If I write today in defence of Bollywood, it is not just because I think it stands for those real secular values that need to be cherished more today than ever before.
In those first months of Narendra Modi’s first term, when I was a ‘Modi bhakt’, I had a conversation with an RSS intellectual about Bollywood that makes more sense today than it did then. We were at a book launch on a cold Delhi evening and got talking about politics and Bollywood came up in a context I no longer remember. The memory that remains clear is him saying, “We are training young Hindu boys to have six packs so that we can oust the Khans from Bollywood. They have too much power.” The memory of this conversation has come back to haunt me in recent days, as I have watched Bollywood maligned on news channels that pass off unabashed government propaganda as news.
Last week some of the most powerful people in Bollywood finally reacted by filing a defamation suit against four anchors from these channels. In their suit they objected to the use of words like ‘filth’, ‘scum’, ‘druggies’ and ‘dirt’ by these anchors who, in their efforts to prove that Sushant Singh Rajput was murdered, made the Hindi film industry sound like a den of vice and evil. Night after night they hurled abuse at an industry that for decades has been the most important vehicle of Indian soft power. And, over and over again I remembered that conversation I had with the RSS intellectual. The RSS has an antipathy to Muslims that is no secret. But, this was not the only reason why he wanted to ‘oust the Khans’. What seems to be the real reason behind the attack on Bollywood is that it represents secular values that in these Hindutva times have absolutely no place.
There are two kinds of secularism in India. One is the kind that LK Advani once called ‘pseudo secularism’ and which became the Congress Party’s main method of keeping its Muslim vote bank intact. Instead of schools and jobs, Muslims were given Haj subsidies and other religious concessions. The high point of this ‘secularism’ was when Rajiv Gandhi changed the law to allow Muslim men to use the Shariat to avoid paying maintenance to divorced wives. It was inevitable that a correction would happen and it has in this first year of Modi’s second term in an ugly way. Social media platforms have been used to spread hatred against Muslims and even Urdu. When they want to insult me, for instance, they call me ‘Mohtarma’ (Madame in Urdu) or Bibi without realising that most Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs use the word Bibi for mother.
In this atmosphere of hatred and vile abuse if there is one formidable bastion that has stood in the way of the malevolent ‘new normal’, it is Bollywood. Not only has it shown that ideas like ‘love jihad’ have no place in its world but it chooses to remain oblivious to the creed or caste of those who enter its portals. All that matters here is whether the box office likes a movie or a movie star. This is why the charges of ‘nepotism’ flung at the industry by those who would like to see it destroyed are absurd. No amount of nepotism can make an actor a star if the box office rejects him and yet we have seen Bollywood ‘nepotism’ discussed for weeks on primetime. Why it now seems like a campaign led by men at the very top of the BJP is because print journalists of Hindutva persuasion, who write about economics and politics, have leapt in to write articles about how Bollywood makes ‘anti-Hindu’ films. The charge is pathetic and ludicrous.
If I write today in defence of Bollywood, it is not just because I think it stands for those real secular values that need to be cherished more today than ever before. But also because those who want to destroy our most powerful weapon of soft power are doing India real harm. On my travels I have heard Hindi film songs in the deserts of Morocco, in night clubs in Europe and seen the black market for pirated Hindi films that flourished in Lahore and Karachi when tensions were so high that some military dictator banned their import.
It is my fervent hope that the efforts being made to demean and perhaps destroy Bollywood fail, but there is no point in denying that the men who want to see it destroyed are today extremely powerful. They are determined to use Bollywood as a vehicle to spread their version of ‘nationalism’. If in the process they end up causing more harm than good, they could not care less. It saddened me when Bollywood seemed to react in a spineless, supine way to these efforts to attack its very foundations. And this is why it pleased me to see the film fraternity come together to fight back last week. It pleased me more because this happened in the week that the mighty Tata group bowed to Hindutva goons on social media and removed that Tanishq commercial that portrayed with elegance and beauty what real Indian secularism is about.
This is a time when Indians who believe that real secularism is worth fighting for to stand up and speak. They will need to speak loudly because there are too many who shriek ‘sickularism, sickularism’ much too loudly these days. Fanatics are stupid so they do not see that it is they who are sick.