So it took Narendra Modi to move the film industry out of its political apathy.
In a rare flicker of political activity, 60 representatives of the Mumbai commercial film industry have signed an appeal asking voters to value India’s secular character above all other considerations. This is clearly meant as shorthand for rejecting the Narendra Modi-led BJP, and it has provoked an indignant counter-mobilisation within the industry.
No matter how the numbers stack up, it is remarkable, given our inoffensive and ideologically blank celebrity culture, that these famous names have been willing to own up to their feelings about political outcomes in Delhi. So far, Bollywood movie stars have been careful to please every corner of the establishment, their involvement ending at apolitical charity, or running marathons against breast cancer or animal cruelty.
With the exception of a few outspoken individuals, Bollywood has been wary of expressing any controversial position — also in terms of the cinema it produces. Political events or ideological currents are not directly confronted. Even when contentious issues like reservations, terrorism or anti-corruption agitations are taken on, films confine themselves to the husk of the issue, the costumes, language and art direction, rather than engaging forthrightly with their content.
Like cricket, Bollywood is one of the few binding agents in this country, a place where diversity is taken for granted. Movie theatres have always been spaces where social equality is enacted. Perhaps this impulse to harmonise different strands, to be popular with everyone, is part of the reason our films and the people who make them seem so leached of opinion.
But for an industry that drew its early sustenance from the Progressive Writers’ Association and the Indian People’s Theatre Association, this careful neutrality has had a sapping effect on the movies. Of course, much of this has to do with the hypersensitive public reaction, and political bullying that film-makers have to contend with, and the state’s failure to protect open expression. But equally, few big names in Bollywood have been willing to take minimal risks.
Hollywood, by contrast, has been staunchly liberal for decades, organising and advocating for progressive causes, raising funds. While Indian celebrities do campaign for politicians, or even join parties, they couch these decisions in terms of personal loyalty rather than speak up for a clear political vision. If this election has roused them to more direct action, prompted them to act as citizens with a stake in the governance of this country, it may also prompt a fuller artistic engagement from them.