Politics is Bollywood's Business

Should Bollywood interfere in the elections? Asking such a question is not only disingenuous and ignorant, it also reveals the nature of hierarchy.

If activists, academics, even mohalla groups, not to speak of the media, can take sides, why should the Indian film fraternity be denied the right to exercise its choice and promote it?

The yawn-worthy assertion that Bollywood has always been secular makes no sense, for it comes at a time when a group of film folks have decided to sign up for secularism. Bollywood stars have always campaigned for candidates, either out of choice or compulsion. They contest elections. They are called upon to join various causes – be it to promote tourism in Gujarat or for AIDS, against drugs, for the girl child, for eye donation, for toilets, for cleaning up the streets (where they even land up with brooms), and by the election commission too. The armed forces conscript them in the Territorial Army, and decades ago the Ajanta troupe run by Nargis and Sunil Dutt would go to the border areas to perform for the jawans.

3 parties, 3 Bollywood canditaes

We have discussions about how films impact society. Can they influence us and yet be apolitical? What, then, is wrong if a group of them decides to appeal to the public, when they are as much citizens as the goon who can knock on your door or the college punk who has suddenly transformed into a common man?

Here is the complete text:

Dear Fellow-Indians,

The best thing about our country is its cultural diversity, its pluralism - the co-existence of a number of religions and ethnicities over centuries, and hence the blooming of multiple streams of intellectual and artistic thought. And, this has been possible only because Indian society has prided itself on being essentially secular in character, rejecting communal hatred, embracing tolerance.

Today, that very sense of India is vulnerable. The need of the hour is to protect our country's secular foundation. Undoubtedly, corruption and governance are important issues, but we will have to vigilantly work out ways of holding our government accountable to that. However, one thing is clear: India's secular character is not negotiable! Not now, not ever.

As Indian citizens who love our motherland, we appeal to you to vote for the secular party, which is most likely to win in your constituency.

Jai Hind!

While there are a few well-known names, the biggies are missing. It is of course their choice, but these same biggies will promote anything that gets them attention, whether it is Salman Khan flying a kite with Narendra Modi or Aamir Khan getting cosy with the Congress (or is it AAP)?

I watched the segment of The News Hour last night discussing the issue. Why was Arnab Goswami demanding that some of the panellists who had signed the appeal should name names? Why did one person from the other side ask, “Why are you scared?” My point is all they want to hear is Modi’s name and add to his cult status. Hansal Mehta did concede that he personally did not support Modi. The show was all about bulldozing. Has anybody bothered to ask why the Bollywood stars perform for cops, even when so many cases are not filed, crimes are committed in broad daylight?

I ask these channels that want one man to be ‘targeted’ (many of who will then play up his victimisation): will you agree then that he and the BJP are not considered secular openly? Will you promote the cause of heavily censored if not banned films?

Ashoke Pandit was screeching about Anand Patwardhan’s stand. The latter said at one point – obviously you can’t talk about the Gujarat riots without somebody raking it up – that in 1984 it was not only the Congress that was responsible; there were Hindutva goons involved too. 

Here, I do take exception. Goons are goons, but one party was in power. I expect Modi to take responsibility for Gujarat, and I expect the Congress party to do so for the anti-Sikh pogrom. The leaders of the latter have apologised. (Just read a report that Modi in one more TV interview said that he will not apologise; instead, if it is proved that he is guilty, he should be hanged in public. Bollywood should hire him. He dramatically announces that he is now in the people’s court. Strange, for the Supreme Court has not found any evidence against him, so why is he still feeling guilty? Well, people’s court means only one thing: get me elected first. Smart man. He will project himself in any manner.)

Anupam Kher asked Patwardhan, “What is more important – secularism or nationalism?” A question like this is so divisive. I mean, is there competition between the two? That if you are secular you cannot be a nationalist? Ergo, the latter belongs to one section of society that flaunts its unapologetic non-secularism? Patwardhan said, “I only believe in humanism.” For a moment, I was put off, until I heard Kher state, “We are all human beings.” If we are animalistic that would make us animals? Capiche! 

Patwardhan became the focal point also because he is not mainstream Bollywood, and has made what are considered anti-rightwing films. I do not agree with some of his views and the way in which he chooses to highlight a few aspects, but he has been vocal against any establishment politics. A studio anchor with a limited agenda, and a panel comprising of at least two hardcore Sangh supporters, is not likely to comprehend nuance.

By the same token, I do not believe that we have any business to object when writer Salim Khan chooses to inaugurate the Urdu edition of Modi’s website. However, has the Hindutva lobby made a noise against this Bollywood intervention, although he did endorse Modi’s leadership?

When politicians censor films, those films are dragged into the political sphere. This is apart from movies with obvious socio-political messages. It includes mainstream films. The recent Youngistan was obviously political, as were Rajneeti, Sarkar, Rang De Basanti. Films with messages have a long history, and one can easily include Mother India, Bandini and Do Ankhein, Baarah Haath even though they were made when art house cinema was in its infancy.

Speaking of which, why is it assumed that cinema of conscience is essentially left-wing? Were Mehboob Khan, Bimal Roy, V. Shantaram Communists? Is Gulzar who directed Aandhi leftwing? What about Mahesh Bhatt for making Zakhm on the Bombay riots? Are Ramgopal Verma’s films on the underworld Marxist? Think about the wonderful spin on Mahabharata by Shyam Benegal in Kalyug. I know Madhur Bhandarkar supports a rightwing party, and so does Mahesh Manjrekar, but both have made films about contemporary ‘political’ reality, about the underbelly, be it Vaastav (which I thought was better than Satya) or Chandni Bar, Page 3, Fashion. There is much to disagree about the subtexts in the last three films but they did expose some facets that are brushed under the carpet. We also have Vishal Bhardwaj who takes Shakespeare and transforms his works into Indian political statements. Is he leftwing? What about Gangs of Wasseypur or the two series on Sahib, Biwi aur Gangster? Or the dry humour of Tere Bin Laden, Khosla ka Ghosla, Jolly LLB?

Bollywood is right there, and while we can question the artistic or cultural merit of how it projects reality, we cannot demand that some of the filmmakers stay away from active participation as citizens.

In the end all fiction is what we expect reality to be. Ask some politicians!

© Farzana Versey


Note: A couple of points have been added since I posted this.

Images: Tripadvisor, NDTV, Zee Films


On caps, Vajpayee and the Modi Trial

There is competition over who meets Muslim clerics among the two top political parties, and then both accuse each other of appeasement.

When Sonia Gandhi met the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Ahmed Bukhari, she apparently got an assurance from him regarding her plea that Muslims should not divide the secular vote. The BJP accused her of vote-bank politics. It was as though they had captured the Muslim votes already in that little meeting that has nothing to do with Muslims at all.

Days later, BJP president Rajnath Singh met a whole bunch of clerics – vice-president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, Maulana Kalbe Jawwad, Maulana Hameeudul Hassan, Maulana Yasoob Abbas and Maulana Khalid Rasheed Farangi Mahali. The Congress hit back.

Both described these as courtesy calls, but when pushed the BJP said

“Rajnath Singh is a candidate and it's his duty to go door to door to everyone's house. Not be selective. All prominent persons in Lucknow are close to each other. So we have to call on everyone and reach out to people of all sections.”

These politicians talk about wanting to improve the lot of common people, so why are they meeting “prominent persons”? One of the clerics later told a TV channel: “We are scared of Narendra Modi, but Rajnath Singh has the acceptability of Mr. Vajpayee.”

Acceptability of Mr. Vajpayee?

Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha got into a bit of trouble over his statement

“The weakest PM ever was AB Vajpayee, who wanted to sack Mr Modi for the ghastly Gujarat massacre, but succumbed to BJP bullying.”

Does anybody recall Vajpayee’s support of Modi post Gujarat riots, his speech in Goa at the time? Does anyone recall that he was famously called a ‘mukhauta’ (mask) by his own party man? He was positioned as the nice face and knew about it. Jha further stated: 

“The weakest PM India ever had was AB Vajpayee who despite the treachery of Kargil, gave Musharraf a red carpet welcome at Agra. The weakest PM India ever had was AB Vajpayee who was hugging PM Nawaz Sharif, even as 50 soldiers...”

Hindutva parties are so against Pakistan and would oppose any red carpet welcome, but now they have nowhere to look. So they call out the change in the earlier Congress stand where the former PM was praised. This is so churlish. I do not agree with Jha about using Pakistan as a touchstone to decide strength and weakness of our national leaders, but it is no big deal. The Sangh has been critical of Jawaharlal Nehru for years as well as Mahatma Gandhi.

Most of them are in a twist. No politician can keep religion out of politics because they themselves are blind worshippers of anything that will get them power.

Vajpayee’s photograph with a skull cap and Rajnath Singh’s recent one are making some kind of statement to transpose with Narendra Modi’s refusal to do so. In the by-now hyped-up interview he gave India TV, the loop on the skull cap was played in the promos and given prominence. My stand on it has been clear. I do not think it is important, nor is it evidence of secularism. However, if he talks about it, there will be some counter argument. This question should have been irrelevant, considering this was a major interview.

In a mock courtroom, he sat in the witness box. This effectively made it appear as though he was taking justice head-on. Nothing of the kind happened, and it was a horribly creepy show, where the audience clapped after every sentence. It lacked dignity and probity. It was a sham. The interviewer Rajat Sharma helped Modi sail through, not only with planned queries but his whole demeanour of agreeableness. 

The cap question was designed to give Modi an opportunity to softly peddle his views about a community. He gave it a lot of importance, and spoke about how he would respect all cultures, but not do what was against his “parampara” (tradition). I have an issue with this.

He positioned himself against one community, showing that they were outside his parampara, which I assume is Hindu. It better be, for India is not a Hindu nation and Indian Muslims, with or without skull caps, have a stake in it. Indian parampara is as much ours. To transpose this cap against the others makes for an interesting discussion when one is given the argument that he wears other caps because those are regional. How is the Sikh turban regional? Are the khasis not Christian? I won’t even get into his Buddhist outings, for he has cravenly started even using Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, who would find him an untouchable (pardon the use of the term).

When people get competitive about who is wearing what, then we need to shut up about secularism. These are ritualistic and gimmicky. However, if political leaders go to the Ajmer dargah to beg for favours from a dead saint, then they have no right to make distinctions about parampara. Modi knows that there are a few influential and rich Muslims in Gujarat or of Gujarati origin who contribute to development, his presence being absolutely incidental. Why, then, does he meet Muslim religious leaders? Why does he not go to the relief camps, instead?

One person in the audience asked in a pained voice how he coped with the aftermath of 2002. Seriously, nothing could be worse than asking a man who uses the “puppy” analogy for Muslims about how he coped during the period. He said it was “Satya ka saath, desh ka pyaar” – The side of truth and love of the nation. Such delusions.

I obviously did not expect any counter-questioning, but he was clear about his position as a grand mufti of sorts.

Pictures were shared of the big moment. People sitting out in the open on plastic chairs before huge screens when even slums have TV sets. This cannot be spontaneous; they were herded there to create a buzz. After all, this cleric was going to give his devotees a sermon.

© Farzana Versey

Also: Modi reads from The Satanic Verses


Sunday ka Funda

Gulzar to receive the Dadasaheb Phalke award seems like a redundancy. The accolade will not change a thing, but it does draw attention to the fact that this poet-lyricist-scriptwriter-director is one of the more subtle minds to embellish the Indian film industry.

I have often uploaded his songs, and gone into sometimes long explanations. Of Tere bina zindagi se shikwa tau nahin.... Of Mera kuchch samaan padaa hai aapke paas

This time, let us just listen. This is not one of my favourite ones, but it captures a certain mood. A tribute to tears?

Fill the eyes
Empty sleep...

Pani pani re khaare paani re
Pani pani re khaare paani re
Nainon mein bhar jaaye
Neendein khaali kar jaaye


The art of creating a bug splat

To humanise violence is violence. Will drone operators sympathise with an artistic rendition in the form of a huge poster with a child's face placed in a field? What did the artists have in mind? What does #notabugsplat mean, literally and figuratively? Here:

In military slang, Predator drone operators often refer to kills as 'bug splats', since viewing the body through a grainy video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.

To challenge this insensitivity as well as raise awareness of civilian casualties, an artist collective installed a massive portrait facing up in the heavily bombed Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa region of Pakistan, where drone attacks regularly occur. Now, when viewed by a drone camera, what an operator sees on his screen is not an anonymous dot on the landscape, but an innocent child victim's face.

Drones have targeted civilian areas, knowing well they were civilian areas. The artists assume some sort of innocence, but such attacks are not aimed at 'nothing'.

Assuming that they have information about terrorists in a particular area, would this poster dissuade them? In fact, now aware of the value of this child's face, the Taliban or whoever the drones want to finish off, might find this field a convenient place to gather in. It is unlikely to happen, but this is to draw attention to the ludicrous notion of how drones work.

What terrorists are the US drones flushing out and what purpose has it achieved? Has the Taliban left? On the contrary, it is stronger than ever in Pakistan.

In most war-like situations, there is always provision made for collateral damage. The operators are professionals doing a job, in the course of which they might lose all sense of ethics simply because one wrong move and their operation will fail.

According to The Atlantic:

In the last decade, drone operators have killed as many as 3,600 people in northwest Pakistan alone. Those people — they include as many as 951 civilians and 200 children — died without trial or jury. They were specks on the screen, and then they were dead.

It is not one area where drones attack, so this is a limited experiment, and experiment it is. There have been no proven results, and no precedent to go by.

Besides, the idea of humanising is quite dehumanising in this context. Apparently, the girl is not fictitious. She lost her parents and siblings in a drone attack.

She has been made the poster child of the power of drones and not the bestiality of such killings. All such manouevres are pugnacious. As it has become public knowledge, this could be seen as a visible example of victory.

On the other hand, if a drone does bypass this field, it is possible that the operators and their bosses will gloat about sensitivity and concern.

The artists are playing into this. They aren't humanising the victims, but the perpetrators of the crime. For them this is enemy territory.

Would it have made sense had they used an American child, instead? Would the message then have rammed into their head when their own is targeted?

I ask these queries because the emotive intent of this project is exploitative, and for this reason I wouldn't want any child, anybody anywhere, to become a replacement for specks of dust.

© Farzana Versey


Rape through the politician's prism

Where is Mulayam Yadav's son, CM Akhilesh?

Let us not dismiss these as merely sexist remarks. They are criminal. Let us also, for the sake of the female population we claim to support, look at these comments in totality. They are as bad, if not worse, but it will give us a better perspective.

Why are we shocked? Because these statements have been made during the elections? What about all the rest that are made throughout the year? Is the outrage we feel not pandering to political parties, each more disgusting than the other?

At a rally in Moradabad, UP, the Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav said: “Ladkon se aisi galtiyan ho jaati hain, to iska ye matlab nahin ki phaansi de di jaye (Boys do make such mistakes, but that does not mean that they should be sent to the gallows).” 
Referring to the Shakti Mills rape case, Mulayam Singh, whose party is in power in Uttar Pradesh, said: “Two or three accused have been given the death sentence in Mumbai. We will change such laws when we come to power ... we will also ensure punishment of those who report false cases.”

The first bit clearly reveals patriarchal notions that consider rape and women their property, and men will be boys. (It needs to be noted here that Mamata Banerjee’s attitude is not much different towards rape victims, so misogyny is not the only issue here.) Now, reprehensible as this is, everybody has latched on to it and forgotten their own pleas against capital punishment, including for rape. There is also a group that supports men’s rights against false cases, not to forget the support Tarun Tejpal has got from his friends.

Yadav has put us in an awkward position, for many human rights activists would want a law where people are not given the death punishment. I am not so sure about false cases, because it is rare for women to expose themselves and their bodies to such scrutiny only to wreak vengeance or get some rewards by implicating a man. Rape is a crime and like all crimes there will be evidence. Why is it so difficult to understand?

Have you heard discussions about these following his comment? No.

Soon after, his party’s Mumbai chief Abu Azmi added to it in this conversation quoted in Mid-day. This man is a serial offender where making outrageous comments are concerned. He has brought in Islam, and there is the kneejerk reaction that it is to get the Muslim vote. How pathetic is this. Muslim women get raped too, and they suffer as much. Was Mulayam Singh appealing to the Hindu vote, or do his ‘secular’ credentials make him a quasi-Muslim who was taking up for Muslim rapists? The Congress Party’s Nitish Rane posted this: ‏”All potential Rapists plz contact Samajwadi party female members n family members as its ok to rape them! Green signal mil gaya hai! Enjoy!” (sic) What votebank was he catering to?

Is Abu Azmi's son Farhan
serious about opposing his father?

Why did the reporter think it important to get Abu Azmi’s views on solution to rape, knowing what kind of a man he is? He repeated Yadav’s concern about false cases and a few other aspects:

  • “These days, the number of such cases has increased where girls go and complain whenever they want. If one touches them, they complain, and if no one touches them, they still complain. Then, the problem starts, and the man’s honour, which he has earned throughout his life, is destroyed. Rape with or without consent should be punishable as per Islam.”

  • “If a woman is caught, then both she and the boy should be punished. As per Islam, if someone has (sex) with consent, it’s the death penalty even then. In India, there’s death penalty for rape, but when there’s consent, there’s no death penalty...If you agree to be with someone, it’s okay. But the moment something goes wrong, and one gets angry and starts blackmailing, then the other person would be hanged; this is a serious issue.”

  • “As per Islam, rape deserves death penalty. If someone rapes a woman, she shouldn't be punished, ladki to bechari hai (the girl is helpless). The whole country should stand with her.

The last part has not been brought up in any discussions, which are a repeat of the sensational headline: ‘SHOCKING! Women having sex should be hanged, says Abu’.

He should have been hauled up for bringing in Islam in a secular country, if any of this can be used in any nation at all. Besides this, he is expressing typical power politics of gender where the woman who ‘consents’ is assumed to be loose or vengeful. It reveals some gumption and I wonder just how these political leaders do not give a damn for the 49 per cent women voters that have become sound bites.

The mainstream and social media have a free run, too. Abu Azmi’s son Farhan is being hailed as the sensitive guy who has taken on his father by publicly dissociating with the comments. His wife, actress Ayesha Takia, also spoke about being “deeply embarrassed”. All well, except that the son is contesting these elections. Is he doing this to assure his constituents? Superficially. The area knows him for his high-end restaurants and glamorous life. They are the ones who sniff into lace handkerchiefs during plays on ‘Nirbhaya’, a victim of the media after the rape. They are bothered about their safety from the pub to home. One is not reducing their concerns, which are legitimate too, but this is what the young Azmi is playing on.

At a time when everybody has a forum to express, we are inundated with the most venal form of support for victims. From bragging about boycotting Azmi’s restaurants to sexual innuendos about the characters in this sorry episode, it is open season. If they wish to express anger, then how does this fit in: “I wish Ayesha Takia would chest bump Abu Azmi?” Is this respect for women?

Those who have a problem with feminism as an “over-reaction” want to join the gravy cart of ‘women’s issues’.

The media is playing the statements on loop. Panellists are talking about all sorts of punishment for the rapists. Some are obviously playing politics. No one can sit on a high moral ground. Unfortunately, not even those who are yapping about misogyny.


On a different note, is Narendra Modi declaring for the first time that he has a wife in his nomination papers. It proves that he has withheld the truth until now under oath. The marriage took place when he was 17, and she a year younger. Again, the matter should be about bringing this to the notice of the Election Commission, or file a case. Get senior party leaders to explain. Has this happened? I hear a complaint has been filed, but not by any political leader or human rights organisation.

The lady becomes an object. By the BJP – they are crooning that she has gone on a pilgrimage to pray for him because he has finally acknowledged her publicly (even if this could be a hostage situation). By the Opposition – they are feeling sorry for her being abandoned by this big man (even if he was not a big man when he did so). And by the concerned – they feel sympathy for her plight, or give her a certificate for managing so well on her own. All of this reeks of such a patronising attitude. She should be left alone.

In fact, just leave women alone - in so many ways.

© Farzana Versey


One incident, two versions

Nobody in India can be in denial about communal clashes, but should the media play them up? Or, jump the gun? On Ram Navami, violence erupted in Kanpur. It happened to be the eve of the polls in Uttar Pradesh. These things can be engineered.

What is disturbing is the manner in which media reports give differing versions. Hindustan Times stated:

Eight people were injured when members of two communities fought a pitched battle over taking out of Ram Navmi procession in Sayed Nagar of Kalyanpur area in Kanpur late Tuesday evening.
Panic spread in the area after the rival groups resorted to indiscriminate firing and lobbed hand-made bombs during the clash. Police had to resort to cane charge to control the mobs after they tried to manhandle them.

Others had something else to say. Take this in Mid-day:

The incident was triggered when the district administration did not allow some people to take out a Ram Navami procession through a certain route in Sundernagar area of Kalyanpur.

HT starts by talking about two communities; Mid-day (The Freepress Journal and IBN too) mention that the administration did not grant permission.

In one the implication is that members of a certain community that is not referred to by name could have created mayhem. In the other, it seems to be a dispute with the administration.

Which one is true?

As I said, communal clashes do take place and it is easy to manufacture them, especially for political parties. Should this mere raw material for a news story? Has there been any interview where the police has blamed any group? What makes some in the media decide on these matters? People were injured, property destroyed. We have our priorities all wrong.

On the other hand, while HT specified that eight people were injured, the rest used an obscure “many”. Even one person is important, and eight are many. But eight is not eighty. It alters how the government and police act upon it.

If the media is concerned about how these issues affect the polls, then they should be the first to maintain some sense of proportion.

"My life is rolling on..."

They weren't really the mop-tops, the rubber lips, another brick in the wall; they didn't just call to say hello or get into orgasmic ecstasy over love to love you baby. And yet, 40 years later music lovers are celebrating the start of their journey.

I had written my reminiscences, mainly about Donna Summer, here. ABBA was mentioned, yet it is most of their songs I recall. I mucked up the lyrics, but they filled up pauses in my sentences. Or even explained what I was too shy to state...”Mother said I began to sing long before I could talk...”...or a note of hope... “Chiquitita, you and I cry/But the sun is still in the sky and shining above you”... or just to express angst...“Where is the spring and the summer/That once was yours and mine?”... And of course “gimme, gimme, gimme” for things one did not even want.

The best fun was the “ahan” after ‘Voulez-vous’. Such permutations were discovered!

Then there was ‘Chiquitita’... “Now I see you've broken a feather/I hope we can patch it up together...”

And, to end, these words that do not end:

“Even if we had to lose, there’s no regret. If I had to do the same again, I would my friend...”