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Bollywood’s Royals: Brave heroes on screen, spineless zeroes off it

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Hindi cinema is the richest, starriest business in our popular culture, way ahead of even cricket. Why is it also the most pusillanimous, going with the wind?

The chronically pusillanimous state of Hindi cinema brings back to me that Anand Bakshi line from the 1972 mega-hit starring Hema Malini and Sanjeev Kumar, Seeta Aur Geeta, hawa ke saath-saath, ghata ke sang-sang/O saathi chal. It means, simply: Let’s just go the way the wind blows.

Earlier this week, I had said that the Vidhu Vinod Chopra-Rajkumar Hirani film Sanju was dishonest in painting Sanjay Dutt as a gullible victim—mostly of feral journalists. Now I raise a broader question: Why do the biggest, most talented and successful film-makers of India suck up to the establishment so breathlessly? Or, at a time when a Robert De Niro can say “F… Trump” from the stage at a public event, why do India’s biggest film makers have to begin a new venture by gratuitously thanking Raj Thackeray?

Just who is that man? For all his bluster, he cannot win more than one seat in his state’s 288-member assembly and just 7 in his city’s 227-member municipal corporation. Why does an ambitious film have to pay obeisance to Raj Thackeray instead of even Lord Ganesha, the presiding deity of Mumbai and the God of auspicious beginnings? The answer is simple. He can win nothing but destroy much. So why take panga?

A picture of Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of ThePrintMumbai cinema (I try to avoid Bollywood) has had an old relationship, partly symbiotic and partly of mutual admiration with the mafias, both underground and overground. The larger point is, it is equally submissive and sycophantic before all authority, including the government.

It’s a curious facet of our society that our creative classes tend to be establishmentarian. Barring sections of the academia, painters and some media, most leaders of the creative and popular culture are happy to fawn at anybody who holds power, government or the mafias. You might give some leeway to classical musicians and dancers because those genres haven’t built much economics as yet. But why does Hindi cinema, with its multi-hundred crore opening weekends and multi-billion-dollar studios behave so disgracefully?

It originates in our durbari culture. Maharajas, and later Sultans and Badshahs, were patrons of art and culture. You had to be a court musician, dancer or painter to monetise your talent and acquire honours and fame. The royalty was succeeded by ‘Bharat Sarkar’, but the court culture remained. The government gave you grants, scholarships, foreign trips, sinecures, exhibitions, bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi and Padma awards. Two sets of creative people broke out of this early: Writers, especially poets, and painters. The first because of their strong Left orientation, and the second because painting became big, paying business.

The one that became the richest and the most powerful unfortunately became the most supine. Its initial fire went out with the generation of Leftists—lyricist-poet Gulzar, 83, is among the few left with a spine. The rest mostly became grovelling durbaris and court-bards. In generations now, only a few top stars ventured into real, competitive politics. Amitabh Bachchan retired hurt within three years. Never to again utter a word which would seem even remotely questioning anybody in power. He did acquire a voice briefly to outrage over ‘Nirbhaya’ and a few other trendy issues, but that was when the UPA government had already been decapitated and knee-capped. But we know how “dignified reserve” became his mantra over the more recent Kathua and Unnao. You might play “Sarkar” in a film, but why take panga with a real one? Some honourable exceptions such as Raj Babbar, Shatrughan Sinha, Hema Malini, Smriti Irani, even Divya Spandana bravely carry on.

You wouldn’t complain so much if your top filmmakers weren’t so sanctimonious. Hirani has made brilliant hits with strong social messaging, from 3 Idiots to PK and the Munna Bhai series. With Mission Kashmir, Chopra taught us patriotism and we showed grateful appreciation as his good guys demolished ISI’s abominable designs in his native state.

But in the city where they live, they gave the same ISI an easy way “out”. Sanju as a gullible victim works much better with the “Aam Janata” than a fascinatingly flawed yet talented character. More important, Dawood Ibrahim, brother Anees (who Dutt is said to have called six times on the day he received the rifles, grenades and ammunition) and the mafia are still alive and run their empire from Karachi. Why take pangas?

The top stars have an easy excuse: They have too much at stake. Aamir Khan made the “mistake” of speaking out once, and the blow-back hurt him. His biggest brand-sponsorship deal was shamefully withdrawn and the senior lot in his industry didn’t speak for him. Shah Rukh Khan hadn’t even gone that far when he was hit in the neck, and has been mum since. Shah Rukh has at least made a silent statement by playing leading characters with Muslim names in several films. Salman, on the other hand, has focused entirely on playing a good, all-conquering Hindu, demolishing even ISIS in one of his latest. He’s got a problem you see, being a convict like Sanju.

Conventional logic is, popular culture reflects the reality of our times. In India cinema sniffs this earlier than even politicians or marketers. But Hindi cinema has ceased to do so lately. It’s been “opening” obsessed, short of ideas and while there’s been some venturing into socially relevant themes, the trope always is the Superman hero. The media dare not complain for fear of losing access. Even on Sanju, I am not complaining that it throws an ugly “gaali” at journalists. I fully understand cinema being contemptuous of journalists when they can happily buy prime newspaper space and TV time, adulation and reviewer star-ratings for money. With tariff cards and all. My simple point was this won’t change the history of the 1993 bombings.

The powerful film world can be an agent of change and help protect the weak, underprivileged and minorities. It can’t do so when it instinctively bows to anybody with power, the government, bully like Raj Thackeray, or Dawood Ibrahim. They won’t even challenge social prejudice and hierarchies. They might make a film on toilets because the government would like it, but none of the top 10 stars of Hindi cinema has played a Dalit, or even a distressed farmer, in a long time. Southern superstar Rajinikanth does so with pride and panache.

Remember, the same film world had prostrated itself before the bhais. They didn’t go in a procession to the prime minister to protest. They quietly made their peace with the mob. And later, when a small band of Bombay Police shooters started putting the gangsters away in “encounters”, they began worshipping them.

I featured two of these, sub-inspectors Daya Nayak and Pradeep Sharma, each with a score of about a hundred “kills” on my NDTV show ‘Walk The Talk’. Nayak told the story of how the grateful superstar of superstars financed the construction of a hospital in the cop’s mother’s name in his native village. He then left Bombay Police top brass astounded by going to the village in Karnataka to inaugurate it. But when the same cops got into trouble with the courts, were suspended and arrested (later acquitted), nobody helped. They no longer had the guns and licence to kill, so were expendable now.

Fortunately, there is a new hope. Many of the newer film people aren’t afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves and to question the powers that be. We should celebrate the fact that their tribe is growing, and becoming more successful. They aren’t the top stars yet, but some are getting there. They are a powerful, growing presence. The rest, at the top, can meanwhile keep going with the wind, hawa ke saath-saath, ghata ke sang-sang

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  1. ideally it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that people go about their life and business without fear. but as is usual with developing countries [brazil-favela] the gangsters ruled the old bombay of 90’s. I wonder if these events of babri demolition-mumbai riots had not taken place……….the present day mumbai would still have been ruled by gangs……in india things happen [unplanned] in such a way by itself…………

  2. ideally it is the responsibility of the state to have a system where everybody can go about their life and business without any fear. but the conditions in old bombay emerged as is usual in developing countries [brazil favella] that gangsters were ruling bombay. I wonder if this episode of babri demolitions and riots and bombay blast had not taken place….maybe these gangsters may have been still intimidating people[to this day]…….somethings in india happen in such a way [which no body plans] …

  3. The film industry was not hob nobbing with underworld any more than police and political class. Those were times when film folks saw that and understood that they have no choice. Top cops always received calls from underworld and also cracked deals to stage encounters so that common man can read in press that system is working. Maya Dolas killing is the prime example. The critic of press in Sanju clearly spotlights the yellow journalism who get eyeballs with phrases like question mark, alleged and sources. All press is not same and all film people are not the same either. Film people have always supported social causes and garnered donations of crores of rupees. Your article, I am afraid, is not balanced. And yes what about Cobrapost? Why so quiet on that?

  4. Hema Malini, Smriti Irani and Raj Babbar are the establishment. They are not the lone voices raised against power. You need to wake up mate!

  5. …..who Dutt “is said” to have called six times…
    Was this proved in the court or not or it’s just another sources story by arm chair Journos. Mr Dutt has done his time in the prison and is a free man to tell his side of the story.

  6. It is a bit rich coming from Shekhar Gupta when he did nothing about the Cobrapost expose which captured how partisan and mercenary the media is! When you don’t do you job as the 4th estate, why do you suddenly want only the movie industry to do so? Will you guys in the media not do a full witch hunt against any movie personality who will speak the truth about the current government?

  7. Good Article but wishful thinking. Also like most businesses the prime aim of Movies is making money. The questioning of the establishment is fine but making Political statements via movies is also a distortion of entertainment’s main purpose. It would be like enforcing your views on the audience. Also asking tough questions is the Job of a journalist, not an actor. It is easy to be tough when you have nothing to lose. Why do we want everyone to be an activist?

  8. A childhood memory – which explains part of the diffidence this column notes – from growing up in Bombay. We would discuss how much the top stars charged per film, neatly broken up into ” black ” and ” white “.

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