www.thehindu.com | June 15, 2020
Bollywood has never been the conscience-keeper of the country save for a few isolated attempts
The recent killing of George Floyd has led to large-scale riots and public demonstrations across the U.S. Angry mobs have taken to the streets protesting the inhuman treatment meted out to Floyd and several others like him — a violence which has become systemic. A filmmaker friend from Minneapolis wrote to me saying that people are angry and fed up. James Baldwin immediately comes to mind. Amongst others, he wrote about the tyranny of being black in America. I will never forget how hauntingly he wrote about the colour of his skin on account of which he was constantly stared at a small village in Switzerland.
Barry Jenkins’ masterful adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), features an African-American man being wrongly charged for a crime he never committed. When They See Us (2019), a web television miniseries created for Netflix, is based on a real incident. In it, five teens of colour from Harlem are falsely accused in a rape case and sentenced to prison. The U.S. has a long history of racial violence, which is deplorable to say the least.
India has its own ugly realities to deal with. Caste-based crimes are rampant even today. For many living in metropolitan India, news items on caste-based discrimination and violence introduce us to a reality that many may not have personally encountered. Cinema can play a significant role in initiating these dialogues owing to its wide reach. Contemporary Tamil cinema, for example, with proponents such as Vetrimaaran and Pa. Ranjith, does a fantastic job of delineating caste injustice in contemporary India.
Selective in espousal of causes
During the ongoing protests in the U.S., certain sections of the Indian media chose to highlight reactions from mainstream Bollywood stars sharing their anguish about the spate of events in faraway U.S. Many of these actors perpetually live in denial of the reality of their land. They are never seen or heard speaking about issues closer to home. For them and many of their followers, Black Lives Matter is just another hashtag that trends on social media. It is reduced to an empathy-generating spectacle.
One wonders how the same brigade remains silent when caste atrocities and events of other injustice are committed on a daily basis in the country they call home. Their studied silence during the recent protests in India owing to the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens bears further testimony to such behaviour. Why is mainstream Bollywood selective in its espousal of causes? Or do stars only want to be vocal about events which may not directly impact the fate of their films upon release? To say the least, this is an escapist attitude. Of course, it’s true that a small coterie of progressive faces from the industry is seen at protests. Some also speak up every other day on social media. But by no means should this be deemed representative of the industry. These are individual voices who also endorse these values through their films. Their number is small, though necessary.
Focused on economic gains
During a recent conversation, a Bollywood actor mentioned that there’s a lot of money at stake when a film is released. This could explain the silence of actors during moments of turmoil. But is that an excuse at all? What kind of a film culture have we created and endorsed that doesn’t think beyond economic gains?
Having said that, another question to ponder is, why should we care about what Bollywood thinks when the answer is already known? After all, Bollywood has never been the conscience-keeper of the country save for a few isolated attempts.
While a lot is being said about the aftermath of the pandemic, I cannot help wonder if it would also change the way film celebrities are treated in this country. Will we still care for empty rhetoric? Or will we, at least now, listen to those who lead by action through participation in long-term social change projects and who inculcate progressive values amongst their fan base?
-Prof. Kunal Ray, Assistant Professor – English Literature