performs unique and important functions in India’s democracy — it acts as a mirror, and as a sensor and warning system of new needs and aspirations; promotes a diversity of talents and perspectives; serves as a springboard for more famous partition refugees and successful women, Muslims and queer people than any other industry. In this moment of insecurity, therefore, it needs to find a response that preserves, not compromises, its essential values of openness and tolerance. In short, a strong spine — but also a cool head.
The BJP-led political establishment needs to recognise the dangers and costs of its will-to-control in a large and diverse country. It must know that any attempt to dissolve the lines between popular culture and propaganda, any imposition of the straitjackets of nationalism and puritanism on the creative arts, will leave it with feeble pickings. It will emasculate that which it seeks to conquer.
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