For Hindi film industry, have Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan set template to counter detractors?

Two of the most beloved and successful actors in the history of Indian cinema, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, recently took the proverbial better-late-than-never step to flag censorship and trolling of the entertainment industry.

At the inauguration of the 28th Kolkata International Film Festival on Thursday, Bachchan raised the issue of freedom of speech and censorship in the industry, while Khan pointed out the “narrow-mindedness” that drives social media. Khan’s comments came against the backdrop of a controversy surrounding a song in his upcoming movie Pathaan. Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra has objected to Deepika Padukone’s costumes in the song and has warned to ban the film in the state.

Bachchan and Khan’s speeches are significant as Hindi film greats in the recent past have tended to remain silent in the face of political attacks. Bachchan has remained quiet over the years, even as the industry, repeatedly hailed by the government as India’s “soft power,” has been subjected to a series of slanders under one pretext or another. In recent years, Khan, known for his wit and caustic wit, has also not made any public statements despite being targeted multiple times by his films and his religion.

Whenever Amir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan have spoken about how intolerance has won social money, they have faced backlash. The film industry’s inability to come together – while aware that these statements merely reflected concerns about polarization and social division – has emboldened those behind the trolling. While the government forces trying to control the industry in their favor is not a new phenomenon, after the BJP government came to power in 2014, extra attention is being paid to censoring films and shows.

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In recent years, the industry has also become the target of multiple agencies: the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate, and the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB). While the BJP has claimed no interest in “ruling Bollywood” as the Hindi film industry is popularly referred to, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has admitted an “interest” in the industry. “Whatever the industry makes, they make it for the people of India, and the RSS is interested in what is being done for the people of India. But we are not going to get it under control,” said RSS leader Pramod Bajpat The Indian Express in 2020.

The industry is more divided than before as public sentiment is whipped up against some of the popular stars by the media and social media. As a result, both movie personalities and their works are under constant scrutiny.

Bachchan’s concerns reflect reality on the ground. Referring to the history of censorship, he said: “Even now, ladies and gentlemen – and I am sure my colleagues on stage will agree – questions are being asked about civil liberties and freedom of expression.” Though many on social media tried in vain to twist his statement and projected it as a dig at the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjeeit was clear that the veteran superstar was talking about stifling creative freedom.

Referring to Ganashatru, one of Satyajit Ray’s seminal works, he said: “In this chamber drama, about a jaundice epidemic caused by water pollution suppressed by both the state and the local temple, Dr. Asok Gupta (the protagonist) becomes the enemy of the people, fighting for justice.”

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While there have been cases of top shelf celebrities over the decades – van Kishore Kumar, Dev Anand and Shabana Azmi to Anurag Kashyap and Prakash Raj – and other movie personalities who raise their voices against the establishment, it has become a rarity these days. Most celebrities have adopted survival strategies such as keeping a low profile, avoiding confrontation and, in general, walking the line. And those like Richa Chadha, Swara Bhaskar and Hansal Mehta who speak out against bigotry are falling victim to social media abuse.

So it makes sense that Khan talked about “negativity” increasing social media consumption and how “such pursuits often embed a collective narrative and make it more divisive and destructive.” The actor also offered a solution. He said the need of the hour was to build a better world for future generations by “using the power of cinema as a vehicle for people of different cultures, colors, castes and religions to better understand each other”.

The question remains, will Indian filmmakers rise to the challenge? Using the cinematic language allows them to provide a story that counters the hate agenda and attacks.

Bachchan and Khan’s statements can be seen as a setback for an industry that has long suffered largely in silence. For now, it seems to be a small step taken by the two industry exhibitors to assert the power of cinema. What Khan and Bachchan have been doing, personalities in Hollywood and Europe, and countries like Iran, have been doing for a long time. It remains to be seen if the industry can band together to turn it into a giant leap forward against its opponents.

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