The dawn of Anupam Kher’s public persona as a ferocious defender of hyper-nationalism coincides with the twilight of his acting career. He hasn’t faded out of the movies, far from it – he has been appearing regularly in cameos and small parts. But it has been a few years years since Kher was in a movie that worked because of his presence (or would have been weaker if he hadn’t been in it). His hilarious turn as Fauzdar in Pankaj Advani’s manic satire Sankat City was in 2009. One of his most memorable characters, Mumbai police officer Prakash Rathod from Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday, was from 2008.
Kher’s latest piece of mischief is a tweet that refers to Pandey’s terrorism-themed vigilante movie. Kher could have quoted any line from that movie, or any line from any of his numerous films, for that matter. But he chose to pick the one that, when translated into English, suggests that an anti-terrorism operation is like pest control, with the potential of ridding the nation of vermin.
There are no awards for guessing what Kher is talking about: the debate that has followed the ruckus at Jawaharlal Nehru University about who exactly is a patriot and who is a traitor. Kher represents a hardening divide in the Hindi film industry between ultra-right and liberal. By and large, Hindi film celebrities have been regarded as secular and accommodating of political and cultural differences despite their individual alignments with political parties. They have might campaigned for specific parties before an election, and some of them might have tested their box-office popularity at the ballot box by contesting for seats, but once the polls were over, it was back to business as usual.
Friends with benefits
The new-found need to wear one's political affiliations on one’s sleeve (or Twitter handle), the rallying of forces against a mythical attack on the nation, and the division of the world into patriots and so-called traitors are Modi-era phenomena. The prime minister and his posse are ardent believers in the Bush doctrine: “Either you are with us or against us.” Actors and filmmakers such as Kher, his wife and BJP MP Kirron Kher, Vivek Agnihotri, Raveena Tandon and producer and Censor Board Pahlaj Nihalani have proved to be worthy amplifiers of this belief.
Is the clamour to support the Centre’s controversial policies a reflection of the desire to land a sinecure? At this moment, Kher resembles the central character from Hungarian director Istvan Szabo’s Mephisto. A historical film that is alarmingly prescient, Mephisto follows the political adventures of a talented and ambitious actor whose role as Mephistopheles in the play Faust becomes his ticket to success and power when Germany passes into Nazi hands. Hendrik Hofgen, brilliantly performed by Klaus Maria Brandauer, becomes a cultural poster boy for the Nazis even as his friends die or flee persecution. Sucked deep into a web of patronage, Hendrik begins to lose sight of one of the functions of art – to question.
The political circumstances between Mephisto’s world and India 2016 are different, of course. One was a military dictatorship, and the other is what historian Ramachandra Guha memorably called a 50-50 democracy. Yet, Kher’s exertions seem particularly Mephistophelean, and even a brilliantly scripted role or a juicy Hollywood offer is unlikely to fix matters.
Under their influence
Nobody can ignore the ability of Hindi film celebrities to influence opinion. It is said that Aishwarya Rai single-handedly caused a surge in cornea donations when she appeared in a public service announcement to support the cause more than a decade ago. The smallest non-profit groups know the value of celebrity endorsement, and no cause is deemed worthy until a movie personage has confirmed that it is.
Celebrity endorsement of political causes can backfire when they are poorly considered and are cynically hitched to movie promotions. Bollywood star and producer Aamir Khan came in for criticism from the left and the right when he expressed support for the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and his recent statements on intolerance have resulted in a vituperative backlash. Shah Rukh Khan has also been mercilessly attacked for his stand on intolerance. Of the Khan triumvirate, only Salman Khan, who flew a kite with Modi during his prime ministerial campaign, is perceived as a true patriot.
Journalists and readers often complain that movie stars are shallow, say nothing of consequence in interviews and seem ill-informed about the country that exists beyond the studio lot (case in point: Alia Bhatt, who could not name the President on Karan Johar’s talk show). As it turns out, most of them are not. But when they reveal their minds, it can go either way, as Anupam Kher has so amply demonstrated.