Is it surprising that the Indian media ignored the first major public statement by Amitabh Bachchan on the current state of the country, after years of silence, and that too on an international platform?
Bachchan was speaking at the inaugural session of the Kolkata International Film Festival, where Shah Rukh Khan also spoke. The latter’s statement has drawn attention and has been publicly discussed. At least one leading newspaper has also commented on it editorially. But Bachchan’s statement was not considered worthy of discussion by the media. It was quite a long statement, written carefully and very significant in its content. Especially, in today’s Indian context.
And yet it went undiscussed. Why?
Is it because the glow of the star has faded or did something he said create discomfort in the media and the corridors of power? So his words should be buried deep. He is not Aamir Khan or Shah Rukh Khan, who could have been told to leave the country for making similar remarks. Since he cannot be condemned or attacked, he should be ignored.
In his speech, Bachchan did a historical survey of Indian cinema. But the remarkable thing was that the context of the survey was freedom of expression. Or censorship. Looking at the journey of Indian cinema from the point of censorship, the actor said that even today, “questions are being raised on civil liberties and freedom”.
For a person of Bachchan’s stature to flag the issues of ‘civil liberty’ and ‘freedom’ and go unheard is extraordinary. The media ensured that his voice did not reach the people. He was talking about censorship and he was literally censored by the media. That tells you a lot about what the mainstream media wants people to hear and what it keeps from them.
Bachchan is considered to be a supporter of the government. When the Gujarat government was facing worldwide criticism for the 2002 anti-Muslim violence, many artists in India spoke up but he chose to remain silent. In fact, he also contributed to the image makeover of the Gujarat government. He has not even felt the need to speak on the growing hatred and violence in India in the last eight years.
When a man like this expresses concern about the state of civil liberties and freedom of expression in the country, people should sit up and take notice. He is not a habitual contrarian.
Apart from raising the issues of civil liberty and freedom of expression, he made another significant observation. Tracing the history of Indian cinema, he said:
“Since early times there have been many changes in cinema content … from mythological films and socialist cinema to the advent of the angry young man … to the current brand of historicals, couched in fictionalised jingoism, along with moral policing.”
This remark by a senior actor like Amitabh Bachchan is also a harsh commentary on the Indian film industry, especially Bollywood. But it was also not considered worthy of discussion! Was this a comment on the recent spurt in the number of ‘historical’ films promoting hysterical Hindutva nationalism? In that context, his observation was remarkable.
So why did the media think it to be insignificant?
Bachchan said that to find our way in the present times we need to look up to our maestros. He mentioned three personalities, whose names nationalists would not even want to hear: Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak.
He briefly talked about the films of Sen and Ghatak but dwelt at length about Ray. That was the central part of his speech. He chose Ray’s film Ganashatru (Enemy of the People),calling it a cinematic response to today’s climate.
He said, “One of his later films, Ganashatru, can be taken as an indication of how Ray may have reacted to current times. In this chamber drama, about a jaundice epidemic caused by water contamination that is suppressed by both the state and the local temple, Dr Ashoke Gupta (the protagonist) becomes the enemy of the people, fighting for justice.”
Why is Ganashatru the most apt commentary on today’s India? Bachchan narrated its story so that his point was not lost. The film is Ray’s adaptation of the 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen.
When Dr Gupta tries to find out what is the source of the contamination, he learns that the infection is spreading due to the contaminated water of the well of the famous temple of the city. He requests the authorities to stop the use of its water and temporarily close the temple. But his own brother, who is a politician, opposes it. He says that this will tarnish the reputation of the temple and the town.
Dr Gupta writes an article to inform the people but it is not published by any newspaper. Exhausted, Dr Gupta wants to tell the truth to the people of the city by organising a public meeting. His brother reaches there and grabs the mic before him and instigates the public against the doctor. Using his rhetorical skills, he makes people believe that Dr Gupta is actually their enemy.
Consequences follow. Dr Gupta loses his job. His daughter is also fired from her job. Their landlord asks them to vacate the house. Thus, a respected person in the city gets punished for speaking the truth. He is turned into a ‘Ganashatru’.
A person who speaks an unpleasant truth out of concern for the interest of the public is turned into an ‘enemy of the people’ by those in power. And the public also goes after his blood.
It sounds so familiar. That Bachchan chose Ganashatru to comment on today’s era is important. The artist saw that in Gujarat, the people are told that Medha Patkar was the ‘enemy of the people’, that all the intellectuals who alerted the public against the virus of the politics of hatred and violence against Muslims in the country are the ‘enemies of the Indian people’.
Writers, artists and scientists who have been vocal in protesting against the continued violence against Muslims and Christians, after Akhlaq’s lynching in Dadri in 2015, have been derogatorily called the ‘Award Wapsi Gang’.
Bachchan’s junior colleague, Deepika Padukone, was called a member of the ‘tukde tukde Gang’ by leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party for standing with Jawaharlal Nehru University after it was attacked, allegedly by the thugs of the ruling establishment.
Parzania, a film on the anti-Muslim violence of 2002 in Gujarat, could not find a cinema hall in Gujarat. It was voluntarily banned for being ‘anti-Gujarat’. It was only showing the truth. Many journalists have been jailed and face criminal cases in Kashmir and the rest of India for telling people about the real state of affairs.
Be it JNU or Aligarh Muslim University, or Jamia Millia Islamia or Hyderabad Central University, or teachers and students and intellectuals, by declaring all of them as ‘Urban Naxals’, the public itself has been made to stand against them.
Hany Babu, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Jyoti Jagtap, Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam – all of them are ‘Ganashatru’ because they want to tell the public about the source of hatred and violence.
Had Satyajit Ray been alive, he is unlikely to have watched quietly as his people were infected by the virus of ‘Hindutva’. He cared for them, for their soul. That is why he made Ganashatru. Would he have met the same fate as his character, Dr Gupta?
Not surprisingly, Bachchan’s statements were not heard. Perhaps, it is more appropriate to say that the public was not allowed to be ‘contaminated’ by his views. But his words remain.
Featured image: Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan at an event. Photo: Reuters/Files
This article was first published on The Wire.