On November 8, 2017, a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic address in which he declared 500 and 1000-rupee notes as illegal, the Opposition was planning to observe it as a “black day”. The BJP, on the other hand, went into a celebratory mode, claiming they had won the fight against the black money, counterfeit currency and terror-funding.
The Modi-led BJP, during the last one year, has come out with flying colours in electoral battles in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, pummeling the Congress party. The victories were seen as an absolute endorsement of demonetisation, despite all the hardships that people faced, and a mounting toll of over a 100 people who died because of this adventure.
But someone was not amused, at all. Amid all the kerfuffle on social media, one man was leading the charge against the Prime Minister, asking if he would mind saying “sorry for the biggest blunder of our time.” The National Award-winning actor Prakash Raj was fast emerging as the voice of the voiceless, often chastising the Modi government for its policies.
While the Khan troika – Shah Rukh, Salman, and Aamir – fumigated themselves with no comments, Raj led a #justasking on Twitter, questioning the Prime Minister on his policies, his reticence, and the prevalent political atmosphere in the country. The south superstar, now a well-known face in the Mumbai film industry, took up the cudgels against the ruling party, something quintessential to actors from down south.
When, in January last year, celebrated Hollywood actress Meryl Streep, took to the stage at the Golden Globe Awards to receive Cecil B. DeMille honour, a lifetime achievement, she spoke her mind. Exactly two months before the same day, in a highly divisive campaign, the United States had elected Donald Trump to the office of President.
Before launching into a tirade against the then President-elect, although without naming him, Streep had shone a light on the diversity, the mainstay of the industry that had given her and the American society a lot to cherish. It was this diversity that the Republican nominee had assailed during the run-up to the polls.
Streep’s roughly 5-minute speech went viral on Social media; the mainstream media played it on the primetime, and Trump, with his bruised ego, responded, calling the actress “over-rated”. The monologue, however, prompted a debate in India as well. The age-old question – whether or not actors should be political – resurfaced.
It was significant for many reasons. The country had been a witness to a spate of violence against the Dalits and Muslims on mere suspicions of cow smuggling or cow slaughter. The word “intolerance” had made its way to the everyday parlance in India, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders scoffed at social activists, calling them names.
Shah Rukh Khan, in a conversation with the Indian Express, was one of the first actors to respond to the question. The ever-eloquent Khan showered praises on Streep, emphasizing that her speech stemmed from a) The “situation in the United States” and b) “She is in a space where she has the right to talk about it.”
Even in his measured response, including a dig at the earsplitting anchors, Khan reflected on the problem – that of a “space”. In 2015, Shah Rukh and Aamir had come under a sharp attack for saying that there was an atmosphere of “extreme intolerance” in the country. The groups on the extreme right of the political spectrum ran boycott campaigns against Shahrukh’s Dilwale and Aamir Khan’s Dangal, dragooning the two superstars into recanting their statements.
The Khans sought refuge in the “out of context” phrase. Aamir, in a bid to prove his “patriotism”, went on to say that he “was born in India and will die in India”. The perfectionist, in November 2015, at the Ram Nath Goenka Awards, had said that his wife had once asked him if they should ponder over “moving out of the country” owing to the “growing insecurity”.
The Bollywood draws the majority of its audience from the Hindi heartland, where the BJP has strengthened its position, particularly under the auspices of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The resistance to the “intolerance bogey”, as the party leaders and supporters say, comes from the areas that are BJP stronghold. The fear that their comments could have far-reaching consequences on the box office collection of films they star in, steers them away from anything remotely political.
The year 2017 was no different. There were lynchings, of Muslim men, in parts of Rajasthan, on the suspicion of “cow smuggling, cow slaughter, and love jihad”. Even the National Capital bore witness to such a crime when, in April 2017, three Haryana men were beaten up for transporting buffaloes in a mini truck.
In June last year, a minor Muslim boy was stabbed to death on a moving train in Haryana’s Ballabgarh district after an argument broke out over a seat. Outspoken Bengaluru-based journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered in cold blood in September when unknown shooters pumped her body with bullets outside her residence.
Another Muslim man, a daily-wage Bengali labourer, Afrazul was bludgeoned to death and his body set ablaze in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand, by a man, warning the Muslim community of a similar fate. It’s appalling, to say the least, how these horrific crimes hadn’t created the “space” and “situation” for the Bollywood to wake up from the slumber. While these household names were conspicuous by their silence, it was Prakash Raj who asked: "If lynching on the slightest doubt of cow slaughter is not terrorising," then what is. “If silencing even the slightest voice of dissent is not terrorising, then what is terrorising.”
In October 2017, ‘Marsal’, starring actor Vijay, was another film, apart from ‘Padmavati’, that drew the ire of BJP supporters and leaders alike. In one of the scenes, while addressing the media, Vijay importuned the people to “build hospitals before temples”. Besides this, some of his dialogues had a political hue, with subtle references to the Gorakhpur incident wherein more than 60 children had lost their lives for the shortage oxygen at the BRD Hospital. The government, later, said that “shortage of oxygen was not the cause of deaths”.
H Raja, the BJP General Secretary in Tamil Nadu, took an exception to the film’s “anti-GST stand” and demanded the producers delete these scenes. If that wasn’t enough, Raja, in a tweet, posted a photograph of Vijay’s voter ID, writing, “Truth is bitter”. The point he wanted to draw home was that “Vijay was a practising Christian”. He said that was the reason for his “hatred” for the Prime Minister. "He should have said build hospitals before churches; instead he says build hospitals before temples. It is like provoking Hindus," the BJP leader said. Days later, when the film had shattered numerous records and the audience had embraced its message, Vijay expressed gratitude, on a letterhead bearing his full name, “C Joseph Vijay”.
On the contrary, when a fringe Rajput group, Karni Sena, wreaked havoc, delivering inflammatory speeches, threatening to cut actress Dipika Padukone’s nose, and declaring a bounty on the head of Padmavati director Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the Bollywood found itself in a predicament.
The group alleged that the producers had distorted their history and portrayed Rani Padmini in a bad light. Its activists were seen issuing death threats, even brandishing swords, in television studios. The Sena claimed there was a scene in which “Padmavati and Alauddin Khilji shared intimate moments.”
In a theatre of the absurd, the otherwise-vocal and not-so-apologetic Salman Khan, on his show, Bigg Boss, asked Dipika if indeed there was any such scene. He then looked into different cameras and said that “there was no such scene in the movie and all the ruckus was uncalled for”. Salman didn't realize that his statement was setting a bad precedent and killing filmmakers’ artistic license, even if there was no interaction between Padmavati and Khilji.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the evening December 18, delivered his speech after victories in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, something was amiss. Though PM Modi sounded energetic, the BJP had just scraped through to the victory, winning 99 seats. This was Saffron party’s worst performance since the 90s when it established its foothold on the Gujarat turf. BJP President Amit Shah had, during the campaign, said that he was sure about getting 150 seats on PM Modi’s home soil.
The elections in Gujarat, by all standards, were a new low as far as the electoral discourse was concerned, and the Prime Minister himself was guilty. During a rally, PM Modi alleged that Pakistan was trying to influence Gujarat polls in order to install senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel as the state chief minister. Prakash dealt PM Modi a final blow on the same matter before 2017 came to an end. In a congratulatory message, sardonically, Raj wrote on Twitter, “Weren’t you supposed to sweep Gujarat with your Vikaas. What happened to 150+.”
The year 2017 will be remembered for a variety of reasons in India. It was a year free speech came under tremendous pressure, often held to ransom by extremists. There was no stopping the lynchings, and the ministers from the ruling party were right up there stoking communal hatred. The media kowtowed to the ruling party’s agenda and the Bollywood maintained an eerie silence on social issues. But decades later when India will look back, it will find one man, Prakash Raj’s, resistance against the mighty and all-powerful.
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