Saffron: Single-Colouring Bollywood


From the glorious past of ideologies touching the common people – Marxist, gandhian or Nehruvian – tinsel town is now getting bought up by the ruling party’s aggressive march into Bollywood to sell its image for votes in 2019



Geeta Singh has spent 20 years covering cinema, music and society, giving new dimensions to feature writing. She has to her credit the editorship of a film magazine. She is also engaged in exploring the socio-economic diversity of Indian politics. She is the co-founder of Parliamentarian.

On April 13, when personalities across Bollywood vehemently accused the government of inaction in the Kathua rape and murder case of an eight year-old girl, it seemed something was turning around. Anushka Sharma, Swara Bhaskar, a known Modi-man Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Arjun Rampal, Sanjay Dutt, Priyanka Chopra… name them and they were all in the outrage. Priyanka’s castigation was remarkable, for she blasted the “interface of politics and religion”. It seemed Bollywood stars had erupted in a much delayed protest against the Hindutva brigands.

But is this picture correct? Isn’t it also true that RSS and BJP are pouring in bullion into Bollywood to make deep and surreptitious inroads into the popular psyche before the 2019 general elections, using the insidious power of cinema over a largely uneducated and credulous Indian populace?

Take this for a start: KV Vijayendra Prasad, the father of SS Rajamouli (noted director of the ‘Baahubali’ series), is writing the screenplay of a film based on the Sangh. Vijayendra himself is a famous screenplay writer and director. Prasad wrote the story for ‘Baahubali: The Beginning’ and ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’. In 2011, he directed the Telugu film ‘Rajanna’, which won the Nandi Award for Best Feature Film. Prasad has been the screenwriter for more than 25 films and started his career in 1988. He is considered as a superhit writer because most of his films turned out to be blockbusters. The BJP’s and RSS’ wager is that Prasad’s Midas Touch will make their cleverly planned film on RSS a super duper, and sink their message into the common man’s psyche. It will have characters like RSS founder Dr Baliram Hedgewar, leader MS Golwalkar, Veer Savarkar, Sudarshan and current RSS head, Mohan Bhagwat.

People in the know say Prasad is constantly meeting Sangh leaders for this project. Many meetings have been held in Nagpur, RSS’ headquarters.

Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn are also joining this project, notwithstanding their shrill protest over Kathua. The film will be made in Hindi and after this, it will be dubbed in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada. The Sangh’s silver screen debut is aimed to create a silver lining for 2019 in the otherwise now clouded sky due to its untold failures and internal dissent and grassroots workers’ anger, especially over Modi and his high handedness.

Meanwhile, many Bollywood bigwigs such as Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn, Kangana Ranaut, Preity Zinta, Arjun Rampal, Madhur Bhandarkar, Subhash Ghai, Jackie Shroff, Sonu Nigam, Abhijeet and folk singer Malini Awasthi are coming forward in support of it. It does not matter that they will be supporting a film by the organisation whose people meticulously planned and executed the rape and murder of a child. There seems to be a feeling that the Modi government will return in 2019 and every star is seeking a berth in the saffron cruiser.

Adding to this, Bharatiya Chitra Sadhna is a film festival that Sangh has created to showcase Bhartiyata (Indianness). The Sangh wants to spread its cultural values. As an experiment, two such festivals have been held.

In 2017, the RSS supported and promoted the biopic ‘Ek Thi Rani Aisi Bhi’, directed by Gul Bahar Singh, starring BJP MP Hema Malini, who portrays Vijaya Raje Scindia. The film was made on Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia; and then came Mridula Sinha’s (current Goa governor) biography ‘Rajpath Se Lokhpath Par’, that traces Vijaya Raje’s journey from the Gwalior palace to the public arena of politics. The films, however, quickly tanked.

Outspoken Past

Long ago, when the Hindi film industry had not yet become the glitzy ‘Bollywood’, it produced a number of films built on people’s causes. Three decades, the 30s to 60s, were known as social protest years in Hindi cinema. At that time, three prominent studios Prabhat, Bombay Talkies and the New Theater made serious efforts to spread social messages based on principles, along with entertaining movies for all sections of the people.

In 1930, when the freedom movement was getting stronger, the protagonist of a film called ‘Vrat’ looked like Mahatma Gandhi and talked about truthfulness. Naturally, the British government banned the film almost immediately.

In 1936, Himanshu Rai, the founder of the Bombay Talkies, came up with film ‘Achhut Kanya’ that showcased the social issue of Dalits. Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar starred in this film.

The Dalit problem again rose in the film ‘Sujata’ after three decades, in 1960. In ‘Duniya Na Mane’, made in 1937, filmmaker V Shantaram raised the voice against child marriage.

In the past, Hindi film industry was populated with filmmakers who had three different ideologies. Some were hardcore Marxists, with their focus on the problems of justice to the working class and the poor peasantry and the need for unity and collective action. The second category was of Gandhian ideals of non-violence, social equality of castes and secularism. And the third category of filmmakers followed Nehruvian thoughts defined - above all - by institution-building.

There have been many Bollywood legends who put their views publically without any fear.

Fabled actor Balraj Sahni laid the foundation of parallel cinema with memorable films like ‘Kabuliwala’, ‘Do Bigha Zameen’ and ‘Garam Hawa’. Sahni was influenced by Marxist ideology and was a prominent member of the Indian People’s Theater Association (IPTA).

IPTA was the cultural formation that went beyond its political commitments and connected to the people. It was majorly promoted by leftist ideology. Many veteran artists and intellectuals like Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj and Bhishm Sahni, Chetan Anand, Habib Tanveer, Shambhu Mitra, Zohra Sehgal, Dina Pathak, Ali Sardar Zafri, Ismat Chughtai, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Sahir Ludhyanvi, Shailendra, Anil Biswas, Salil Choudhury, Hemant Kumar, Ravi Shankar, AK Hangal and Kaifi Azmi were associated with the IPTA.

The movement brought drama, songs and music among the people outside the closed walls of the theatre hall. The members of the IPTA were attempting to promote social awareness everywhere: on the streets, in trains, buses and trucks. That movement was a cultural renaissance that has only added new dimensions to art and culture, which is still working for the awakening of society throughout the country.

In his autobiography ‘Meri Filmi Atmakatha’, Balraj Sahni mentioned one incident of 1949. He wrote that during one shooting, a call came to him that said the Communist Party office was being shut down and shifted from Parel in Mumbai. The party workers were holding a procession to oppose this and they need him. He stopped the shooting immediately, reached Parel with his wife and joined the protest. There was lathi charge and firing by the police. Balraj Sahni was arrested and sent to jail for nearly one year. But on the request of producers, he got permission to finish his pending shooting from 9 to 6 pm. After that, he would go back to his jail cell.

Through theatre and his plays like ‘Kallol’ and ‘Pherrari Fauj’ legendary actor Utpal Dutt raised awareness about the economic-social inequalities rampant in society, urging people to fight against them. Utpal Dutt performed many plays in rural Bengal. His plays used to create lot of controversies and restlessness in the then ruling Congress under Indira Gandhi. As a result in 1965, the Congress government had put Utpal Dutt in jail without any trial. Interestingly, Dutt, who taught Shakespeare in Calcutta University, would act in seemingly mindless entertainment films in Hindi, and clearly said that he did so to fund his radical theatre projects.

Another noted filmmaker, Mehboob Khan had a great liking for PM Nehru but Mehboob Khan’s political and social ideology was strongly influenced by Marxism. His company logo carried the sickle and hammer – emblem of the Communist Party. As a liberal Muslim, Mehboob Khan also advocated feminism. Famous films like ‘Mother India’, ‘Aurat’ and ‘Andaz’ are noted examples.

Chetan Anand’s directorial debut ‘Neecha Nagar’ was released in the same year as its counterpart ‘Dharti Ke Lal’, directed by KA Abbas, another IPTA stalwart. Inspired by Maxim Gorky’s ‘The Lower Depths’, ‘Neecha Nagar’ represented the clear demarcation between the haves and have-nots. It was the first film that got recognition at the Cannes film festival.

In fact, Chetan Anand was invited to Delhi to show the film to Pandit Nehru and several other international leaders attending a conference on the diplomatic concept of Panchsheel. Raj Kapoor in ‘Jagte Raho’ deals with social realism. To redeem the popularity of Jawaharlal Nehru, producer Saavan Kumar dedicated his film ‘Nunihaal’ as a tribute after his demise. As a matter of fact, the film’s theme song ‘Meri Aawaz Suno’ was also picturised on the funeral procession of Pandit Nehru.

Bollywood’s evergreen star Dev Anand also fearlessly kept his anti-government views. Mohan Churiwala, a close associate of Dev Anand, told the BBC in his interview on Dev Anand that Dev Saheb opposed the Emergency imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, so, despite being a follower of Nehruvian thought, he did not accept the invitation to join the Congress. In fact, in protest, he formed his own political party National Party of India. For this very reason, Congress banned his films and songs from being broadcast in Doordarshan and All India Radio. Dev Anand described Emergency as a dictatorship and told then Broadcasting Minister Vidya Charan Shukla, ill-famed for his strongarm censorship: “We live in a democratic country and believe in freedom of expression. Do we have no right to live with our free minds?” The effect of his protest was that when Dev Anand reached Mumbai, the ban was lifted.

Regional films still count on ideology formula. At present the Malayalam film industry is dominated by leftist ideology. And in Tamil films, this formula has benefitted CN Annadurai, MGR, Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha. Annadurai’s scripts and storylines in films like ‘Or Iravu’ and ‘Velaikkari’ made a silent revolution. In 1952, with Karunanidhi’s strong screenplay, Tamil film ‘Parasakthi’ was used as political propaganda by the DMK to castigate Congress rule even when Nehruvian socialism was a doctrine accepted all over India. The film faced controversy because of its portrayal of Brahmins and Hindu customs and practices in poor light. And now Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan are also playing their cards on this principle.

With his forthcoming movie ‘Kaala’, Rajinikanth is trying to get closer to the masses, especially the downtrodden. Like MGR, Rajinikanth too, through his upcoming films, is all set to portray himself as bringing solace to the poor in many walks of life. Last year, actor Vijay tried to put his critique on GST and education through his film ‘Mersal’. He served strong messages against the present state of affairs in the medical field. Anyway, the blockbuster movie, ‘Mersal’ also faced controversies nationwide. The film won accolades and hearts of the common man with its punchy dialogues. BJP, the ruling political party had objected to scenes in which the protagonist criticises and ridicules Modi’s trophy initiatives GST and Digital India. The rightists demanded a ban and this demand was seen as an attack on freedom of expression by opposition political parties.

Changing Course

Over time, Bollywood abandoned this ideological mooring and went in for commercialisation, with romantic and action films. In the early 70s, when Hindi cinema was more about romance and less about social injustice, it was actor and director Manoj Kumar who re-stirred the ideology of nationalism through his films like ‘Purab Paschim’ and ‘Upkar’. He became known as ‘Bharat Kumar’ and was suitably awarded by the BJP govt in 2016. And in recent times many stars like Kangana Ranaut, Preity Zinta, Anupam Kher, Akshay Kumar (new Bharat Kumar), Ajay Devgn and Vivek Oberoi have aligned themselves with saffronism.

There are exceptions like Aamir Khan, whose ‘Rang De Basanti’ is a clear call to youth to hit out against the corrupt. Aamir’s film ‘Dangal’ protests against rabid patriarchy and has been a runaway hit globally.

But actors like Akshay Kumar decided to pick up the Modi government’s Swachhata Mission and punched it with a spot or irrelevant romance in ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’. The recent spate of upcoming productions on toilet and sanitary pads have been touted as socially crucial. But that is the point: the saffron party’s image is being insidiously pushed into the common man’s psyche in the run up to the 2019 elections.

If we look at Bollywood, presently no ideology exists there, so it’s a great platform for rightists to splash saffron on the silver screen.


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