“I can very proudly say that I’m a part of this community,” actor Vikrant Massey said of Bollywood, in an interview last month. “We are the most liberal, we are the most democratic, we are the most inclusive society.” I’d agree.
The Hindi film industry may be guilty of nepotism, elitism, sexism, colour-bias, stereotyping and a dumbing-down of things, but the ecosystem has never been communal or exclusionary. In the nearly 30 years that I have been a film journalist, I can’t recall one conversation in which an artist or technician’s religion was mentioned. Or hearing that anyone got or didn’t get a job because of it.
Diwali is usually celebrated at parties thrown by both Aamir Khan and the Bachchans. I remember the industry converging at a lavish Eid celebration at Shah Rukh Khan’s house right after the release of Chennai Express. Many film families, including Salman Khan’s, bring a Ganpati idol home during Ganesh Chaturthi.
Bollywood’s is a syncretic culture. Which might be due more to pragmatism than progressiveness. Everyone here is chasing the Holy Grail — a blockbuster — and will work with whoever serves the cause. The supreme deity worshipped is the box office.
Secularism has a long history in the industry. In his biography, Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet, author Akshay Manwani quotes the writer Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, who, like Sahir, was part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement.
Abbas is writing about a procession for communal harmony organised in Bombay on the eve of Independence, in 1947. In the procession were members from 52 film industry associations. As it moved from Gateway of India to Bandra, Abbas writes that the procession passed “through exclusively Hindu and Muslim areas, thus removing the unseen barriers that were dividing Bombay into little bits of ‘Hindu Bombay’ and ‘Muslim Bombay’.”
In the procession, which Abbas describes as a ‘grand success’, were Prithviraj Kapoor and his young sons Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor, Balraj Sahni, Chetan Anand and Dev Anand; in another truck rode the writers Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhianvi and Majrooh Sultanpuri.
A show of strength like this seems impossible today. Bollywood is polarised along political lines. The economic impact of the pandemic and almost four months of battering following Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic death have left the industry fractured and devastated.
Conversations are thick with dread and paranoia. But the essence of inclusion remains the same. As Javed Akhtar said to me recently: “When it comes to movie-making, communalism or regionalism or any bias will not work… They can’t afford to be communal. Only those people who don’t have direct stakes can be communal.”
Is this what makes the powers that be so nervous? Is that why there is such a focused effort to muzzle artists with fear and trolling? Which has been effective, at least for now. Artists are lying low because they are interested in telling stories, not in getting caught in cultural crossfire that results in shrill abuse on social media and calls for bans on the work they have created.
But in the long run, this approach cannot work. Because film is a collaborative art built on talent. In the film Mee Raqsam (released this August; directed by Baba Azmi, presented by Shabana Azmi and dedicated to their father, Kaifi Saab, who was an ardent advocate of India’s composite culture), the protagonist Salim puts it eloquently. Defending the right of his teenage daughter to learn Bharatanatyam, Salim says, “Kala ka koi mazhab nahin hota.” Exactly.