Top Bollywood names, heated exchanges, punchy dialogues, finger-pointing, mudslinging, melodrama… they are all there. But, this one is not a Rs 100-crore potboiler.
All that the noise—a first of its kind—coming from the otherwise politically indifferent film industry could achieve so far is a hashtag (#Bollywood split) that trended for a while on Twitter.
The so-called ‘split’ in the film fraternity was triggered by a letter circulated by screenwriter and actor Anjum Rajabali, (of Satyagraha and Rajneeti fame) appealing to the public “to vote for the secular party which is most likely to win in your constituency”.
The letter, addressed to “fellow Indians”, was signed by about 60 Bollywood personalities, including filmmakers, actors and singers such as Nandita Das, Imtiaz Ali, Saeed Mirza, Shubha Mudgal, Vijay Krishna Acharya, Hansal Mehta, Vishal Bhardwaj, Zoya Akhtar, Kabir Khan and Govind Nihalani.
“While corruption and governance are important issues and we have to work out ways of holding our government accountable, India’s secular character is not negotiable,” reads the appeal.
Though the letter does not name any political party, many of its signatories such as Rajabali, Das, Bhatt and Mehta have taken a public stance against Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. This made a pro-Modi group within the industry tweet-slam the “hidden agenda” behind the letter.
Veteran actor Anupam Kher, whose wife, Kirron Kher, is the BJP candidate in Chandigarh, was one of the first to attack the anti-Modi camp. “What worries me is the propaganda behind this appeal,” says Kher. “Bollywood has always been secular, and if they had come to me with a petition to support it, I, too, would have definitely signed it. But this is different.”
Kher says the letter is framed in a misleading way. “If you have a point to make, why beat around the bush? Why not say do not vote for Modi?” asks Kher. “I am sure that half the people who have signed up would not have if that was the case.”
National award-winning director Hansal Mehta, however, says it is foolish to assume that all those who have signed are Congress supporters just because of its stress on secularism.
“I do not support the Congress. I am against corruption and communalism,” says Mehta, who backs the Aam Aadmi Party. “Such appeals reflect the change in the people’s mindsets. This is an era of change. Look anywhere, even in our films, you will find change in every sphere. People have become more aware and articulate about their ideas, and are not scared to voice their views.”
Filmmakers Madhur Bhandarkar and Ashoke Pandit, and actors Vivek Oberoi and Tusshar Kapoor have also questioned the letter. While Bhandarkar called it a conspiracy, Oberoi played the development card.
“Everybody has the right to express opinions,” says Oberoi. “But it is not right to conveniently concentrate on just secularism and brush under the carpet serious issues like corruption and development.”
The letter also opened old wounds, and Kher and documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma had a war of words. It was set off by documentary-maker Anand Patwardhan, who endorsed the letter.
Patwardhan had accused Kher, who headed the Censor Board, of not passing Sharma’s documentary, Final Solution, on the 2002 Gujarat riots. He says he backed the letter to stop “our country from turning into Pakistan”.
Though the ruckus over the letter is being branded as a “Bollywood split”, its signatories—save, perhaps, Vijay Krishna Acharya and Kabir Khan—are not from the mainstream. Also, besides Nandita Das, Swara Bhaskar, Aditi Rao Hydari, Jyoti Dogra and Joy Sengupta, the list does not include actors.
The names in the rival camp, too, are not very impressive, with no industry bigwigs among them. Thus, the talk that the letter has divided Bollywood is an exaggeration.
Besides, most Bollywood biggies have stayed away from politics. In fact, many actors and filmmakers even refused to comment on the controversial.
Salman Khan and his father, Salim Khan, have appeared alongside Modi at events organised by the BJP, and Salim Khan launched a Modi web site in Urdu. They, however, have been diplomatic while mentioning the Congress. Aamir Khan, who helms the TV show Satyamev Jayate that highlights social problems, filed a complaint with the Election Commission against the AAP for using his images in its campaigns.
Kher had no qualms praising young Congress leaders Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora and Jyotiraditya Scindia during a TV debate, in which he blamed those who signed the letter for “demonising Modi”.
Not long ago, a group of actors, including Salman, Madhuri Dixit, Alia Bhatt and Ranveer Singh, had taken part in the Saifai Mahotsav organised by the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, even as the Muzaffarnagar riots victims were suffering in relief camps. When the event became controversial, Salman maintained that actors had nothing to do with politics.
Incidentally, most of the A-listers, including Oberoi who has been vigorously campaigning for Modi, did not cast their votes, as they were at the IIFA awards at Tampa Bay in Florida.
Bhatt, who endorsed the appeal on various platforms, says the issue is no big deal. “The very beauty of a democracy like India is this plurality in ideas and opinions,” she says. “It is great and healthy that someone like Anupam has a different opinion and we both can voice it. This is exactly the kind of freedom the appeal is fighting for and trying to safeguard.”
Rajabali, however, is upset that he is being targeted for a collective initiative. “The letter was meant to be a conceptual one, expressing a wish that secularism be considered in the public discourse,” he says. “It was not for or against any party or person.”
Why didn’t he name Modi in the letter? “It is my choice how I decide to put my opinions out there,” he says. “I have the freedom to do that, and that is what I am fighting to preserve.”