I was on a television panel discussion on Monday. Yup. Same one on which the anchor provides all the answers to questions asked by the nation. The topic was volatile (widespread vandalism of theatres screening the Aamir Khan starrer 'PK' in Ahmedabad, Bhopal and elsewhere) but the panelists were thanda. The panelists who were supposed to condemn the violence, that is. While those defending the disgraceful shenanigans belonged to right wing political/religious outfits, the three of us representing the 'voice of the people' were disappointingly muted. Well, I tried my best to be heard over the din of smug, self-appointed custodians of Hindu sentiments, but it was a frustrating and pointless exercise. I asked why the channel had not invited someone more 'tagda' to represent Bollywood.
The reply didn't surprise me - nobody of any importance from the movie industry wanted to speak up - for the principle, not an individual.
For the wrongness of what took place. Not for Aamir Khan. Or Raju Hirani. Or even the contents of the controversial movie. Speak up against these sort of intimidatory tactics. Speak up for our threatened freedoms. Speak up for democracy. Speak up for peaceful protests. Speak up for our own future, for heaven's sake!
Why? Bollywood is scared. Bollywood has reasons to be scared. Very scared.
And this is the real story: Bollywood is vulnerable. Perhaps more vulnerable than any other sector in India. It has always been this way. In earlier times, when Bollywood itself was run in an erratic, unprofessional and disorganized fashion, it was easier for anti-social elements to exercise control over the film industry. These 'elements' were dangerous and armed. They resorted to direct threats, blackmail and murder. The motive was money. Bollywood was a soft target for extortionists looking to make a killing the easy way. It was hard to stand up to these goons...and still stay alive. Some who tried to take on the underworld paid for it heavily.
Perhaps, this was when the term 'setting' was coined. It was a polite way of admitting you had done a deal with the 'Bhais'. Yes, it was hard to handle outright threats back then in the late 80s and early 90s.
Apparently it's even harder now.
Even though the Bhais are still around, the Bollywood model of doing business has changed. Bollywood is corporatized these days and run more professionally by men and women wearing Armani, not sleazeballs in polyester safari suits. But hello! The monies generated by superhits have gone through the roof, too! ('PK' has grossed Rs.233 crores already). The vultures are still circling the big studios. But there are new players on the scene who exercise muscle power and political clout to boot. Bollywood continues to run scared. There is no place to hide.
I don't blame big stars, producers, directors for not jumping into the latest 'PK' imbroglio. They simply can't afford the risk! There is far too much at stake and nobody wants to commit professional hara-kiri by challenging the might of shadowy outfits claiming to represent the majority.
This is such a shame. If Bollywood had indeed decided to take a joint stand and speak in one voice this time, perhaps the film industry would have benefitted in the long run. After all, this sort of wanton destruction serves no real purpose. It is not Aamir or Raju paying the price for the 'protests' - it is theatre owners! The movie has been cleared across the board. As chief of the censor board, Leela Samson has issued a sane statement in the wake of the debate. The Supreme Court's directives are abundantly clear. The film has been screened without any incident for 10 long days. All of a sudden there are violent reactions? Come on.
Is it cowardice or good sense that dictates how Bollywood reacts to threats? I'd say it's both. Silence has become the standard. Which, in a way, implies surrender. Most stars shy away from engaging in larger issues that concern the film industry. They remain obstinately non-committal. Or genuinely indifferent. This is just so short-sighted and selfish. If the big wigs in Bollywood get together and form a strong , singular body to represent their interests across the board, such attacks can be better addressed. It is not merely Aamir's problem or Hirani's problem. It involves everybody! Bollywood tends to segregate and compartmentalize crises, with zero show of unity when it is most required - like now.
Soon the 'PK' attacks will die down. But there will be more. Of that we can be sure. What then? Will Bollywood continue to play ostrich? Suffer amnesia and laryngitis? One hopes not...for its own sake.
There's nothing as sinister as the silence of the lambs...
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