Naseeruddin Shah spoke up. He shared his opinion on the state of the nation, where a police officer has been murdered by a mob angry over alleged cow slaughter. And all hell broke loose. Right-wing politicians of limited importance bought him a one-way ticket to Pakistan; some called him a traitor and Pakistani spy and myriad names. On the other side of the country’s political divide, some from the pseudo-liberal-minded crowd have warned against his demarcation of a ‘good’ Muslim versus ‘bad’ Muslim. Shah’s statement that his wife, actor Ratna Pathak Shah and he have not inculcated religion in their children drew reactions that he is creating a distinction between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslim, making a convoluted point that doesn’t hold water.
Either way, the veteran actor’s Ajmer literature festival event had to be cancelled. Once again, those who operate within realms of sanity and logic had to back off, fearing violence and damage to a public gathering. Essentially, all that Shah has expressed concern about has been re-validated here; anyone who dares step out of line will be made to suffer by an angry mob that break law with impunity.
Naseeruddin Shah being victimized for sharing his opinion is the worst kind of precedent to set. In the Hindi film industry, cookie cutter opinions are the norm. Almost always, when it comes to taking a political stand or expressing a point of view on socio-political issues, Bollywood steps behind. It plays safe. Amitabh Bachchan, India’s best-known movie personality, has rarely expressed his opinion on anything that mattered- most recently, delivering platitudes on social media on #MeToo movement in India.
Amidst such standardized points of view, Shah’s opinion is relevant because it is uninhibited. It is not influenced by a culture of clustering and staying politically safe that established names in Hindi cinema have always done. The actor also criticized the Indian cricket captain, Virat Kohli, recently for displaying extreme aggression on the cricket field while playing against Australia. When he speaks his mind, he expresses concerns that are heard from educated, forward-thinking senior citizens across urban India, and doesn’t reflect an ivory tower point of view of a first world life led in a cloistered universe.
Shah has preferred to be his own person, forthright and straightforward without succumbing to the clannish behavior as is evident within the film industry. In 2016, he kicked the hornet’s nest when he described the astronomical rise of late superstar Rajesh Khanna and synonymous alteration in Hindi cinema as triggers to today’s mediocrity. Speaking to Hindustan Times, he had stated, “In fact, it was the 70s when mediocrity came in Hindi films. That’s when the actor called Rajesh Khanna joined the industry. For all his success, I think Mr Khanna was a very limited actor...It was his taste that ruled the industry…. The quality of script, acting, music and lyrics deteriorated. Color came in. You could make a heroine wear a purple dress and hero a red shirt, go to Kashmir and make a movie. You didn’t need a story. This trend continued and I certainly think Mr Khanna had something to do with it because he was God in those days.”
He drew sharp reactions from within the film fraternity. Twinkle Khanna, the late star’s daughter, responded on Twitter stating that Shah’s attack on a man who couldn’t respond was actually, mediocre. Karan Johar, Khanna’s childhood friend, took her side with righteous anger, calling Shah’s statements, amongst other things, as unbecoming of someone from the ‘film fraternity’. This nebulous but all-powerful community, somewhat like an underground cartel, undefined yet authoritative and controlled by insiders, becomes a gold standard to defend against anything that is critical of the banalities of Bollywood. In fact, Shah had also taken on Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a film that featured a brilliant performance by Farhan Akhtar, but the film fraternity lauded it despite it being factually completely erroneous. But Shah called it a ‘fake’ film. His argument is that what could have been an interesting psychological study, instead, became a ‘potboiler’ that resorted to clichéd Pakistan bashing.
Shah has also displayed an uncommon ability to laugh at himself. What is now seen frequently, where actors and stars mock at their flaws, was considered off-limits before. Bucking the trend of self-celebration and overt politeness, Naseeruddin Shah, one of our finest actors ever, has never hesitated to admit that he works in Hindi commercial films for the money; although he doesn’t like these films or their style of storytelling one bit. His autobiography, And Then One Day, is perhaps the only book written by a Bollywood star that is honest and frank about his humane flaws. The book actually makes you long for a more juiced up life story from Shah, for his screen and stage performances remain unmatched till date. But that’s Naseeruddin Shah for you, not one to filter and not one to speak for the sake of sanity.
Besides stifling the opinion of a true free thinker in our society, taking up cudgels against Naseeruddin Shah discourages others from speaking out. An artistic community, in a society irrespective of its politics and government, should have the freedom to express without hesitation. In Hindi cinema, as the #MeToo movement recently reflected, a slight positive change has emerged. Young stars and filmmakers have just begun to speak up for that which is right. Without toeing a boring politically correct line, they are opening themselves up to disagreement occasionally. If a veteran star, whose body of work has given India reasons to be proud amongst popular artists globally, is stifled by mob mentality, then the younger lot will simply turn tail and stick to minting money. They will prefer to stay muted on issues that matter. Sanjay Bhansali faced pointless mob ire when he was making Padmaavat; his leading lady Deepika Padukone showed courage in verbally taking on the mob. Shah’s suffering is solitary so far as the film fraternity is not a club that he has ever joined. But the actor has grudging respect from people everywhere; let him speak his mind and let him be. Otherwise, popular art in India, which is dominated by cinema, will never become a reflection of what society actually feels and experiences.