March 24 2016
Successful director says self-censorship and potential negative repercussions can inhibit filmmakers in India…
By Tasha Mathur and Sailesh Ram
BOLLYWOOD and politics don’t usually mix – as is the way in Hollywood too, for much of the time.
However, Kabir Khan is a director well-known for mixing Bollywood and politics – though you wouldn’t always know it.
His last film, “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” is a gentle social comedy about a young Pakistani Kashmiri girl who inadvertently lands up in India and finds her way back home only with the help of a devout Hindu Brahmin (played by megastar Salman Khan).
Khan (left in picture) was in London last Saturday and talked to well-known Indian film critic and Mumbai Film Festival organiser Anupama Chopra (right in the picture) and both addressed the question of – ‘How pervasive is the soft power of Bollywood?’ at the annual LSE-India Forum.
With a film like Bajrangi which tiptoes around political sensitivities – Kashmir, Pakistan and India relations – it might seem an improbable balancing act, but Khan got it right as the film proved to be a big hit in India and could not have been so, if the country (or the country’s Censor Board), had seen the film as in any way anti-patriotic or even mildly critical of India or Hinduism.
Khan said the censor board only gave it the green light just seven days before its release date and Chopra asked him about the growing notion that India was becoming more intolerant than it used to be.
Khan agreed that it had become intolerant.
“There is definitely a growing intolerance in our industry and society about anything which is contentious.
“If I tweet something right now, you’ll hear the choicest abuses in Hindi on my timeline. What does this mean? It means nobody wants to listen to a counterpoint.”
Chopra also quizzed him on self-censorship and whether filmmakers thought too much about the reaction to a film than its actual construction.
“The thoughts do creep in but then you just think ‘heck with it, I’ll fight this legal battle when I come to it’. But the unfortunate bit is that there will be hostility against something that you’re trying to say. The fact that these thoughts come to you when writing a script is sad.”
Khan, who also directed the first film to ever be shot in post-Taliban Afghanistan with “Kabul Express” (2006) and a film about Muslims detained unjustly after 9/11 in “New York” (2009), told the audience that he was interested in reaching the masses and you could only do that through a traditional Bollywood film.
It also partly explains the wide popularity of Bollywood as opposed to Hollywood or indie cinema in India, and what motivated Khan to make this type of cinema, as opposed to any other.
“I feel that if you need to discuss an issue, you need to discuss it in the mainstream space, because unfortunately what happens with niche cinema is that it becomes a case of preaching to the converted,” he explained. “So, you do a film but the small number of people who come are those who are anyway in agreement with you.”
He said being able to cast a star was important – your message would reach a wide audience and that with Bajrangi, it was created with Salman Khan very much in mind and knowing what would appeal to him.
“There are certain things he (Salman Khan) feels very strongly about,” Kabir Khan revealed. “And they’re never properly articulated because he’s not very good with the press, as you know.
“But of course, half a Bacardi bottle down, he opens up to me! And I realised he feels very strongly about the aspects of secularism that our country enjoys.
“I said that if you feel so strongly about something like this, you should articulate it properly and say it because it would mean a lot. And he said, ‘I think you’re absolutely right…let’s do this film.’ That’s how ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ began.”
Khan said the comedy was important in approaching a sensitive subject in Bajrangi – that of India-Pakistan diplomatic/cultural relations which continue to be volatile.
“A lot of it was done with humour and I think that’s probably why it was accepted.
“If you use humour, then it’s an easier pill to swallow. They laugh at it and then they go back and think about it. That’s the ideal blend that I would like to do.
“Bring in the star power of somebody like Salman, Shah Rukh (Khan), Aamir (Khan) or Hrithik (Roshan) and yet be able to tell a story, which has a political backdrop.
“But if you do access the layers, then you will enjoy the film much more. And that’s been the struggle and will always be the struggle: to be able to be political while making mainstream cinema.”
Chopra asked whether Khan needed to dumb down the material to make it more accessible to a wide audience.
“You need to simplify what you’re saying because there is no more diverse audience in the world than a mainstream Indian audience.
“You have to cater to the rickshaw-wallahs in Meerut and the South Bombay (Mumbai) banker. You can’t p**s off either of them because you need the entire public to come and watch your film.”
The LSE-India Forum is organised by the university’s India Society and it invites speakers and experts from a wide variety of fields to talk about India and its continuing development. This year’s theme was ‘India’s Growing Global Footprint’ and included talks about the economy, business, finance, the media and this one on Bollywood.
Among those participating were Rana Kapoor, founder and CEO of Yes Bank in India, well-known Indiai journalist and broadcaster Suhel Seth, politicians, Sachin Pilot (Congress), Dr Sambit Patra (BJP) and Manish Sisodia (Aam Adami Party), Ealing and Southall MP Virendra Sharma; and India’s deputy high commissioner in the UK, Dr Virendra Paul.
Also participating were business figures: Pratik Gupta (Foxymoron), Atul Phadnis, (EPG and TV Solutions), Professor Alnoor Bhimani, professor of Management Accounting at the LSE; and Rajat Sharma, chairman and editor of India TV.