It looks like Bollywood took Shatrugan Sinha too seriously when he shouted “KHAAMOSH” back in the day.
I have a bone to pick with Bollywood. And that is that, even though the Indian Film Industry churns out expressive and impactful content for reel life, it seldom allows its members to express how they feel about the same issues in real life.
Bollywood has produced some of the most famous heroes including Gabbar Singh, Don and Badshah. They defy cops and politicians, outsmart villains and proclaim the good as the winner over evil, but why is this heroism only restricted to the screen? In this article, I will talk about the culture of silence in Bollywood. I will focus on three issues (sexism in Bollywood, personality cult, and nepotism and politics) that Bollywood is conveniently silent on, and then talk about the reason behind its silence.
To an outsider looking in, Bollywood seems like an in-group, a family. On Instagram, they are seen partying, going on trips, celebrating festivals together, where people comment on each other’s posts, offer support to each other in difficult times, and even collaborate on projects. This seems like the ideal workplace, but is it? With our fan pages and page 3 gossip, we have glamourized our industry enough, now it’s time we ask some questions.
Silence on sexism
It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that in the Indian society where sexism is rampant, the film industry has been left untouched by it. An industry, which objectifies women and treats them as props, would surely have its own Harvey Weinsteins, then why the silence?
Movies like Pink have enabled so many women to speak up against sexual violence. But the very industry, which produced such a film, is unable to catch on the flames of the #MeToo movement. It is ironic that stars like Mr Bachchan, who are champions of female rights on screen (Pink, 2016), were silent when the winds of change of the #MeToo movement came knocking on Bollywood’s door. Why this hypocritical behavior?
When the #Metoo movement saw a few responses from India, including when Tanushree Dutta spoke up about Nana Patekar, there was a glimmer of hope. Following her, Vinta Nanda also came out and spoke up about how Alok Nath (who by the way, ironically has done a movie called mai bhi or me too) assaulted her in 1999. But can a movement sustain itself without having moral support from the stalwarts of the industry? The #Metoo movement was so prolific in Hollywood simply because actresses like Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, and Cara Delvigne came out and supported it.
Personality cult and Nepotism: It’s a family thing
In comparison to Hollywood, Bollywood has a lot of families trying to use their surnames to appropriate the industry. That brings me to the second issue that Bollywood has carefully tried to shove under the carpet, i.e the personality cult and nepotism. Riding on the personality cult of a Bollywood star, their families have created an empire for themselves, which is used to keep out good talent — unless it’s on their terms.
For instance, the case of Abhinav Kashyap, the director of Dabangg 2, is testimony to how outsiders are treated in the industry. He claimed that his filming career was sabotaged by Salman’s family and that the projects that he was signing with Viacom Network and Shree Ashthavinayak Films were all getting called off. Speaking up against stars with a huge fan following is difficult.
Since we are on the subject of personality cult, let’s talk about Salman Khan. The “Bhai” of the industry is an absolute crowd favourite, no doubt. Salman Khan has gotten away with so much, it’s almost astounding. Despite being accused of domestic violence when in a relationship with Aishwarya Rai, he has managed to be revered by scores of people.
This is not all. The Bishnoi Samaj had registered a complaint against Salman Khan in court for killing two blackbucks, who the Bishnois believed were reincarnations of their god-guru Bhagwan Jambeshwar. His privilege got him out of jail pretty soon, and he did not serve the five years of the jail time prescribed to him by the court. Despite these two incidents, Salman is never questioned about them publicly.
Hush-Hush, It’s Politics!
The third arena where silence reigns is politics and social issues. In recent memory, many actors and actresses have been silent on the majoritarian laws unleashed by the government, including CAA and NRC, and the demonizing of Muslims thereafter. Some from the industry came out to support the Black Lives Matter movement which was noteworthy. But as civil society correctly pointed out, celebrities spoke up against something happening in the United States, but refused to raise their voice against police brutality, the crushing of dissent and violence in India.
But credit must be given where credit is due. Some stars like Deepika Padukone, Swara Bhaskar, Javed Jaffery and Anurag Kashyap attended the Anti-CAA Protests and actively participated in them as well. However, it’s important to note that those who did speak up are “outsiders” of the industry.
Firstly, people don’t speak up against a toxic culture because they are afraid that they might be otherized by the bigger group. They feel that they might end up losing their jobs, might not get picked for roles, or might just be shown the cold shoulder by their other teammates. For instance, in Tanushree Dutta’s case, the incident where she spoke up ended her career. Police refused to even register her harassment complaint properly at first. She said “I lost friends, I lost work, I went through periods of depression. When your work is taken away from you, you feel like you have no reason to wake up sometimes.”
Secondly, in a social structure like Bollywood which appears to be cohesive (on the face of it), almost like a family, no one really wants to undermine the harmony of the group. Even though conflict exists within, they never become overt. This phenomena is called group-think. Since no one raises their voice against the industry, there’s a sort of general feeling in the group that the problem doesn’t have to be talked about because it’s only me who’s facing it.
Each member believes that all members agree upon a particular decision or a policy, so no one expresses a dissenting opinion fearing unpopularity. This is a cause for not speaking up against the second issue, which is personality cult and nepotism. Speaking up against a charismatic personality is anyway difficult because of the popularity they command.
Thirdly, something like sexual assault is extremely personal, thus one must never blame the victim if they didn’t speak up. It’s the structure that is at fault, not them. Using Durkheim’s concept of “Social Fact” which is a force that is external and coercive to the individual, we can try and explain the silence. This Social Fact or coercive power prevents big or even newcomer actresses from talking about their own experiences with abuse. So when actors think that resistance may result in disapproval, they refuse to speak up.
Was this culture of silence a reason for Sushant Singh Rajput’s death too? Well, only time can tell.
While silence on nepotism and sexual discrimination hurts the individual, keeping quiet about political issues is a disservice to the citizens of the country.
I think it’s important for actors, directors, and producers to understand that they are not just individuals, but individuals linked to a social structure. They can’t deny that they don’t have any responsibility towards the citizens of the country, and towards people who are facing persecution on account of their identity. Their social, political, and economic capital is something that they can and must use to talk about political issues.
If Shah Rukh Khan posts a story in support of the anti-CAA protests, his fans, who earlier might not have wanted to delve into politics, would want to know more about it now because their favourite star has put it on his story. And let’s not undermine the power star endorsements have. If stars can convince you to use a particular brand of cream, they can also convince you to know more about a cause.
Being socially woke has its advantages. Today, many corporations and MNCs try to use social messages to advertise their products to attract liberal consumers. And it works. Similarly, as a liberal viewer, I might personally boycott a film with stars that don’t speak up and celebrate a film with stars that do. Speaking out can itself be a way of drawing fans and attracting the crowds to watch your performances over and above your talent.
However this kind of activism should not be just for the sake of appearing “woke”. Today’s netizens are smart; we can spot double standards. That is why performative activism will not do. For e.g., Priyanka Chopra was heavily called out for posting a story in support of the BLM Movement despite having done an ad for a fairness cream brand earlier in her career.
But it’s also important for us to understand that speaking up in itself is a privilege today. For celebrities who are targeted if they don’t speak up and even when they do makes this a tricky issue. Of course, we can’t assume that they will always be bastions of change. But they are entitled to their opinion, and they must not cower to any authority and speak up, if they feel like. Ultimately, it’s for our audience to decide whether we want our actors and actresses to be fulfilling the roles that they do in films in real life, as well.
Hopefully, a day will come in Bollywood when the response to “Mere paas bank balance hai, bangla hai, gaadi hai…kya hai tumhare paas?” will be “Mere Paas CONSCIENCE hai.” But until that day arrives, we must deliberate on whether we should idolize the Khans, the Kapoors or The Bachchans because their silence is complicit in the vices that surround Bollywood today.