The full transcript of the BBC Hindi Special programme Aapki Baat BBC Ke Saath with Naseerudin Shah. The subject of the programme was: Are artists getting involved in poltical games in the name of fighting for freedom of expression?
Nagendar Sharma : Are artists and film actors in India getting dragged into the political arena in the name of freedom of expression?
Naseerudin Shah : The artists and actors who become a part of the bureaucratic or diplomatic circles or those who enter politics should be well aware of the fact that there is a reason behind every power that is given to them. If -- and sooner -- they accept this it would be good, so that this sort of naivety is not demonstrated when such posts are given and then taken back from them.
BBC listener from Karachi : Naseer sahib, the parallel cinema of 70s had great personalities who had their own political views, whether Left or Right, but what has been seen is that majority of them including yourself, despite being politically aware, have stayed away from the political mainstream, leaving it to novices in the film world. Why ?
Naseerudin Shah : My son had also asked me one day as to why I don't join politics. I told him that I think I won’t be able to survive in it. He had posed a counter question: if not people like you, then who? Despite such questions, I have not changed my stance, because I strongly feel that an artist does not get a chance to show his political beliefs in his work. He is a mouthpiece of others, of others convictions and beliefs. The political belief of any artist lies in what type of work he does.
BBC listener from Delhi : Sir, you have been associated with the theatre and big screen both for decades now. How do you feel when you see a big section of the film world playing into the hands of politicians? From being a show piece in election rallies to contesting elections themselves -- from Bhupen Hazarika to Gopi Chand Narang in Sahtiya Akademi, all such cases are shocking. The latest l'affaire Anupam Kher shows artists are ready to do anything for a post. He blocked the film on Gujarat riots, and now says he helped the film to be passed. Why can’t sane voices in the film world fight for real issues such as artistic freedom?
Naseerudin Shah : When any artist is chosen for such a post, one thing is clear that there is definitely a thought of political convenience behind it. And if the artist chosen does not understand this then I term it as clear immaturity and naivety on the part of that artist. Having said this, I do not mean that the allegations which were levelled against Anupam are true, simply because he was chosen by a particular government. I was awarded Padma Bhushan by that same government, but it does not mean that I have any association with any such organisation. So far as the artistic freedom is concerned, I feel that the censorship code in our country is very old, and it is a really difficult choice because one fails to understand what can be done in such a situation, as you cannot give total freedom also.
Nagendar Sharma : But why can’t there be total freedom in a country like India?
Naseerudin Shah : Because majority of the film makers in Mumbai are irresponsible, and not because that there would be a danger to the government or those in power, or some sort of a movement would be built because of the films -- I do not believe this and it is not possible as well. If this malaise has to be checked from spreading, which is not happening presently despite the Censor Board, then the question today is: what is the relevance of the Censor Board?
Nagendar Sharma : But Naseer sahib, why has the film world been unable to draw up a consensus that such important bodies as the Censor Board be free of political interference?
Naseerudin Shah : Well, the film world has never been able to be unanimous on any issue, howsoever important or sensitive it might have been. The reason being that people here have chosen a path of convenience -- what ever suits them to get their work done. There was a time when there was a strict ban on the kissing and nudity scenes, but then there was a great film maker who exploited the loopholes in the existing system to get such things in the films, and see today nobody, including the censors is bothered about that anymore. But then certain other things are found to be objectionable today.. Some films with such scenes are passed, while others are not. So there is this whole inconsistency in the entire process. It is the convenience of the film makers who want to get their films passed, so how can there be unanimity on issues of principles?
BBC listener : Bollywood stars are known throughout the world today -- they have money, name and everything under the sun, then why do they run after the politicians? Why can’t the Censor Board chief be elected unanimously? And if you are offered this post, would you accept it ?
Naseerudin Shah : Well, I have been offered one or two posts in the past, but I have not accepted them. I feel that I would not be able to make any impact in such organisations. I would be appointed only for name sake and I am sorry I can’t agree with this. If you look at the track record of actors entering politics, majority of them were at the fag end of their film careers or had hit a low. It is because of the media glamour, and the habit of keeping themselves in the limelight, that they think they could shine in the political world for some time. I am not criticising any individual, but this is what I feel..
Nagendar Sharma : Indian films have depicted society in its true colours, they have also played a role in fighting social evils, but of late there is a trend to avoid controversial issues. Is it due to lack of courage nowadays?
Naseerudin Shah : The answer to your question is an absolute yes. Unqualified, yes. It is only courage that the film world here lacks. The courage is confined merely to investing more and more money in films so that twice or three times could come back as return. The courage in Indian film industry ended with great names like Talat sahib and Mehboob Khan.
Nagendar Sharma : How did that happen? Has the globalisation spree in the world swept Bollywood?
Naseerudin Shah : Well, the era of mediocrity which started in the 70s began dominating slowly and became the order of the day. This was the time when films became from black and white to colour, and it made film making a much easier job, as you had no longer to think about the stage, the lighting nor the other sensitivities involved. You were merely to dress the hero and heroine in gaudy coloured clothes and shoot the film is Kashmir -- that was it!
If you look carefully, it was the time which was a high point for Hindi films. But what was required at the time were quality films based on good stories and acting. Unfortunately, that did not happen and a new word viz. ‘proposal’ entered the Hindi film world, which is continuing till today. If you have a "good proposal" only then can a film be made, without that a film can’t even be made. Isn’t it bizarre? Instead of acting, songs and other essential things for a film, a new strange word calls the shots.
BBC listener : Sir, the death of expression in Hindi films was due to the shrinking of parallel cinema, and even artists like you are preferring commercial films, and today film stars quote exorbitant price for working in a film, how can there be creativity in such circumstances?
Naseerudin Shah : Well, it is wrong to say that the actors have increased their rates. Today the overall cost of film making has gone up -- cost of raw stock, making of a set costs at least three times more than it used to ten years ago, property cost, dance masters and so forth all have trebled, or even, in some cases, hiked their rates more than four times.
It is easy to say that actors charge unbelievable costs, but please do not forget that actors do not get their payments upfront, they only receives the major part of the payment when the profits are distributed. So if some actors are getting unbelievable payments despite the films being a flop, then there is some system which operates. And, well, there are many myths about actors payments, and many factors perpetuate it -- to say that some actors could be sold better than others is a racket infact.
So far as I am concerned, I have been doing commercial films since the beginning of my career. My third film was Sunaina, in which I had sung songs and had danced also, though pretty badly, and needless to say the film was a flop. Apart from that, during that time I worked in many films such as Aakrosh, Manthan and Arth Satya. I have never said no to good films. I had a grouse against some film makers earlier that good films were not being made.
BBC listener : I feel that there is a certain intellect in the film world, but I fail to understand why do the film artists run after politicians. Now Sharmila Tagore has accepted a post from which Anupam Kher has been sacked. Kher had also been appointed when Vijay Anand was sacked. So why indulge in this humiliation game?
Naseerudin Shah : Well, it is not the film actors alone who are running after the politicians -- the only thing is that media attention on them is a lot higher -- people want to see their photographs in the newspapers. For example, if some MP were to be appointed the chief of the Censor Board, it would not make news and similarly his sacking would probably go unreported in the newspapers. It is the misfortune or good fortune, whatever you might call it, that people discuss film actors a lot more than anyone else.
Nagendar Sharma : But then aren’t the film stars playing with the emotions of the people by behaving in this manner?
Naseerudin Shah : What is new in it ? Players of the Indian film world have been playing with the emotions of the people since the decade of 70s when it was decided to make the same films over and over again -- just copy and cheat -- to the extent that even the names are not being changed. Bloody pure repetition again and again!
Film makers do not even bother to give an original title for their film, leave alone an original film! Who would take all the trouble for that? Whatever rubbish you offer to the public they would watch it, and this is keeping the business of some going, they are playing with the emotions, yes, but what is new in it?
They do not care about the emotions of the public. Had they been even a little bit bothered, there would have been at least a little bit improvement in our cinema. And look at the worst part, the excuse offered for this cheating and mediocrity is that the public wants to watch it -- which means the blame is also on the public! What can be done?
BBC listener : But why does a film star look for a future in politics? Why do film stars aspire to be leaders?
Naseerudin Shah : The entire game my friend is about power. The power that a film star tastes in this world, it intoxicates him, and this then becomes a habit, which cannot be got rid off. Then there is also this belief that acting life is confined to a certain youthful period and not forever. Therefore to remain in the spotlight, what better place could be there other than politics -- where they are welcome, there is power and in some cases more than even films!
BBC listener : How do you define the freedom of expression ?
Naseerudin Shah : This definition should be in words in which it could be explained, provided it is within the limits of my capabilities, and if it is well known then I should be provided this freedom. There was a time in history when the writings of Ismat Chugtai and Saadat Hasan Manto were considered vulgar, and talking in those trems was a taboo. Today you have channels which you could be ashamed of while watching them. Now I would say this in words, provided my credibility is not doubted. Pertinent modern example is of Veerappan, who wanted to tell about his life in a film, but could not do so and since he is dead, that is over now. I feel that if he wanted, he should have been allowed, and disallowing that also amounts to a type of censorship, and was a handcuff on the freedom of expression. Since he is no more now, there would have been a tremendous interest in knowing about his life, but it has been throttled by censorship.
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