Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Shobhaa De - 'PK' Gets No Support From Bollywood // Siddharth Varadarajan - It is 'PK' Protestors Who Are Mocking Hinduism

I was on a television panel discussion on Monday. Yup. Same one on which the anchor provides all the answers to questions asked by the nation. The topic was volatile (widespread vandalism of theatres screening the Aamir Khan starrer 'PK' in Ahmedabad, Bhopal and elsewhere) but the panelists were thanda. The panelists who were supposed to condemn the violence, that is. While those defending the disgraceful shenanigans belonged to right wing political/religious outfits, the three of us representing the 'voice of the people' were disappointingly muted. Well, I tried my best to be heard over the din of smug, self-appointed custodians of Hindu sentiments, but it was a frustrating and pointless exercise. I asked why the channel had not invited someone more 'tagda' to represent Bollywood.

The reply didn't surprise me - nobody of any importance from the movie industry wanted to speak up  - for the principle, not an individual. For the wrongness of what took place. Not for Aamir Khan. Or Raju Hirani. Or even the contents of the controversial movie. Speak up against these sort of intimidatory tactics. Speak up for our threatened freedoms. Speak up for democracy. Speak up for peaceful protests. Speak up for our own future, for heaven's sake!

Why? Bollywood is scared. Bollywood  has reasons to be scared. Very scared.

And this is the real story: Bollywood is vulnerable. Perhaps more vulnerable than any other sector in India. It has always been this way. In earlier times, when Bollywood itself was run in an erratic, unprofessional and disorganized fashion, it was easier for anti-social elements to exercise control over the film industry. These 'elements' were dangerous and armed. They resorted to direct threats, blackmail and murder. The motive was money. Bollywood was a soft target for extortionists looking to make a killing the easy way. It was hard to stand up to these goons...and still stay alive. Some who tried to take on the underworld paid for it heavily.

Perhaps, this was when the term 'setting' was coined. It was a polite way of admitting you had done a deal with the 'Bhais'. Yes, it was hard to handle outright threats back then in the late 80s and early 90s. Apparently it's even harder now.

Even though the Bhais are still around, the Bollywood model of doing business has changed. Bollywood is corporatized these days and run more professionally by men and women wearing Armani, not sleazeballs in polyester safari suits. But hello! The monies generated by superhits have gone through the roof, too! ('PK' has grossed Rs.233 crores already). The vultures are still circling the big studios. But there are new players on the scene who exercise muscle power and political clout to boot. Bollywood continues to run scared. There is no place to hide.

I don't blame big stars, producers, directors for not jumping into the latest 'PK' imbroglio. They simply can't afford the risk! There is far too much at stake and nobody wants to commit professional hara-kiri by challenging the might of shadowy outfits claiming to represent the majority.

This is such a shame. If Bollywood had indeed decided to take a joint stand and speak in one voice this time, perhaps the film industry would have benefitted in the long run. After all, this sort of wanton destruction serves no real purpose. It is not Aamir or Raju paying the price for the 'protests' - it is theatre owners! The movie has been cleared across the board. As chief of the censor board, Leela Samson has issued a sane statement in the wake of the debate. The Supreme Court's directives are abundantly clear. The film has been screened without any incident for 10 long days. All of a sudden there are violent reactions? Come on.

Is it cowardice or good sense that dictates how Bollywood reacts to threats? I'd say it's both. Silence has become the standard. Which, in a way, implies surrender. Most stars shy away from engaging in larger issues that concern the film industry. They remain obstinately non-committal. Or genuinely indifferent. This is just so short-sighted and selfish. If the big wigs in Bollywood get together and form a strong , singular body to represent their interests across the board, such attacks can be better addressed. It is not merely Aamir's problem or Hirani's problem. It involves everybody! Bollywood tends to segregate and compartmentalize crises, with zero show of unity when it is most required - like now.

Soon the 'PK' attacks will die down. But there will be more. Of that we can be sure. What then? Will Bollywood continue to play ostrich? Suffer amnesia and laryngitis? One hopes not...for its own sake. There's nothing as sinister as the silence of the lambs...

Remember that scene from Jaaney Bhi Do Yaaron? You know the one: where Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani are being chased by the evil Tarneja and end up in the middle of a Mahabharata performance? What followed were surely some of the most hilarious moments of Hindi cinema, and the laughs were all at the expense of some of the most revered personalities from the Hindu epic.

If such a film were to be made today, some self-styled 'sena' or 'parivar', acting in the name of all Hindus, would have accused the actors of denigrating Hinduism and demanded a ban. The law is clear that such "hyper-sensitive" individuals cannot be the arbiters of what is permissible in a society like ours but it is time to take the debate over the Hindi film PK to the next level: What are we, as individuals, and as a society, prepared to do to uphold our right to go to the cinema with our friends and families to see the movie of our choice?

The Aamir Khan-starring movie has been cleared for public exhibition by the Central Board for Film Certification and has been very popular with audiences, grossing over Rs. 200 crore in its first week. But a section of the Sangh Parivar - that group of moral policemen who want to control what Indians watch, wear, sing, read, and eat, as well as whom they can love and where they can live - wants the film banned and has resorted to violence in several cities across BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Though the majority of Indians who have seen and enjoyed the film are probably Hindu and there are no reports of ordinary moviegoers saying their religion was slighted in any way, those demanding a ban insist PK mocks Hinduism. Prominent among the protestors is the Hindu Mahasabha. This is an extremist group whose founder, V.D. Savarkar, is part of the RSS pantheon of heroes and whose most infamous member, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.

While it is easy to laugh at the irony of organisations that are themselves undermining the sanctity of the Hindu faith now accusing others of blasphemy, the violence they have resorted to poses a challenge to the governments of Narendra Modi, Devendra Fadnavis, Anandiben Patel and Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Will they allow mob violence, or the threat of more attacks on cinema halls, to undermine the rule of law and the right of citizens to watch a movie they wish to? Or will they act firmly against the violent elements, even if they share an ideological affinity with some of them?

In the past, state governments from north to south have tended to turn a blind eye towards moral policemen, leaving cinema hall owners, art galleries, concert venues, bookshops and publishers to fend for themselves in the face of physical intimidation and violence. More often than not, movies, books, plays and exhibitions that politically influential mobs do not like end up being banned informally because of the failure of the police and state administration to provide protection to those in need of it.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that maintaining law and order during the screening of a film is the responsibility of the government and the threat of violence by politically-motivated mobs must not be allowed to violate the rights of the public at large. When the demand was made that PK be banned, the Supreme Court refused to entertain the matter. 'Don't see the film' was the sage advice the bench gave the petitioners.

Given the steady increase in the number of cases where mobs have used violence or the threat of violence to enforce their diktat, it is not enough for us to merely insist the government rebuff the demands for a ban on PK. That the Supreme Court has already said. What we must demand is that the police do their job, providing protection to cinema halls showing the movie, and acting pre-emptively against those organisations and their leaders that are inciting violence over the issue.

Whether it is the violent protests over PK or the aggressive 'ghar vapsi' programmes, the reason saffron extremists have behaved so outrageously in BJP-ruled areas is because they know they have the support of influential sections of the Sangh Parivar. But the Chief Ministers of these states took an oath to uphold the Constitution of India, and not the constitution of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or some other sectarian organization. They have a duty that they must discharge without fear or favour, something they have been reluctant to do so far. Anyone is free to call for a ban and protest peacefully. But if they take the law into their own hands and endanger the security and rights of others, they can and must be arrested, prosecuted and put away.