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Lata Mangeshkar, who will be turning 90 in September, stopped singing for Hindi cinema long ago. But that will never alter her stature as the voice of the nation, ‘the Nightingale of India’, in a popular sense. A lot of voices, different textures of sound from this land, had to make way for her to attain that stature. It fell upon her tender, malleable, pure-pitch voice to turn culture into politics. There was a time when she moved Nehru to tears—that was when the nation was still being formed, in 1963. Politics has moved along a bit since then. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at one of his rallies soon after the Balakot airstrikes earlier this year, recited a poem that went: “Saugandh mujhe is mitti ki/main desh nahin mitne doonga” (I swear upon this soil/I won’t let the country wither away…) She took it upon herself to record it as a song, dedicated to all Indians, especially its soldiers, which she uploaded on Twitter a few days before the general elections got under way. Between performing “nationalism” for Nehru, and now Modi, Lata Mangeshkar has spanned an almost impossible gamut. A yawning gulf that has never been much expressed, but which has always existed at the core of India’s most popular culture industry. A gulf that’s now at last becoming manifest.
Fifty-six years…that’s the gap between Lata Mangeshkar’s two songs. Over half a century in which the country and the world have changed irrevocably, at even subtle cultural levels. Now, “nationalism” does not evoke just a simple love—indeed, it often entails hate for the ‘other’ even within India. Lata, who has sung Naushad’s delectable version of the Krishna leela-based thumri Mohe panghat par for Mughal-e-Azam and also backed the Shiv Sena in recent years, has the dichotomy running through her, more or less.
Film stars with Indira Gandhi.
Sometimes, the culture industry seems to exist just to voice the ideas of the ruling ideology. In Lata’s case, it’s also personally driven. She has long been an admirer of Modi. Back in November 2013, Lata had openly said she would like to see Modi as PM. That went by without being noticed much—it probably wouldn’t in these days of hyperactive social media—but it was perhaps the first mark of a deeper syndrome. Of the whole Hindi film industry being vertically divided on politics. Along a binary that’s uncharacteristic of an industry which has always been markedly apolitical (and secular), at least on the surface, through much of its 106-year-old history.
‘Apolitical’, of course, is relative. Much has been written about its coded nationalism during the freedom struggle and after, when it went on to become the primary ‘soft power’ voice of India. But today, it’s different—knives are out between warring camps. For decades, film personalities avoided mixing political affiliations with work and rarely joined issue with co-workers over politics. Now, it’s not uncommon to find actors and film-makers trading no-holds-barred barbs and even insults.
The issue is simple. Not everybody is enamoured of Modi in B-town: his polarising effect has touched even the largely risk-averse film world. Five days after Lata uploaded her song, a phalanx of film personalities, mostly those with a theatre background—veterans like Amol Palekar, Naseeruddin Shah and Girish Karnad to young turks like Anurag Kashyap and Konkona Sen Sharma—issued a call to voters to oust the Modi government. In an appeal uploaded on artistuniteindia.com in 12 languages on April 4, they openly sought a vote against “bigotry, hatred and apathy” and for “the freedom to dream”. It was an unusually hard-hitting statement coming from Bollywood, speaking of “Hindutva goons”, the destruction of “the livelihoods of millions”, and “rogues” looting the country and scooting, the rich growing “astronomically” richer, all that.
So some people from my fraternity have issued a letter for public to vote out the present constitutionally elected government in the coming elections. In other words they are officially campaigning for opposition parties. Good!! At least there are no pretensions here. Great. pic.twitter.com/gqnZBGNdKa— Anupam Kher (@AnupamPKher) April 6, 2019
The comeback didn’t take long. Actor Anupam Kher was among the first to hit back, taking a sarcastic swing against “people from my fraternity” who are “officially campaigning” for the Opposition. “At least there are no pretensions here. Great,” he tweeted, only to encounter a Swara Bhasker repartee: “Yes, it’s called democracy, sir.” The back-and-forth saw actress Soni Razdan (incidentally, the wife of film-maker Mahesh Bhatt, who had given Kher his big break in Saaransh) coming in against Modi, as also Richa Chadha of Masaan fame, tweeting against “the destruction of the nation’s social, moral fabric”.
The split has never been so open, and unbridgeable. Film-maker Anubhav Sinha, who feels “the film industry is behaving exactly like the rest of the country,” isn’t surprised. The maker of Mulk (2018), a film about a young Hindu girl’s legal fight to restore the honour of her Muslim in-laws which had raised the hackles of right-wing activists, tells Outlook: “I had seen it coming five years ago, though it was not so vicious then.” His allusion was to a signature campaign launched by about 60 film personalities, from the likes of Mahesh Bhatt, Imtiaz Ali, Vishal Bhardwaj, Nandita Das, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza, Zoya Akhtar, Nandita Das and Aditi Rao Hydari, in favour of “a secular party”.
Those days, only a few movie celebs stood clearly in favour of Modi: Madhur Bhandarkar, Vivek Oberoi, Tusshar Kapoor, for example. The film industry was largely steeped in its old Nehruvian ethos. But over the past five years, the number of Modi supporters has swelled by leaps and bounds. Over 900 of them, from film and allied fields, including Vivek Oberoi, Koena Mitra, Pallavi Joshi, Shankar Mahadevan and Anuradha Paudwal, released a joint statement recently, asking people to vote for a “majboot sarkar”. This was a riposte to the other camp’s statement. Pro-right film-maker Vivek Agnihotri tells Outlook: “I would have appreciated it had they issued a direct appeal to vote for a particular party, not against the Modi government. More than half the petitioners are cardholders of Communist parties…it only underlines their hypocrisy.”
Agnihotri rues an entrenched culture where he feels right-wingers get ostracised even today. “There was a time when nobody abused Sunil Dutt just because he was a Congressman. But now, people like Anupam Kher and I find ourselves isolated within the industry because of our unambiguous political stand. My recent movie (The Tashkent Files) was completely ignored. The irony of it is that some of its stars declined to talk about it. Anupam has also shifted to Hollywood in the face of a dearth of offers here.”
Whatever one feels about Agnihotri’s politics, his lament points to a kind of rupture Bollywood was never known for in the past. Balraj Sahni, Kaifi Azmi, Shabana Azmi, A.K. Hangal and many others, associated with the Indian People’s Theatre Association, a cultural wing of the CPI, were as central to the industry as Sunil Dutt and Nargis, die-hard supporters of Indira Gandhi—the times were equally fraught, there was Partition, there was Indira Gandhi’s draconian Emergency, but no one was persona non grata. Yes, the divide was always there, sometimes hitting critical points. Gulzar’s Aandhi, widely believed to be based on Indira’s life, was banned, while the negatives of Amrit Nahata’s Kissa Kursi Ka were allegedly burnt. Even more extreme, AIR imposed a ban on Kishore Kumar’s songs simply because of his refusal to sing at a pro-government concert organised by Sanjay Gandhi. And Nargis, as a Congress Rajya Sabha member, once criticised Satyajit Ray for showcasing “India’s poverty”. But overall, bonhomie ruled. No artiste ever refused to be part of the numerous charity programmes organised by Dutt and Nargis.
It was not as if politics did not run through the industry, even in its creative genius. Or even overtly. When Dev Anand launched a political outfit called the National Party to contest elections against Indira Gandhi’s policies, he had the support of many industry people. It was quickly dissolved after the Janata Party came to power, but no Congress supporter held a grudge against the evergreen star after their party bounced back to power. Similar was the case of Amitabh Bachchan, who has spanned the whole political gamut—from being a Rajiv Gandhi campwallah (as a childhood friend) and the Allahabad MP for the Congress to proximity with the Samajwadi Party and, now, being the voice for the Modi government’s ad campaigns. He faced no discrimination either.
One notable blip came in the early 1990s when Rajesh Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha fought against each other in a parliamentary byelection to the New Delhi seat. Rajesh went on to win the bypoll, but nursed a grievance against Shatrughan all his life. Shatrughan, who later called the contest his biggest political mistake, apologised to Khanna, but it failed to mend their ties. Nevertheless, neither brought their differences to the public domain. As a BJP candidate from Patna Sahib in 2009, Shatrughan faced a similar situation when the Congress fielded fellow actor Shekhar Suman against him. Shatrughan won the polls easily, but the relationship between the two stars from Bihar remained sour for a few years till they decided to let bygones be bygones.
The spirit of bonhomie trumping differences has gone, says film writer Vinod Anupam. “There was a time the trio of Raj Kapoor-Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand used to happily go together to meet Nehru. Today’s top stars are hardly seen with each other,” he says. Financial insecurity is part of it, he feels, as is a new factor like the BJP. “Also, a whole new crop of educated people have joined films, and they have all come with their fixed beliefs and ideologies,” he says. “They think they can propagate their ideologies through their films. In Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz (2018), for example, a character says, ‘Aayenge Bharatmata ki jai bolte hue aur attack kar ke chale jayenge’ (They will come chanting the name of Mother India, attack us and leave). Such trends are not healthy…a movie cannot be made for limited audiences.”
We saw that before the 2014 elections and then the mandate was changed and then we saw last five years. Those who are blind to not see will see some day , maybe now , maybe after five years , maybe whenever it’s too late. Someday !! https://t.co/OmlgxQkRXj— Anurag Kashyap (@anuragkashyap72) April 29, 2019
The discomfort is not unnatural. Hindi films, the most mainstream cultural expression of India, have been famously non-political in a curious way through the most political of times. India has seen world-historical events like the Partition—as full of human drama and pain as you want—that have rarely, if ever, been portrayed in cinema. There was a stray Garm Hava, and a few others of that ilk. (Unless one looked to the Partition-infused ethos in Ritwik Ghatak’s Bangla films.) What one had, instead, was a kind of broad-brush nationalism, neatly coded in the pre-Independence years, and getting suffused with the spirit of social realism in the early decades thereafter, before getting narrowed down to more personal stories even in war films. An investigation of war, as in Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat, was rare. A truly introspective approach was not quite its hallmark. Overall, the characterisation of Hindi films as not overtly political (subliminal messaging and readings apart) holds.
But is it happening more often these days? Decidedly so. Villains in the ’90s, like Amrish Puri in the 1992 kitsch classic Tahalka, still ruled fictititous Himalayan kingdoms. The “nationalism” trope started getting fleshed out and more directly expressed in the last two decades. The war film Border (1997) was an inflection point, so was Mission Kashmir (2000). As was the Anil Kapoor film Pukar (again 2000), ostensibly about on the army and terrorism in Kashmir, where a critic wrote that, strangely, for a film on Kashmir, there was not a single Kashmiri represented. The film won a national award, though. In between, there was also Aamir Khan’s Sarfarosh (1999), where the popular idea of a Muslim ghazal singer (with connections to Pakistan) being of dubious political leanings is fully fleshed out in Naseeruddin Shah’s villain. Pakistan, terrorism…the line traced itself to the Indian Muslim seamlessly. So if one were to ask, “Is cinema being used to propagate a particular ideology?”—the question answers itself.
The mask is now truly off: there are no more sly metaphors or allusions. Films are being produced, and consumed, in a flat and open political space. A well-mounted movie based on the 2016 surgical strikes on Pakistan, Uri, turned out to be this year’s biggest grosser so far. Its makers were accused of airbrushing the image of Prime Minister Modi and his National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. One of the staunchest supporters of the Modi regime, Anupam Kher, played Manmohan Singh in Accidental Prime Minister (2018), which was based on an unflattering biography of the former prime minister of the Congress. In an upcoming biopic of Modi, Vivek Oberoi plays the eponymous role. It was all set to release this month, but the Election Commission declined to give it the go-ahead because of the model code of conduct. A biopic on Rahul Gandhi, My Name is RaGa, made by Rupesh Paul, also met a similar fate—as Prem Chopra may have said, “muft mein maara gaya”.
All these movies are, of course, a natural corollary to a kind of clear divide the film industry appears to have experienced since Modi became prime minister. Several stars such as Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Kangana Ranaut have come out in open support of Modi. While Akshay took Modi’s much-talked-about “apolitical” interview the other day, Devgn had campaigned extensively for the BJP in the 2014 elections. Last year, Kangana Ranaut asserted that Modi deserved to come back to power again in 2019 since “he is the rightful leader of the democracy”. “He is not in this position because of his parents, he has worked hard to be here.... There should not be any doubt about his credibility as a prime minister,” she said.
Sir, I am surprised why then supporters of these barabarian Naxals find shelter under a banyan tree like you.— Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri (@vivekagnihotri) May 1, 2019
Is that a new kind of rationalism? https://t.co/Igo91S12Rs
Earlier this year, a phalanx of A-list Bollywood stars led by film-maker Karan Johar, including Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Varun Dhawan, Alia Bhatt et al called on Modi in Delhi and famously posted a group selfie with him. On the other side of the fence, artistes like Naseeruddin Shah, Amol Palekar, Nandita Das, Shabana Azmi, Richa Chadha, Swara Bhasker, Aditi Rao Hydari and many others have been highly critical of Modi. In fact, many decisions of the Modi government, including the appointment of actor Gajendra Chauhan or Anupam Kher as the head of Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) or Pahlaj Nihalani as the censor board chief came in for scathing criticism from the anti-Modi camp.
And after Akshay Kumar’s Modi interview, southern star Siddharth (known among Bollywood fans mostly for Rang De Basanti) took a dig at him, saying the Kesari star was “very underrated as a villain”. The Tamil actor, who is known for his strong views on social and political issues, had earlier let go a sarcastic quip, saying how the trailer of Modi’s biopic had missed out on how Modi had won India its independence by “singlehandedly wiping out the British Empire”.
All through these battles, in a polarising Bollywood, however, many top actors and actresses have chosen to keep mum. In stark contrast to Hollywood, where big stars have had no qualms in targeting US president Donald Trump since his election victory in 2016. Director Anubhav Sinha says the big stars are the most vulnerable—they simply cannot afford to speak up against the powers-that-be because of their high stakes. “And if at all someone speaks up on any sensitive issue, they will make his life hell,” he points out. “The problem is that you cannot afford to remain silent today. You have to speak up in favour of somebody, otherwise you will be viewed with suspicion as an opponent.”
True enough. When Naseeruddin Shah and Aamir Khan expressed concern over rising incidents of intolerance and mob lynchings across the country some time ago, they were trolled viciously. Naseer had alleged that the life of a cow had become much important than that of a police officer in the country. The maximum venom was reserved, though, for Aamir, who was quoted as saying that his wife Kiran Rao was talking about leaving the country in view of the prevailing situation. His generally risk-averse nature, and profuse apologies thereafter, have not dented the image of someone “who spoke out”.
Observers on the other side, though, impute a clear political motive behind film artistes launching campaigns against the Modi government. Actor-turned-politician Vani Tripathi says that, as of now, only a handful of “theatre artistes” are against Modi, while almost all the big stars are his ardent supporters. “I wonder why anti-Modi groups launch campaigns only once
in five years when the elections are around the corner? What initiative do they take otherwise to get the real issues faced perennially by the industry addressed in the rest of their time?”
Tripathi says the vertical division in the industry is a product of rigid ideologies. “The older generations in the film industry were either pro-Congress or pro-Left, and there was no space left for the right-wing intellectuals in the artistic fields such as cinema and literature over the years,” she says. “Therefore, when people with different ideologies rose to assert themselves and challenged the status quo in the past few years, the division was bound to happen.” Space for thought, one might add, is always there, whatever be its flavour. It’s the calibre that makes it persuasive. But what’s most striking now is a kind of split that’s never been seen before, one that makes cohabitation and collaboration difficult. Bollywood, finally, is a place made by collective energies.