When Bollywood Biggies Did Not Hesitate to Speak Out Against the Government


When Bollywood Biggies Did Not Hesitate to Speak Out Against the Government

Illustration: Arati Gujar

In the summer of 1976, the then Information and Broadcasting minister, Vidya Charan Shukla, issued a gag order to the state-owned broadcasters Doordarshan and All India Radio to ban all songs and films featuring Kishore Kumar. The blanket ban came during Indira Gandhi’s flirtation with dictatorship – the Emergency. The darkest hour of India’s democracy witnessed almost the entire opposition being locked up, the press being heavily monitored and censored, and civil liberties being curtailed. The ban on Kumar stayed for almost a year and a half – only revoked when the Emergency ended and the Indira Gandhi government was voted out of power in 1977. But the question remains: What had the veteran singer done to earn the government’s wrath? 

Back then, the government’s spin doctors were working overtime to further propaganda in support of the Emergency. The I&B ministry reached out to several top filmmakers to make ads and jingles promoting Sanjay Gandhi’s pet project – the 20-point Economic Programme, launched after the imposition of the Emergency. When officials approached Kishore Kumar, he bluntly declined telling them that he didn’t wish to sing for radio or TV. The babus duly reported the singer’s curt refusal to toe the government’s line to their boss, VC Shukla. This came after Kumar had refused to perform at a Youth Congress rally in Bombay. Naturally, Shukla was convinced that it was time to teach the superstar singer a lesson and send a strong message to the film fraternity.

That’s not to say that there weren’t Bollywood stars who didn’t fall in line when the government ordered them to do so. Manoj Kumar, for instance, was initially a supporter of the Emergency and yet, in no time, he emerged as one of the prominent voices of dissent. When Shukla’s cronies approached him with an offer to direct a pro-Emergency documentary, he was livid. Not only did he refuse but also asked Amrita Pritam, who had written the script, if she had sold out. Kumar soon faced the consequences. Just two weeks before his movie Shor was all set for a second theatrical release, it was mysteriously telecast on Doordarshan. Two weeks later, the film bombed at the box office as no one went to the theatres to buy a ticket to watch the film again. Then when his film Dus Numbri was banned, Kumar challenged the decision in court spending several sleepless nights and lakhs of rupees from his own pocket. The silver lining arrived when he won the case, which earned him the honour of being the only filmmaker in the country to win a case against the Emergency.

The deafening silence of Bollywood biggies can’t be chalked down to them being apolitical either.

Even Dev Anand and Shatrugan Sinha were not spared when they refused to comply with the government’s diktats. Just like Kishore Kumar, Anand and Sinha’s movies were banned on Doordarshan. Anand along with his brothers, Chetan and Vijay Anand, went on to become one of the fiercest critics of the Emergency, dubbing it as an insult to the people of India. Sinha, on the other hand, was reportedly threatened that he would be implicated in the Baroda Dynamite Case if he didn’t campaign for the Congress in Bihar. Joining these actors in their dissent against the dictatorial whims of the ruling establishment were industry’s bigwigs Gulzar, Raaj Kumar, V Shantaram, Uttam Kumar, Satyajit Ray, and Danny Denzongpa.

Four decades later, India is facing curbs on media, the internet has been shut down in cities amid the growing nationwide resentment and protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register for Citizens. But Bollywood seems to have forgotten its history of standing up to those in power. What makes their silence even more ironic is that these anti-CAA protests have been led largely by young students who form a massive chunk of Bollywood’s fanbase.

As the police unleashed a reign of terror in the Jamia Millia Islamia University two weeks ago, several big names from Bollywood including Shah Rukh Khan, Kabir Khan and Kiran Rao – all alumni of the university –failed to utter a word expressing their solidarity for students of their alma mater. Aamir Khan, who emerged as a “Sunday morning activist” of sorts for India’s middle class with Satyamev Jayate seems to have gone into a shell after his 2015 remarks on the growing intolerance kicked off a storm. For actors who have on several occasions proudly flaunted the fact that they come from a family of freedom fighters (SRK’s father Taj Mohammed Khan had been a part of Subhash Chandra Bose’s INA and Aamir’s great grand uncle was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad), the silence is a great disservice to legacy of their illustrious ancestors. 

The lack of spine in Bollywood is neither surprising nor is it new.

Even the younger crop of actors, supposedly more progressive, empathetic, and outspoken than the older generation, have been no different. On one hand, Ranveer Singh, the star of Gully Boy, which adapted Kanhaiya Kumar’s epoch-making chant of “Azaadi” into its soundtrack, remained conspicuous by his silence. And on the other, Deepika Padukone, Kareena Kapoor, and Akshay Kumar have instead chosen to look the other way and continue promoting their films. The likes of Vicky Kaushal and Ayushmann Khurrana – both of whom accepted the National Award on Monday even as the death toll in Uttar Pradesh kept rising  – resorted to the oldest PR trick in the book: the balancing act. Even when these actors have said something, it’s been as good as not saying anything. The select few who have been speaking out – Anurag Kashyap, Anubhav Sinha, Farhan Akhtar, Swara Bhaskar, Huma Qureshi, Parineeti Chopra, Dia Mirza, and Sushant Singh – remain in the minority.

The deafening silence of Bollywood biggies can’t be chalked down to them being  apolitical either. That argument surely doesn’t hold water given that several of these A-listers, who now choose to exercise their right to silence, have rushed to click selfies with PM Narendra Modi in January this year, when campaigning for the general elections were at its peak. The lack of spine in Bollywood is neither surprising nor is it new. But given our history of dissent, it is certainly disappointing. Maybe today’s actors could benefit from drawing inspiration from the actors in the ’70s, who understood that being a hero onscreen meant little if you weren’t invested in raising your voice and being a hero off-screen as well.