Culture’s role in politics

April 14, 2019

Different streams of cultural protests -- like actors, artistes and intellectuals signing statements asking people to choose wisely in the Lok Sabha election -- do have a legacy, but they have become more poignant given the times

Culture’s role in politics

The infamous quote, ‘When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun’, has been variously attributed to Nazis Himmler, Goebbels and Goring. Looking at the ongoing election in India, one begins to get a sense of deja vu. While the election 2019 moves to the crucial stage with the first phase of polling slated to take place on April 11 in parts of India, voices have gone shriller, accusations and counter accusations flying thick in the air and campaigning tactics very often hitting below the belt.

The ruling party has achieved greater heights in mobilising its resources through a virtual aerial bombardment of propaganda from all possible sources. While social media and the traditional television have been largely dominated by the ruling BJP, they also launched a full time NaMo TV dedicated to the prime minister’s speeches, which as per the latest news has been banned by the Election Commission (EC).

In all of this, another stunt that was sought to be pulled off was a biopic on Narendra Modi, with Vivek Oberoi, a B grade Bollywood star, essaying his role. Again, as per the latest news, the EC has put a stop to its screening before the elections after opposition parties formally objected to it.

What is interesting is that while there are clearly two vocal camps among the movie fraternity, with actors, directors taking sides openly in favour or against BJP, it is still marked by the larger absence of A listers from this public posturing. So, even as old guards like Hema Malini are re-contesting the election on BJP ticket, and the disgruntled Shatrughan Sinha has decided to finally join the Congress Party after being a dissident inside BJP for a long time, a more publicly vocal, highly polarised support base of BJP has come from actors like Anupam Kher (who recently played the role of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in The Accidental Prime Minister) and Paresh Rawal, who had essayed the role of Sardar Patel (another of the old Congress icons appropriated by BJP) among others, who lose no time in abusing, mocking and even threatening detractors of the present government specially those speaking against Modi.

But even as the biggies of Bollywood like Ranveer Singh (whose own wife and star Deepika Padukone was threatened by the loutish supporters of BJP after she starred in Padmavat) and Karan Johar, whose directorial Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was stuck for a long time because it starred Pakistani actor Fawad Khan, do not hesitate to get a selfie with the PM, they remain largely silent in terms of their political positions. The three Khans, after their initial outbursts around the rising intolerance during the early period of this government, have been largely silenced too. So, there is no scenario like Hollywood where you will find George Clooney and Susan Sarandon actually canvassing for political candidates. A telling sign of the times!

What is interesting is that while there are clearly two vocal camps among the movie fraternity, with actors, directors taking sides openly in favour or against BJP, it is still marked by the larger absence of A listers from this public posturing.

But there are other vibrant stars like Swara Bhaskar or the iconic actor Prakash Raj from southern films (the latter incidentally began his career playing the role of Karunanidhi, the late DMK Chief in Tamil Iruvar), who are espousing a different kind of radical politics. Both these actors have been canvassing for Kanhaiya Kumar, the ex-JNU Student Union President who is fighting in his home town Begusarai in Bihar as a Left candidate.

This new breed of small but extremely visible actors, artists are not just articulating a new opposition beyond Congress during elections, but through their public activism on a range of issues -- including intolerance, communalism, human rights violations -- have consistently articulated a renewed possibility for both mainstream politics as well as mainstream cultural practices.

The recent weeks have seen a plethora of news headlines like ‘Over 100 Filmmakers urge people not to vote for BJP’, or ‘Vote against the BJP and its Allies, say over 700 Theatre Artists’, hogging the attention. They included big names like Girish Karnad, Naseeruddin Shah, Amol Palekar, Anurag Kashyap, playwright Mahesh Elkunchvar. Terming the upcoming elections as ‘the most critical in the history of independent India’, they said democracy cannot function without questioning, debate and a vibrant opposition. Another set of independent filmmakers like Anand Patwardhan (who made an iconic film like Ram ke Nam) and Deepa Dhanraj signed a statement saying, ‘Fascism threatens to strike us hard with all its might if we don’t choose wisely in the coming Lok Sabha elections’.

This stream of writers, directors, very respected but not necessarily mainstream, have always been vocal in their opposition to the current regime, even before the 2014 elections. Post 2014, when organised mob lynchings of Muslims and dalits began to take place in the name of cow protection, these were the very people who were consistent in their public protests. Many of them returned their prestigious national awards in protest, very often ridiculed as ‘Award wapsi gang’ by Modi supporters. Writers like Arundhati Roy, Late U R Ananthmurthy, poet Ashok Vajpeyi and many others have consistently been part of this entrenched opposition especially from the days of Gujarat massacres of 2002 when Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

These different streams of cultural protests have a legacy, but they have become even more poignant given the times. In the recently held Shankar-Shad Mushaira, poet lyricist Javed Akhtar recited these lines, ‘Jo baat kehte darte hain sab, tu wo baat likh/itni andheri thi na kabhi pehle raat likh (To speak of the thing which everyone fears, of that you must write/The night was never so dark before, you must write)’. These lines inspired poet lyricist Gulzar to write, ‘Tumne bhi khoon-e-dil mein duboyee hain ungliyan/Humne qalam ki pehle bhi jhankar suni hai (You too have dipped your fingers in your heart’s blood/We have heard the clangor of the pen earlier too)’.

Regardless of the result of the upcoming elections, one hopes that this glorious traditioncontinues.

Culture’s role in politics