It’s not just the prerogative of activists and politicians to stand up for what’s right – celebrities and public personas have a voice too. In the West, you see numerous talk show hosts, actors, and entertainers vehemently and publicly decry the government and those they think are doing wrong. In India however, there’s a deafening silence from Bollywood, which seems to love nothing more than coddling the government because it’s good for business. But things weren’t always like that – at one time, Bollywood had a spine, as these instances show.
1. Shabana Azmi protested the killing of Safdar Hashmi by Congress thugs on stage during the 12th International Film Festival in 1989.
Hashmi, a popular anti-authoritarian playwright, was performing with his troupe when they were attacked by a bunch of goons. He was fatally injured and died the next day. His killers were sentenced 14 years later. Shabana had protested against this brutal incident while at the award show the same year, surprising all and sundry as this was an unprecedented move. In fact, she even named the person who was suspected of organising the attack – a man who was actually sitting in the audience!
In January 1989, exactly a week after #SafdarHashmi’s death, @AzmiShabana read out a note in protest of Comrade Hashmi’s killing from the stage of the International Film Festival of India in New Delhi. #Sahmat #Janam pic.twitter.com/mWjutDU1h6— Md Salim (@salimdotcomrade) January 1, 2020
2. Kishore Kumar protested against the Congress imposing Emergency in 1975. He turned down invitations to perform for the government or promote their policies.
He rejected an invitation to perform at a Youth Congress rally in Mumbai, and also turned down the then I&B Minister VC Shukla’s request to make and participate in ads promoting Sanjay Gandhi’s 20-point Economic Programme. In response, his music and films were banned from airing.
3. Dev Anand publicly spoke out against the Emergency.
This resulted in his films being banned on Doordarshan, and he also faced a lot of trouble while shooting films following this.
4. Balraj Sahni spent 2 years in jail for his Left activism and criticism of the government. He also refused to apologise.
In 1949, the government offered to release him if he apologised for the scathing critique of the government in writings for the Indian People’s Theatre Association. He refused, and spent two years in prison.
5. A.K. Hangal was jailed for his activism and for being a Communist.
In fact, he would sometimes be allowed to leave the jail to finish shooting certain movie scenes. Ironically, before this, he had even been a part of the Indian Independence struggle.
6. Majrooh Sultanpuri, the film songwriter was jailed for penning a poem that criticised Nehru and the then-government’s policies.
While he was celebrated for the songs he wrote for Bollywood, Majrooh actually went to jail for 2 years in 1949 for he anti-establishment writings. He was another stalwart who refused to apologise for his beliefs.
7. Manoj Kumar was yet another famous actor who openly defied the Emergency, and even won a court case after government tried to stall the release of his films.
Although he initially supported it, he was soon one of the loudest voices against the Emergency. He refused an offer to direct a pro-Emergency documentary, and encouraged his peers to not bow down to the government as well.
8. Danny Denzongpa had raised his voice against the censorious and illegitimate ways of the Emergency.
9. Pran, the famous movie villain, was also a vocal critic of the Emergency and of Indira Gandhi’s governance.
10. Celebrated filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee also protested against the ruling powers during the Emergency, and even snuck in jokes about it in his films.
It would appear that the days of top names standing up for human rights and criticising the government are long gone.