A lot of my friends are expressing their anger at Bollywood actors, producers, etc., for not standing up to the bullying of Sanjay Leela Bhansali by Hindu right-wing groups over his film Padmavati. They are calling Bollywood stars spineless and opportunistic.
But I do not blame the Bollywood stars.
It is easy for us to sit in our armchairs and castigate them for not rising up to Bhansali's and Deepika's defense. But we are not the ones whose professions will be threatened by standing up. We do not work in professions where our fate is judged by the public at large. We can happily write our opinions on social media and face no consequences.
We do not have the right to ask others to become martyrs for our pet causes.
Let us face some facts here. India is under the spell of the Hindu right. The rise of Modi and the BJP to a 282 seat majority in the LS in 2014, and the subsequent state assembly wins in many states, even despite disasters like demonetization; despite (and maybe even because of) the high profile murders of people like Mohammad Akhlaque of Dadri, Pehlu Khan of Alwar, and Junaid Khan of Ballabgarh; and the murders of social activists like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, MM Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh - all this tells us that the majority of the people of this country support a militant right-wing Hindutva philosophy.
People in Bollywood create films. That's their profession. That's what feeds their families. If people stop watching their films, for any reason, they are out of a job. Nobody likes being out of a job, including people with money — even 75-year-old Amitabh Bachchan. In addition, a Bollywood actor needs to act responsibly. If people do not watch your movie, it is not just a loss for you. The producer, the director, the other actors in the movie, and the entire crew of the movie — everyone suffers in one way or the other. There are tens or hundreds of crores of rupees at stake.
The reality of the situation today is that if you speak out publicly against the BJP, against Modi, or against Hindu right-wing behavior, and you are a public figure, you will be punished.
Aamir Khan tried making a comment about rising intolerance in 2015, and we all saw what happened. People tried to create financial losses for him by boycotting his films and by boycotting his sponsors. It scared him so much that he made many conciliatory statements, including a plea to people not to punish his films. I have nothing but sympathy for him.
Do not call this behavior spineless. What else would you do if you depended on public approval to survive, and the public decided to punish you?
People are blaming Amitabh and others for being silent. Why should he put his livelihood at risk? As long as he is apolitical, people will watch his movies, prostrate to him when they meet him, and watch every episode of KBC. Let him criticize the right-wing establishment over Padmavati, and tomorrow the producers of KBC may be pressured to find a new host; offers in movies may start drying up; and he may stop being the brand ambassador of Swacch Bharat and the state of Gujarat — for which he is well-compensated.
Activism has serious consequences.
Some people will make the misguided comparison with Hollywood, and how so many Hollywood stars openly criticize Trump.
But there is a big difference. A recent poll showed that Trump only had a 35% approval rating, the lowest ever for an American President. In contrast, a recent Pew survey showed that Modi had an 88% approval rating in India. People in Hollywood have to face no consequences for criticizing their President. They are cheered for taking him on. People in Bollywood could lose their careers. They are jeered for their impudence.
So do not blame Bollywood for being afraid; blame the people of India for their huge swing towards the right; for being so tolerant of intolerance; and for supporting those who are trying to suppress free speech and expression by intimidation.
Modi is not the problem. He is merely the symptom of the malaise that has affected India. The country has taken a huge turn to the right over the last 25 years, and Modi is immensely popular because he identifies with the same causes as the majority of the people. Modi is merely an instrument of the wishes of the people. It is the current environment that turns up the leaders of the times. India is right now in a strong right-wing mood, and that is why Modi has risen to the top.
The lesson to remember is that democracy is not synonymous with liberal values. Democracy simply means that the majority rules. And today, this is the mood of the majority.