Amitabh’s Kolkata speech reflects a fading of dreams for the film industry
Bachchan’s address at the film festival underscored the anguish of the multifaceted thespian as an industry leader pained at the rising sectarianism that plagues Indian cinema today
The ‘daughter’ of the city, a star in her own right, stepped aside for the ‘son-in-law’ to take centrestage, but not before letting it be known that his words were agonisingly nurtured in the mind and heart for the past three years, but could not be shared due to minor strokes of misfortune and, of course, the COVID pandemic.
The words of Kolkata’s daughter, as Jaya Bachchan is adoringly referred to in the City of Joy, conveyed quintessentially as a film trailer would, that Amitabh Bachchan’s address at the inaugural of the Kolkata Film Festival would not be the lament of the overpowered, but an assertion of the indomitable.
In an exceptional speech steeped in patient tutorial-history at a time when the discipline is used as political weapon, the Big B set the tone even before thanking the city and its people for giving him his first job and his wife, her first film, Satyajit Ray’s 1963 cinematic essay, Mahanagar, when still a teenager.
He also spoke glowingly about West Bengal, not insignificantly with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee sitting on the dais. The state, he said, becomes “so special” because of “celebrating the essence of plurality and equality,” words undoubtedly ‘problematic’ in the course of the current drive towards homogeneity in every sphere.
The speech flags four ‘Ws’: Why, What, Where and When. They may not have definite answers but must be posed and each one is free to stay with responses they get from within.
The festival, which Bachchan flagged off along with several other biggies from the film world, has always celebrated, he said, “the inclusive spirit of cinema beyond the confines of what Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore called ‘narrow domestic walls’.”
Placing the iconic poet’s poignant phrase in the cultural discourse underscored the anguish of the multifaceted thespian as an industry leader and an artist pained at the rising sectarianism that plagues much of the world of cinema in India today.
Unambiguously, Bachchan served a reminder of the universal values of equality, inclusivity and egalitarianism that defined Indian cinema, especially Bollywood, with which he has been engaged for more than half a century. The speech correctly created a stir because of Bachchan’s sharp censure of the now popular and oft-made genre of historical films for being “couched in fictionalised jingoism along with moral policing.”
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Importantly, Bachchan spoke at an event hosted by a political adversary of the country’s regime and crucially flagged two issues essential for survival of any democratic polity, but currently under threat from forces symbiotically connected with the ruling party: “civil liberties” and “freedom of expression”. It is well-known that questions about the deficiency of these characteristics in contemporary India provoke hostile whataboutery.
Bachchan does not rant like an angry old man or even use any of the mannerisms, typical to his famous on-screen persona Vijay, almost his eponym. Instead, his sadness was palpable at the fading of dreams with which many of his contemporaries entered the film industry. But, beneath this unease and sorrow was the conviction of the necessity to safeguard, even resurrect past values by drawing on works and lessons of our own maestros.
Bachchan spoke in more than one profile. If he started off as a cine artist worried at the loss of inclusiveness which was integral to his cinematic upbringing — even before he joined the industry — he quickly settled into the role of a tutor of cinema history, more importantly on film censorship, regulation and control.
But before he did so, the recent octogenarian spoke unambiguously – without waving a flag or with rancour, on issues that have a direct bearing on contemporary politics and societal trends.
Cinema, politics and society
The constant placing of cinema at the intersection of politics and society in history was a holistic exercise because Bachchan recalled at every step how early Indian filmmakers, actors and technicians responded to global developments and limitations due to being practitioners of their art form under a colonial government.
Although he made no such suggestions, it would be tempting to read a gentle suggestion in his reminder that many filmmakers in colonial India against all odds made films on socially relevant and politically progressive themes.
Bachchan recalled how several directors indirectly referred to the national movement and recalled sequences featuring ‘disguised’ patriotic songs like Door hatho ae duniya walo (Stay away you global forces) from the 1943 film, Kismet. In that song, the direct reference was to the Allied forces, but viewers knew the intention was to make a point to the British that Hindustan hamara hai (India is ours), and it became a rallying song for freedom fighters.
It would not be to the liking of many that the song characterised India as being the land of the Taj Mahal and Qutub Minar where temples, mosques and gurudwaras stand cheek by jowl.
The part of his speech where Bachchan spoke on the history of censorship (policing of Indian cinema) and linked it to questions about civil liberties and freedom of expression, would have been met with stern disapproval in official quarters purely because the renewal of conversations on structures and attempts to control content will not be to the liking of the political and governmental leadership.
Such worries should not arise regarding the sections of the speech when Bachchan spoke on how filmmakers and everyone connected with the industry have to come to terms with the changing nature of the audience, courtesy new technologies opening up infinite possibilities.
Bachchan is no political leader and has for long regretted entering politics. Following the post-Bofors isolation arising due to, in his assessment, inadequate defence of him by the Congress party, he courted political leaders but stayed away from the arena. By resigning from Allahabad and forcing a by-election that the Congress lost, Bachchan, many consider, hastened the moral decline and political shrinking of the Rajiv Gandhi regime.
He attracted the ire of the adversaries of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for being seen as supporting its politics by strategic silence on critical issues, including the 2002 riots and by lending his name and face to several government ad campaigns in Gujarat and nationally.
Bachchan has not made any break with any group just as he never formally endorsed any viewpoint in the past. Yet, there are elements in his Kolkata address that can be utilised to critique the dominant cultural policy, especially the increasing control of cinema.
His words have the capacity to instil courage and bolster the conviction of many. It may never be known if his present unassailable position in life and profession bolstered his resolve to state opinions, as these — as Jaya stated — were carefully deliberated upon, and in no hurry.
Not many in the country would have the courage to give a call to “bring down the barriers that have blinded us of the view of the horizon” and to “demolish the differences that divide us.” Not many in today’s India would have the nerve to stand on a public platform and use the phrase – “darkest hour”, while recalling Rabindranath Tagore’s 1912 imploration for more ‘light’ and much more.
While recalling films or past maestros, Bachchan could have chosen several but he named just one: Ray’s “chamber drama” – Ganashatru. Adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, An Enemy of the People, Bachchan chose to remind people of this film because of how Ray “may have reacted to the current times.”
The film, dramatised in a Bengal town, etched on celluloid the efforts of a middle-aged doctor practising in a pilgrimage town struck by a jaundice epidemic due to water contamination. The doctor is up against powerful forces representing the state and temple authority. Did Bachchan choose this film to recall lessons to be learnt from the past because situations have similarities to events in India during the pandemic?
Ray’s film and the pandemic
After all, like in Ray’s film, obscurantism reared its head during COVID and the State made little effort to uplift the scientific temper of people. Ray made no effort to disguise the web of intrigue that prevented the doctor from publicising that the temple’s ‘holy water’ carries the infectious germ.
The film was not merely conspiratorial but intensely political by showing the emergence of a partnership between Hindu obscurantism, political leadership and economic interest groups. By the time it was released in 1989, Hindutva was a viable political idea.
No suggestions were made, but many who watched the film weighed in their minds for long if the doctor was the “enemy of the people”, or if the people who prevented ‘truth’ from getting known the actual foes of humanity.
Bachchan did not pose a similar question, but people can certainly ask: If Satyajit Ray were alive today, who would he consider as personifying the enemy of the people? Ganashatru had an optimistic ending as Dr Gupta secured ‘justice’; he received support from the town’s youth, decided to stay on there and a procession marched through the streets shouting slogans, among them one wishing a long life for the doctor.
Bachchan did not delve into such details but these will linger in the mind after listening to his address.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His newest book is ‘The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India’. His other books include ‘The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)