One of the lessons from the historic success of 'The Kashmir Files' was this—don't boycott the medium, own it.
Many, even with their heads and hearts in the right place, but in their pursuit of boycotting the Mumbai film industry or Bollywood as the glamour circus is referred to in popular literature, forget that the ecosystem is not a single actor or individual, not two production houses, not four movies, not eight web series, and definitely not a collection of dozen-odd clips curated to advocate its bias against one community or religion.
The castle of hypocrisies, built on PR-driven attention gimmicks, influencer clout on social media, and subjective artistic interpretations, is far from perfect but is also far from being the enemy of the state or the electorate within it, as some may want us to believe.
The convenient labels attached to the industry today take the attention away from the magnitude of it, the diversity within, and, more importantly, the potential it has.
Post-1945, when the Americans were working on getting Europe back on its feet, a significant allocation of funds was towards movies that conveyed the supremacy of the Yankees along with stressing the interconnectedness of cultures.
Thus, more than 250 movies were produced, putting American soft power on a geopolitical pedestal. Compare it with India, where many would romanticise the end of Bollywood, a mere fraction of Hollywood and the Chinese film industry, just when India’s economic story is taking off.
Thankfully, the government in the Centre does not acknowledge this mindless hatred, as evident by their several outreach programmes. Perhaps, for the common citizens, it is important to factor in Bollywood's economic pyramid.
Start from a spot boy, working on daily wages, or some tailors and technicians who have families relying on this industry. There are several advertising agencies with skin in the game, distributors, multiplex owners, and retail stores in malls that depend on the weekend footfall for their sales, and so forth.
The list can go on, but there are too many invisible stakeholders in this economic pyramid, and it would be foolish for them to be punished for a few actors and their movies.
Beyond the economic aspect of it, there is also the frivolous call for boycotts that do not add up logically.
Farhan Akhtar, for instance, makes a comment on the Citizenship Amendment Act but does that mean one is supposed to boycott every project the actor/director/producer has ever been a part of?
Should I start cursing Dil Chahta Hai, or stop listening to Lakshya’s title song, one that is heard by millions of military aspirants across India, or stop watching Mirzapur or Made In Heaven, the web series he has produced, or should I boycott Amazon Prime altogether, and then Amazon, without caring much for the several sellers on the promoters?
The question is, where to draw the line when boycotting a celebrity, and if there is a line even?
There is no denying that the viewers have put these celebrities on the pedestal, but to use their word as the word of God and confuse their mindless utterances for some holy grail of intellect is incorrect.
Naseeruddin Shah will not be the smartest political or economic mind in any room he walks into, but that is no reason for me not to hail Iqbal as one of the best cricket movies ever made in India or to dismiss his brilliant characterisation of a maulvi in Khuda Kay Liye, a 2007 movie made in Pakistan. Shah’s monologue at the climax, where he deliberates on the teachings of Islam and Western culture and music, is one of his best performances.
There is also the subjective interpretation of art. Take Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, for instance. Can from one sequence it be fairly deduced that the story is about the alleged 'atrocities' of the Indian Army, or is the story of a man backstabbing his brother, or a wife cheating on her husband, or a son willing to avenge his father, or the corruption within the local police force, or the nexus between the terrorists and the local politicians in Kashmir?
Can we label an entire movie with several layers of storytelling in one scene? Again, the film is not the gospel about Kashmir. The makers do not make such claims, so why must the audience?
The frivolous idea of ‘Boycott Bollywood’ warrants me to detest or dismiss every film, web series, or similar production that does not agree with the political beliefs I advocate.
By that logic, I am not supposed to enjoy the brilliant production titled Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, a political satire released in 2013 in which the protagonist is also called ‘Mao’, for he fights the evil capitalism and its promoters.
Before swiping their credit card at the nearest multiplex, must one check the political leanings and credentials of every filmmaker and every human element involved in a production? What if one of the producers or assistant directors of Tanhaji voted for Owaisi secretly? Where do we draw the line?
To advocate that movies that cater to only one political ideology or belief system must make it to the market is also incorrect. To rob cinema of its diversity would be incorrect, and to have an expectation from the state to do so, would be preposterous.
However, in recent years, the free market has taken over, and thus, you have the likes of Shamshera opening to empty halls while Marvel releases get a show as early as 6:30 in the morning. The audience can no longer be taken for granted, even if the actor gets to interview the Prime Minister.
If the effort is shoddy, the result would be proportional, as evident by the failure of the movie Samrat Prithviraj. The free market wants good cinema, not single-tone, politically, but something worth the bucks.
The free market is a time-tested formula. Take the example of the story of the Kashmiri exodus. When Vidhu Vinod Chopra produced Shikara in 2020, it bombed commercially and critically, for the movie did a disservice to the cause of Kashmiri Pandits, their exodus, and the violence that was unleashed against them. The audience, starting with the Pandits themselves, rejected the movie.
Two years later, Vivek Agnihotri gave the world The Kashmir Files. Many would not call it a masterclass in filmmaking, but it was embraced by the audience globally. While many dailies chose not to review it, and distributors were unwilling to bank on it, the movie did wonders, but it also served an important lesson: not boycotting the medium but owning it.
However, there are unforgivable exceptions.
One may care about what an actor has to say about the politician in question, but to demean a religion, in real or in the reel, is unacceptable. To wear the cloak of pretentiousness to sell oneself as a social intellectual, no actor has the right to criticise one religion or certain rituals selectively.
If Aamir Khan, for instance, wants to question the secularism of the country on an open platform, demean Hinduism in his movies and show, or be seen with the enemies of the state, he should be the last to complain about the audience giving him back.
The castle of hypocrisies no longer shields the residents from the economic consequences of their actions and words. The free market has taken over.
The next weekend, I am not watching Lal Singh Chadha, for an actor, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, who cannot master the character’s mother tongue for an official rip-off, does not deserve my money or time. I am also not keen on spending money that could be used for several other purposes.
Nevertheless, I want the industry, as imperfect as it might be, to flourish and for stories to be told without moral or political policing of actors or producers. The free market, driven by an aware audience, will take care of the rest.
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