FLAME in the news | July 16, 2021

Unlike today’s Bollywood actors, Dilip Kumar never withheld from speaking his mind

The recent demise of thespian Dilip Kumar has led to an outpouring of grief on social media and quite rightly so. The nation has just lost one of its most consummate actors who will always be cherished for his versatility. While reminiscing his work, people will discuss Daag, Naya Daur, Madhumati, Sagina Mahato, Shakti and other films. Though he had retired from acting and was ailing for a long time, his presence served as a reminder of a sensibility that has now come to elude the contemporary Hindi film industry.

Standing up for causes

Kumar was a successful actor, a superstar so to speak who never withheld from speaking his mind or endorsing the causes that he believed in, most of which were humanitarian. He was regularly involved in relief work during the various riots that rocked Mumbai. He stood resolute with Deepa Mehta when she was vilified and attacked during the release of her controversial film, Fire. Kumar frequently spoke against and denounced acts of fascism and majoritarian fanaticism. In the late 1990s, he went to Lucknow to express solidarity with the cultural organisation, Sahmat, after it met with a vicious attack by communal goons. Kumar’s detractors bayed for his blood and often threatened him with consequences by regularly protesting outside his Mumbai residence, but the actor refused to yield to political pressure.

This idealism or ability to confront the truth is a rarity in contemporary Bollywood. Increasingly, over the last few years, its films have taken a hypernationalistic turn, often distorting history to please a certain majoritarian sentiment. This distortion of history via film is an effective strategy aimed at proselytisation. There are several examples of such films, including Kesari, Tanhaji and Panipat. The trend of such films has increased. Several are in the pipeline clearly with an eye on commercial benefits.

What are the top stars of Bollywood doing to combat the climate of hate that prevails in the country? Most of them have gone silent. Some who spoke up in the past were viciously trolled into silence, their films threatened with boycott. Commercial gains have suppressed larger interests. At the end of the day, it is a commerce-driven industry, and the personal wealth of the stars is also determined by the prospects of their films. However, this same lot that can’t stop talking about Kumar as an inspiration to them needs to engage in some self-reflection. Here, perhaps we also need to ask: was Dilip Kumar part of a different India where an actor could protest and still get work without the fear of larger curbs? It must be said that Kumar was also enthused by the progressive ideals of a newly independent India which the current lot of superstars lack completely.

Far from reality

The ongoing pandemic has further radicalised our viewing habits. With a surge of OTT platforms, there is a new access and heightened awareness amongst the mainstream Hindi cinema audience about other Indian film cultures such as Tamil and Malayalam. New as well as old films are released and available on these platforms. Watching Malayalam and Tamil cinemas specifically alongside contemporary Hindi cinema has made audiences realise that the larger questions and concerns facing the country are perhaps posed in those film cultures beyond the glamour citadel of Mumbai whose cinema seems to be increasingly irrelevant to the reality of contemporary India. Contemporary Hindi cinema has nothing to compare with films like Karnan or Veyilmarangal. Purely fantasy-based escapist cinema can never outperform cinema confronting the real. What will Hindi cinema do when this realisation dawns upon its audiences? May be Kumar’s death could be reckoned as a wakeup call to attempt necessary course correction.

- Prof. Kunal Ray, Assistant Professor – English Literature