Bollywood's reaction to the Salman verdict demonstrated how divorced it has become from the concerns of the masses it once spoke for, says Ajachi Chakrabarti.
“Hum apne ghar mein khoobsurat parde lagwayenge aur main yeh jaanne ki koshish nahin karoonga ki is parde ki doosri taraf duniya mein kya ho raha hai. Hamare khoobsurat ghar ke baahar log marte hain to marte rahein! Smuggleron ki gaadiyan masoom bachchon ko kuchalti rahein! Mujhe in sab se kya matlab? Main vaada karta hoon ki agar unki cheekhein mere kaan tak pahunchi to main kaan band kar doonga. Main tumhari khoobsurat zulfon main apne ko chhupa loonga; main tumhari khoobsurat aankhon mein kho jaoonga. Haan Mala, hum zaroor ghar banayenge.”
—ACP Vijay Khanna, Zanjeer (1973)
In his introduction to The Secret Politics of our Desires: Innocence, Culpability and Indian Popular Cinema, a 1998 collection of essays, Ashis Nandy called Bollywood “the slum’s point of view of Indian politics and society and, for that matter, the world. There is in both of them the stress on lower-middle-class sensibilities and on the informal, not-terribly-tacit theories of politics and society the class uses and the same ability to shock the haute bourgeoisie with the directness, vigour and crudity of these theories.” Like the “unintended city”, he argued, the popular cinema of the day represented a transition “from the village to the city, from the East to the West, and from the popular-as-folk to the popular-as-the-massified.”
It’s an irresistible metaphor, more so when applied to the typical Bollywood fare 0f the eighties and nineties, that dark era of the industry when the moneyed “classes” had surrendered the public space of the single-screen cinema to the “masses” of the lower stalls, opting instead to watch films in the privacy of their living rooms. Bowing to the economic logic of one market segment patronising their business in much greater numbers and with much greater frequency than another, the industry pandered to what it perceived were the tastes and opinions of these masses, whom Satyajit Ray described in Our Films, Their Films as “tired untutored minds with undeveloped tastes needing an occasional escape through relaxation”.
The hero of the average Bollywood film of the day was usually lower-middle-class, often a slum dweller himself, possessing traditional values and an unimpeachable integrity, trying to make his way in a cruel, alien world. The villain was very often the local bahubali, a politician or mob boss or zamindar who wields enormous power. The Manichaean conflict at the heart of the film was usually the consequence of the strongman putting his interests ahead of those of the masses, or at least the subset of the masses that our hero’s life revolved around—the fellow dwellers of the basti, his widowed mother/chaste sister, the love of his life. The protagonist’s project would be to seek revenge for personal wrongs inflicted by this villain; the underlying message was that the life, honour and well-being of the poor were not trivial just because they were poor. That the rich couldn’t get away with murder. Even if the hero had to be reincarnated in order to dispense justice.
The underlying message was that the life, honour and well-being of the poor were not trivial just because they were poor. That the rich couldn’t get away with murder. Even if the hero had to be reincarnated in order to dispense justice.
Somewhere down the line, however, Bollywood left the slum for the high-rise.
It’s not just that today’s films pander not to the slum-dwelling single-screen viewer but the bourgeois patrons of the shiny multiplexes that epitomise the gilded age we live in. Or that the industry has changed from a loose confederation of dubious individuals who staked all they had on their next film to a cabal of spreadsheet-wielding professionals working for large diversified entertainment-sector companies. Or that instead of being a cultural institution of ill repute, it has, with the co-option of a willing media, become what passes for a national tradition in 21st-century India. Or even that the incomes of the top stars of the industry have gone from opulent to obscene.
No, the biggest change has been how oblivious the industry and its members have become, how divorced they appear from the concerns of the masses who idolise them. L’Affaire Salman is the best example of this.
In the early hours of 28 September 2002, Salman Khan, one of the brightest stars of Bollywood’s galaxy, drove his car into a Mumbai bakery after a night of heavy drinking. He was driving despite his police bodyguard’s repeated requests not to, and fled the spot on foot, leaving Constable Ravindra Patil to deal with the damage and an angry crowd and call the police. When investigating officer Rajendra Kadam reached the scene at 2:50 AM, he found five people trapped under the car. One of them, Nurullah Mehboob Sharif, died on the spot, while four others—Abdullah Shaikh, Muslim Shaikh, Munnu Khan and Muhammad Kalim—were hospitalised with serious injuries. The five had been sleeping on the pavement, for want of a better place to spend the night, like some three lakh others in the commercial capital of our country.
Twelve years, seven months and eight days later, a sessions judge found Salman Khan guilty of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and sentenced him to five years in prison, half the maximum sentence. The nation celebrated the verdict, hailing it as a victory for the long arm of justice, as proof that we are all equal in the eyes of the law.
Salman’s colleagues in the film industry, however, were not celebrating. Gemologist and jewellery designer Farah Khan Ali, daughter of filmmaker Sanjay Khan and related to a handful of other Bollywood stars, compared the verdict to “penalising a train driver because someone decided to cross the tracks and got killed in the bargain.” Salman was responsible for the “lively hood of many people at large”, she said, and the verdict was too harsh. She blamed the government for not providing housing for all, and thus contributing to the tragedy. Abhijeet Bhattacharya, on the other hand, blamed the victims themselves in this infamous tweet: “Kutta rd pe soyega kutte ki maut marega, roads garib ke baap ki nahi hai I ws homles an year nvr slept on rd”. The tweets generated the outrage you’d expect, both from ordinary netizens as well as from some fellow members of the industry. Both were shamed into making half-assed apologies and soon forgotten.
What was happening, Arjun, was the gears of justice moving despite all the spokes Salman and his team had tried to jam them with over all those years. That beauty of a human being, Parineeti, continuously lied to save his skin.
But it would be naïve to think of Khan Ali and Bhattacharya as outliers, as two oblivious attention-seeking celebrities as opposed to an industry of sensitive, sensible, mature public figures. After all, even the vast majority of supportive tweets that emanated from the smartphones of Bollywood’s finest were problematic at best. Most of them stressed on what a good human, if not humanitarian, that Salman was, expressing dismay that one of their own had been punished. Parineeti Chopra hoped the judge would see “the beauty of a human being that Salman Khan is.” Arjun Kapoor struggled to wrap his head around what was happening, saying that it’s “scary how fickle life is”.
What was happening, Arjun, was the gears of justice moving despite all the spokes Salman and his team had tried to jam them with over all those years. That beauty of a human being, Parineeti, continuously lied to save his skin—including the whopper that Nurullah’s death was caused by a botched rescue attempt—got his driver to commit perjury and, through his legal eagles, had managed to get two-thirds of the prosecution witnesses to amend their story under cross-examination. The bodyguard who had called the police was intimidated, forced out of the police and into hiding, before he died alone of tuberculosis. It’s hard to tell how the verdict demonstrated the fickleness of life, considering that Salman’s immediate response was to have the sentence suspended in record time and not spend a single night in jail, reiterating the long-established truth that the criminal justice system has different rules for different classes, but nothing demonstrates the ephemerality of your existence as going to sleep on the pavement outside your place of work and never waking up.
In the deluge of sycophancy from the “Bhai’s a good guy” brigade, not a drop of sympathy was spared for the victims, who’d lost their livelihoods as a result of their injuries, who didn’t want justice as much as they needed adequate compensation. No one paused to reflect that the person they were so steadfastly supporting had not only caused death and injury as a result of simple pig-headedness—insisting on driving under the influence despite the presence of at least one driver—but then proceeded to delay and pervert justice in the proud tradition of the great villains of Bollywood.
There’s a certain irony in Bollywood’s “eat cake moment”, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta called it, being about the one guy in the industry who’s known for often descending from his high-rise environs into the neighbouring slums, for reaching across the massive class barrier and helping all who seek his aid. His legendary philanthropy was cited as a mitigating circumstance to his guilt by all and sundry, not least his fellow celebrities. After all, the optical populism of Salman Khan is a rare thing in the industry today.
Of course, when push came to shove, like any elite, Salman did not hesitate to hide behind class privilege. It was emblematic of how Bollywood’s own optical populism over the years didn’t really translate into working-class cinema; how, when push came to shove, even the cinema of the slum shied away from any semblance of radical thought.
One of the essays in The Secret Politics of our Desires, by Fareeduddin Kazmi, was titled ‘How angry is the Angry Young Man?’ Its focus was “the myth of rebellion” in Bollywood films. Despite most protagonists in these films being one of the oppressed, “[the] revolt in these films,” he wrote, “is not directed against the nature and structure of institutions fulfilling specific social roles according to the demands of a larger social system, but against the character disorders of the personnel manning these institutions…The givens of the system are never brought under question; they are not even raised.”
The migration from slum to high-rise never happened, for Bollywood was never a product of the slums—it was what the elites who ran the industry perceived the slum’s point of view to be.
By personalising evil, the impersonal structures of oppression could be side-stepped; in the taking down of the powerful villain, the audience was provided an outlet for all their accumulated rage against the machine. Just like the Salman verdict was an easy way to pat ourselves on the back without having to confront the enormity of the unfairness of our justice system.
Kazmi’s argument was that the “latent aim of the narrative is to neutralize, absorb or displace any potential of genuinely deviant, subversive activity and project a totally different concept of the individual.” Even though these working-class heroes possessed near-superpowers, and would stand up to and eventually defeat the local oppressor, they would be “dominated by and subservient to nature (fate), God (religion), mother and country”, tethered to a status quo that he would never dare challenge. The migration from slum to high-rise never happened, for Bollywood was never a product of the slums—it was what the elites who ran the industry perceived the slum’s point of view to be, what it should be.
The drastic change in the last two decades hasn’t been a change in the politics of Bollywood, but a change in the primary consumers of the film industry’s products, which has allowed it to drop the pretence of speaking for the masses. A survey by The Hindu found that the lead characters of recent Bollywood films are overwhelmingly upper-caste Hindus, with only two films last year—Highway and Manjunath—featuring lower-caste protagonists (six out of nearly 300 films that released in the last two years). The oppressed slum dweller has been invisibilised or stereotyped, as all marginalised classes of people are in our elitist popular cinema. Is it any wonder, then, that those who can’t even afford to be slum dwellers are completely forgotten by Bollywood in mourning a setback for one of their own?