A year is a long time in politics and Bollywood. That’s amply demonstrated by two events that took place almost exactly 12 months apart: a photo-op and a banquet.
On Sunday, even as demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens continued throughout India, and at nearly the same time as a masked mob brutalised students and teachers at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, a group of Bollywood filmmakers and musicians sat down for dinner. With them were Union Minister of Railway and Commerce Piyush Goyal and Bharatiya Janata Party Vice-President Baijayant Panda.
The private event was part of a nationwide campaign by the BJP to create support for the planned National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act that was passed on December 11.
Going by media reports, the only A-list names who attended were T-Series head Bhushan Kumar and Ritesh Sidhwani, who runs Excel Entertainment along with Farhan Akhtar. (According to Mumbai Mirror, Sidhwani “left in 20 minutes”.) Among the other guests were Kunal Kohli, Kailash Kher, Anu Malik, Ranvir Shorey, Shaan, Abhishek Kapoor and Rahul Rawail.
“It was a good meeting,” Shorey told Hindustan Times. “I already had no issues with the CAA and I hope more people are not misled about it affecting any Indian citizen.”
Among those who were invited but didn’t attend were Javed Akhtar, Farhan Akhtar, Kabir Khan, Siddharth Roy Kapur, Dia Mirza, Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkummar Rao and Vicky Kaushal, according to reports.
The Mumbai Sunday supper was a hugely scaled-down effort from a meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi had with Hindi film industry A-listers in Delhi on January 10, 2019. That event was held just weeks ahead of Modi’s re-election campaign. After the meeting, a selfie clicked by Ranveer Singh was released. It showed Modi surrounded by Karan Johar, Ranbir Kapoor, Ekta Kapoor, Ayushmann Khurrana, Rohit Shetty, Varun Dhawan and Rajkummar Rao, among others.The peak propaganda artefact was the digital equivalent of a politician’s streetside banner: this is my team, and here’s who is batting for me.
Much has happened since that grin-and-share-it moment: the Bharatiya Janata Party won the Lok Sabha re-election with a massive majority; Kashmir’s special status under the Constitution was revoked; economic distress has crippled the cities and villages; rains and floods have caused havoc across the country. By the end of 2019, India had erupted against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, which critics say discriminates against Muslims and could be used to render Indian Muslims stateless.
Despite the difference in scale of the two events, the attempted messaging was identical: the aim is to signal that Bollywood is on the side of the government. Filmmakers are expected to stick to their bread-and-circuses function and keep out of the way as the state goes about its business. When commanded to, they are expected to be ready to hold up the mirrors that will reflect the achievements of their rulers. This, then, is the ideal filmmaker: entertaining, profitable, photogenic, social media-savvy and subservient.
However, the conventional wisdom about Bollywood being split between the Right-wing (and therefore right thinking) and the Left-wing (dismissed as “urban Naxals”) has come seriously undone in recent weeks. Many actors and filmmakers have courageously spoken out against CAA despite vicious threats from trolls, the possibility of being passed over for government awards and the very real fear of being dropped from projects.
Swara Bhasker, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Farhan Akhtar, Jaaved Jafferi, Varun Grover, Anurag Kashyap, Anubhav Sinha and Neeraj Ghaywan are only some of the voices who have strongly condemned attempts to redefine the idea of India. Bhasker and Ayyub are among those who have gone beyond Twitter and have participated in public protests, unmindful of the long-term impact on their careers.
Their bravery has been matched by the overall silence of Bollywood’s A-listers. When some marquee names such as Akshay Kumar and Vicky Kaushal did speak out on the early demonstrations against the new citizenship law, it was to vaguely condemn violence. They conspicuously refused to acknowledge the fact that the police and masked criminals have been responsible for beating up protesters and vandalising homes and shops in many places.
The 2019 Modi photograph was about a triumphant gallop across the prairie. The 2020 dinner is a bit like locking the stable door after the horses have bolted.
Between The Selfie and The Banquet, Bollywood reflects the dilemma of the protagonist from Istvan Szabo’s Mephisto, who sells his soul to the Nazis and then wonders what they could possibly get out of exploiting his support: “What do they want from me? After all, I am only an actor,” he asks facetiously, unwilling to accept that in his question lies the answer.
At a time that calls for standing up and speaking out, some Hindi filmmakers chose to sit down and feast. The menu on Sunday presumably included plenty of Kool-Aid.