Long before Akshay Kumar, there was Kishore Kumar. In 1975, soon after the Emergency was declared, Indira Gandhi’s government was keen to get Bollywood to push her 20-point programme and asked the singer-actor to perform at a Youth Congress rally. Kumar refused. In a patently vindictive action, the then information and broadcasting minister, VC Shukla “ordered” a ban on the singer across All India Radio and Doordarshan. Kumar was not alone in the film industry in standing up to the Emergency. Others such as Dev Anand, Manoj Kumar and Shatrughan Sinha also refused to toe the line.
Long before the present stars of Indian cricket, there was Bishan Singh Bedi. The legendary left arm spinner tangled with the cricket board authorities on several occasions, once even being banned for a test in 1974 for protesting against the meagre allowances given to the players on tour. Now in his 70s, Bedi has been a rebel without a pause — a perennial anti-establishment figure.
So where are the Kumar and Bedi equivalents in today’s world? Why are today’s film and cricketing superstars so unwilling to stand up to any form of executive power and instead resort to obsequious sycophancy, the latest example being the flood of near-identical tweets on farm laws? Those who have never said a word on hundreds of farmer suicides are suddenly expressing their concern over the kisan protests. But by being so obviously part of a central government-organised social media counterblast, in response to a single tweet on farm protests by artiste Rihanna, our iconic stars have reduced themselves to copy-paste cheerleaders, seemingly lacking a mind of their own. In a regime paranoid about image management, the hugely popular stars are pawns in a perception war, remote-controlled by an all-powerful Big State, any defiance of which could lead to unforeseen consequences.
It isn’t as if this is entirely a post-2014 phenomenon. Controlling or at least co-opting popular culture icons has been a favourite pastime of every political party in power. Only now, it is much more brazen in intent and execution.
When the State bestows patronage on its ideological fellow-travellers and ruthlessly targets its critics, the temptation to follow the leader is that much greater.
Fear of retribution is a key factor in pushing our celebrities to toe the official line. From opening up income tax files to lodging enforcement directorate inquiries, State agencies are routinely used to expose the soft underbelly of the rich and famous. The Rhea Chakraborty case last year is a classic example of how untrammelled State power can terrorise the film industry — the danger of a knock on the door from the Narcotics Control Bureau is omnipresent.
Moreover, it isn’t just the ruling political elites which are guilty of threat and intimidation. We now have self-styled vigilante groups, State-sponsored social media armies and even some citizens who act as big bullies, unleashing a deadly campaign of cyber abuse and violence.
The common strand that unites these forces is their strident espousal of a majoritarian nationalism that effectively criminalises even the slightest expression of dissent as anti-national. In Hollywood, stars such as a Meryl Streep who speak truth to power are celebrated; in India, they are censured.
Recall when, a few years ago, actors Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan were accused of speaking out on the rising culture of intolerance in society. The street protests against the stars were engineered by an array of groups aligned to the Hindutva ideology, all aiming to question the “patriotism” of the Khans, their surname making them particularly vulnerable in a climate of rising religious bigotry. By threatening to boycott their films and coercing sponsors to withdraw their ads, the protesters were also consciously targeting the financial viability of these high-value brands. The stakes involved in commercial cinema are just too astronomical for most people to take a risk. This might at least partly explain why a top producer-director like Karan Johar had to personally apologise to a political figure like Raj Thackeray for the “hurt sentiments” of the Marathi manoos ahead of the release of one of his films.
Ironically, while most of our A-list celebrities have chosen the path of least resistance, it is those on the fringes of the fame industry who are braver and bolder. Perhaps because they feel they have less to lose, they tend to be more courageous. Take, for example, the growing tribe of popular stand-up comedians. A Kunal Kamra has refused to bend before a Supreme Court contempt notice while many others carry on regardless with their plucky entertainment acts. But when a stand-up comedian like a Munawar Faruqui is arrested and kept in jail for a month for an act he didn’t even perform, you ask yourself — how long before they too are reined in? As Kumar might well have sung: Yeh kahan aa gaye hum? (Where have we come?)
Post-script: While our film stars bend, what of our champion cricketers who are surely less dependent on government support? Well, when the key official in the cricket board is the son of the second-most powerful person in the country, do we really expect our cricketers to do anything else but discuss farm laws at pre-match team meetings!
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal
Original posted at www.hindustantimes.com