Bollywood stars are, unfortunately, not known for their ability to speak truth to power.
On the contrary, more often than not they succumb to political and ideological bullying – never standing up for their beleaguered colleagues or fellow citizens. That these stars, despite their hefty celebrity statuses, have ever so often failed to defend fellow actors who are hounded by fundamentalists and government alike, is indeed a sad commentary on the culture of the Bombay film industry.
Mercifully, not all celebrities across the world, are cut from the same cloth. When confronted with bullies, not all of them genuflect or become tongue–tied. Nor do they fear to take the powerful head on.
This Sunday night, the celebrated actor Meryl Streep, presented an inspiring template for the kind of outrage celebrities can put on display.
While accepting her lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, Streep turned the occasion into one which addressed many of the anxieties that have been racking America since the Presidential election this November. Speaking out against the dangerous and discriminatory politics practised by US president–elect Donald Trump, she said:
“Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts which are not the arts. An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that. Breathtaking, compassionate work.”
In a grand, eloquent sweep, the veteran actor gestured towards the challenges awaiting the acting fraternity, and many other diverse sections of the American public. She told the gathering how Trump’s imitation of a disabled reporter “broke her heart. … I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing,” she said.
Faced with Meryl Streep’s speech, one cannot but consider how strikingly different the conduct of Bollywood stars has been when it comes to dealing with similar challenges; how abjectly they have failed in not just defending their own rights as a collective community of actors – but also thereby ending up backing retrogressive fiats by default.
Very recently we were witness to the manner in which Raj Thackeray’s Navnirman Chitrapat Karmachari Sena (MNS) bullied top Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan, and director Karan Johar, into giving an assurance that they would not work with Pakistani actors in future. The orchestrated uproar over the release of Khan’s film Raees this September, which had Mahira Khan, a Pakistani actress in a lead role, pushed Shah Rukh Khan into offering Thackeray an assurance that “they will not hire any Pakistani actor till the situation between the two countries (India and Pakistan) improved.”
Shalini Thackeray, general secretary of MNS Chitrapat Karamchari Sena, went to the extent of saying: “It is not a veiled threat. It’s a direct threat to producers like SRK and Karan Johar who take Pakistani actors in their movies.” Even in the face of such unabashed bullying, Bollywood kept totally silent.
The same way it kept mum when the Modi government attacked actor Aamir Khan last year for his comments on the prevailing culture of intolerance in the country.
The discomfiting truth is that in almost all such cases of covert and overt persecution, actors are left to fight lonely battles (that is if they themselves do not rush to placate the bullies,) while the industry heavyweight lapse into silence as a means of self–preservation and self–advancement.
In stark contrast to such servility, Meryl Streep spoke out not on just on behalf of her own fraternity – but also defended the interests of the larger fraternity of others who are feeling ever more alienated and threatened by Trump’s politics.
Her speech, in its wide scope, was political in content. “Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose,” she said. Addressing the media, the actor called on the press to hold the government accountable and for the public to support independent reporting. She urged the “famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press” to support the Committee to Protect Journalists. Saying “we’re going to need them, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.”
In a strangely fitting way, Streep’s speech comes days after the death of Indian actor Om Puri who, not only championed progressive causes throughout his career but was mercilessly hounded by the powers that be last year for his remarks on the controversy on hiring Pakistani actors.
Unsurprisingly, he found little vocal support within his own community. All too often, only the Anupam Khers of Bollywood are heard speaking out aloud – and that speaks volumes for the culture that seems to dominate the film industry in India.