By Kahini Iyer Feb. 20, 2019
A sting by Cobrapost, Operation Karaoke, set up a fake PR agency that asked Bollywood celebrities to endorse a political party for money. But after a slew of propaganda films and biopics, are we really surprised to learn that the industry is full of actors who are cosily nestled in political pockets?
You’ve got to feel bad for the earnest, smart investigative reporters at Cobrapost. Last year, it published an exposé of national and regional media houses that only confirmed what all of us who have access to Republic TV already know. When offered the right sum of money, these “bastions of the Fourth Pillar of democracy”, from IndiaTV to DNA, agreed to spin pro-Hindutva sentiments in order to influence the 2019 election. In our post-Cambridge Analytica hellscape of fake news and info wars, the willingness of news organisations to place their diminishing bottom lines before their ethics has been well-documented.
And this week, Cobrapost dropped a “bombshell” once again by releasing videos of Operation Karaoke. The months-long sting saw Cobrapost set up a fake PR agency and contact Bollywood celebrities, asking them to endorse a political party on social media, in exchange for ₹two-to-50 lakh per post. The parties that Cobrapost claimed to represent varied between the BJP, Congress, and AAP.
Of the 40-odd celebrities who were approached, only actors Vidya Balan, Arshad Warsi, Saumya Tandon, and Raza Murad refused to promote any party for pay. Meanwhile, 36 stars including Vivek Oberoi, Sunny Leone, Shakti Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, Sonu Sood, Ameesha Patel, Rakhi Sawant, Mahima Chaudhry, Rohit Roy, Abhijeet Bhattacharya, Kailash Kher, Rajpal Yadav, and Ganesh Acharya, enthusiastically signed up to sell their souls, sell out their public, and endorse a political party. Despite the damning video evidence from secret recordings, Sood and Leone (who allegedly agreed to support the BJP if her husband was granted overseas citizen status) have already released indignant statements. Then there is Bhattacharya, who was infamous for his inflammatory, bigoted remarks even before Operation Karaoke caught him endorsing genocide of Rohingyas.
But are we really surprised to learn that Bollywood is full of actors who are cosily nestled in political pockets?
On one hand, plenty of film personalities go on to leverage their famous faces into political careers. The BJP has Smriti Irani, Hema Malini, and Shatrughan Sinha, while the Congress has Divya Spandana, Raj Babbar, and Govinda.
Bollywood, on the other hand, requires no declarations of political affiliation, and no campaigns beyond the average press tour. Just last week in an interview with Film Companion, critic Anupama Chopra asked Gully Boy stars Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt about the dissonance between the politics of their work and that of their personal lives. Chopra pointed to a picture of Ranveer hugging PM Modi and spoke about the song “Azadi” in Gully Boy, inspired by Kanhaiya Kumar’s anti-establishment anthem from 2016. Both actors gave ambiguous answers which concluded with a declaration that they are “apolitical”.
When Vicky Kaushal was asked a similar question about whether his 200-crore generating film Uri, based on the surgical strikes in Pakistan in September 2016, was propaganda, he merely said that he would not have been a part of such a movie — a response that is no different from Leone’s claim that she’d never endorse a political party for money. Of course, Kaushal can hardly be blamed for doing his job, but to say that a fervently nationalistic military movie that is frequently quoted by the government, however well-made, is devoid of political intention, is disingenuous at best.
Of the 40-odd celebrities who were approached, only actors Vidya Balan, Arshad Warsi, Saumya Tandon, and Raza Murad refused to promote any party for pay.
This year has also seen the rise of a uniquely awful genre: The campaign film poorly disguised as a biopic, featuring an actor poorly disguised as a politician. There was The Accidental Prime Minister, where Anupam Kher, whose wife Kirron is a BJP MP, creates a ridiculous impression of PM Manmohan Singh. Even more ham-handed are the exaggerated portrayals of the evil, scheming, “foreign” Sonia Gandhi, and Rahul as her village idiot son. Coming soon is a biopic on Narendra Modi where Vivek Oberoi plays the prime minister. Can you really be surprised that the same actor agreed to make some extra money on the side by endorsing the BJP? And it’s not just Bollywood going the biopic way — just two weeks ago, Yathra, a Telugu biopic glorifying the late CM of Andhra Pradesh, YS Rajasekhar Reddy, and starring Malayalam superstar Mammootty, released.
Actors have been hobnobbing with politicians since forever. The Bachchan-Gandhi friendship goes back in time, and in recent years, we’ve seen Shah Rukh celebrating with Mamata Banerjee and Salman Khan flying a kite alongside PM Modi. And what choice does Bollywood have but to toe the party line? Because those who dare to speak up are branded anti-nationals.
When veteran actor and filmmaker Amol Palekar, giving a eulogy of painter Prabhakar Barwe at the National Gallery of Modern Art, dared to criticise the Ministry of Culture, he was promptly shut up. At an event filled with artists, no one spoke up for Palekar — and nor did his film fraternity. In December, Naseeruddin Shah joined the list of actors who deserve to move to Pakistan, by expressing his fears for his children in reference to the murder of a policeman in Bulandshahr over cow vigilantism. Ironically, his comments on intolerance were shouted down by members of the BJP, including Rajnath Singh. Since the incident at NGMA, Palekar has said that government interference makes it tough for artistes to take a stand. But he, along with a handful other actors, is an outlier.
Most of Bollywood might claim to be apolitical, but the truth is, it doesn’t care. If the money is good enough, they’ll endorse a political party. Heck, even make a “patriotic” propaganda movie. At the end of it all, the show must go on.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.