Few days back, a civil suit was filed before the Delhi High Court by four Bollywood industry associations and thirty-four leading production houses against two popular news channels, unknown defendants and social media platforms to refrain from making or publishing irresponsible, derogatory and defamatory remarks against the Hindi film industry as well as individual members of the Bollywood. The suit invited this author’s attention particularly because what was thus achieved displays a rare unity and extraordinary resolve among the film producers, directors and actors for a common cause. Despite such potential, the Bollywood has never shown such unanimity on any national or patriotic cause in the past even on the occasions of external aggression by enemy neighbours. On the most occasions, they were either found divided or silent among themselves. The author, therefore, finds it interesting to analyse the background of the suit, nature of the film industry and the prevailing evils and ailments therein.
Trigger for the Civil Suit
The current controversy and umbrage started with the death due to the supposed suicide of a young, versatile and popular actor Sushant Singh Rajput on 14 June 2020. The actor was merely aged 34 years with a promising career and had already given several commercial hits in the recent past. As he was found dead hanging from the roof in his Bandra Apartment, the Mumbai Metropolitan Police routinely treated it a case of suicide but the close friends and relatives of the actor sensed a conspiracy behind and insisted for the CBI investigation exploring all angles including abetment of suicide and murder. The high-profile case received significant media attention ever since his death serially unfolding several angles such as the dubious role the actor’s girlfriend, her family and drug abuse among the Bollywood celebrities.
In fact, an independent investigation by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) has prima facie revealed involvement of the actor’s girlfriend, his brother and other players in the nexus of the illicit drug trade and supply racket in the Bollywood. Also a serious controversy was reported between the approach of investigation by the Bihar (actor’s home state) and Mumbai police; hence the case is now being probed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which has kept open even the homicide angle in the death case. The case remained a major controversial news in the national and local media for long and a section of media even paid special attention for the sake of justice to the deceased actor. Consequently, several film personalities have been under the scanner of media channels some of which have levied many founded and unfounded charges and blames against people in the name of free journalism.
In the above background, the suit filed by the industry associations and production houses has sought, among other things, to restrain the news channels from conducting media trials of the Bollywood personalities and interfering with right to privacy of people associated with the film industry. In an effort to vindicate its merit, the suit argues that the Bollywood denizens are a distinct and well recognised class, the industry is a huge source of employment and revenue for the public exchequer, and an important source of the foreign exchange earnings from the overseas releases of films and tourism. It has been further asserted that the livelihood of the people associated with the Bollywood has been severely impacted due to smear campaign against them causing irreparable damage to reputation and invading their right of privacy. While the outcome of the civil suit will be known in due course, the author intends to briefly discuss the issues ailing the Bollywood now.
Ordinarily, the very mention of the term ‘Bollywood’ evokes a lot of interest and curiosity among the people in India and in many countries abroad with significant Indian population as well. The term actually denotes the Indian Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), which was way back known as Bombay cinema and the term Bollywood itself is a portmanteau of ‘Bombay’ and ‘Hollywood’. With the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world including India, the Indian film industry has been almost stopped working since March 2020 without any new releases and cinema houses been closed all over the country to contain the spread of disease. Then for the last four months, it has also invited tremendous controversies and ill-fame since the death of a young and talented actor Sushant Singh Rajput on 14 June 2020.
Typically, the Bollywood (Hindi cinema) along with the regional cinema of South India and other parts of the country constitute the Indian cinema, which has emerged as the largest entertainment industry in the world over the years with the largest number of feature films produced. The Bollywood Hindi films fall under popular commercial genre mostly producing masala movies that freely mix and represent different genres including action, romance, comedy, melodrama, suspense and thrill clubbed with musical numbers. Few decades back, a distinctive genre of arts films was started by few production houses in the name of parallel cinema with rather realistic content and mostly avoiding musical numbers. However, this distinction of the commercial masala and parallel cinema has increasingly faded during the recent years.
The Bollywood is not only the major source of entertainment of the Indian masses but also exerts significant social and emotional influence on people, particularly the youth. It’s so because the Indian people have a craze for the cinema and many of them, what they see on the silver screen, try to emulate in their personal lives. In other words, the ethics and values depicted in cinema, and the personal conduct of the cine actors and actresses too has a vast influence in the making of the modern society. Thus the industry which has received tremendous love, following and attention of the Indian masses for the decades too is not without its own responsibility and accountability in displaying right synergy and paradigms in ethical conduct for people. But, unfortunately, in discharging their role as the torch bearers for the society with right ethics and morality, the Bollywood has miserably failed over the years with its involvement in all kinds of vices such as nepotism, rampant corruption and black money, exploitation of women, underworld connections, drug abuse, and so on.
Nepotism and Favourism
Nepotism and favourism is not merely an issue of entertainment industry alone; instead, it is rampant in nearly all walks of life including politics, bureaucracy, professional services, sports, and so on. But it is more rampant in politics and cinema because one doesn’t need any prescribed qualification, professional degree or experience to join these streams. After the Sushant Singh Rajput death controversy erupted in media, originally an outsider yet now established actress Kangana Ranaut candidly spoke in media about the prevalent culture of nepotism in Bollywood in a very frank manner and its likely impact on the aforesaid actor’s untimely death. In fact, earlier too in a television show “Koffee with Karan” in 2017, she had called the filmmaker and anchor Karan Johar himself as the ‘flag-bearer of nepotism’. Following her candid talk on the subject, another famous actress of yesteryears Simi Grewal applauded Ranaut stating her as brave and bold simultaneously recalling how a ‘powerful’ person had viciously tried to destroy her career.
In fact, the Bollywood has a long tradition of practicing and promoting nepotism in Hindi cinema. To learn how deep rooted is family business and their hold in Hindi cinema, one may visit the following link; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Hindi_film_families, which is quite illustrative and revealing. For instance, among a long list of families associated with the entertainment business in Bollywood, the Kapoor family one of the most prolific generational clan along with many others, who are well known for launching, patronizing and promoting their children and close relatives into the industry using their influence and endorsement for decades. In many cases, well known families support and endorse each other’s wards with mutual consent and understanding. There is a long list of unsuccessful and flopped actors and actresses, who were launched with great fanfare owing to money and influence of their families but could not established themselves due to lack of acting skill and talent. On the other hand, many talented actors are indiscriminated and wasted for being an outsider in the industry.
The aforesaid practices and procedures in Bollywood shall not be condemned or criticized selectively as the nepotism and favourism is prevalent in all other professions too in varying degrees but these factors clubbed with protectionism make it a deadly combination in the Bollywood . The very debate on nepotism in the recent months had started due to reports on many Bollywood influential personalities boycotting Sushant Singh Rajput, an outsider in the industry but emerging as a very talented and promising actor. Even a former parliamentarian of an important national party held that Rajput was being ostracized by the influential film fraternity of Bollywood despite being an accomplished actor; in fact, the media flagged few specific film personalities such as Karan Johar, Mahesh Bhatt and Salman Khan in this regard. Rajput is not the only outsider, there has been many cases of upcoming talented actors from outside Bollywood families, who faced similar discrimination and boycott in the past in the industry flourishing on the rampant nepotism and favourism.
Corruption goes hand in hand with nepotism in India. It infests nearly all walks of life including politics, bureaucracy, judiciary, business, industry, religion, arts and literature, and government and private jobs. The film industry too is not free from the corruption and black money; in fact, it is rampant at all levels in the film business. An income tax department report of 2015-16 showed how the department keeps a watch on Bollywood distributers, producers, and actors, and what all they do behind the glamorous world of the silver screen to avoid taxes including dodgy dealings invoking the hawala and other hot-money routes, fudging accounts with over expenditure and under payments, and so on. The major evasion practices include the suppression of receipts from movies, engaging ancillary sources, inflation of expenditure, out-of-books payments/receipts in huge amounts, and so on by the players operating in the Mumbai film industry.
It may not be appropriate to divulge with the names but in many cases even the famous and reputed personalities and their companies had a brush up with the income tax department in the past for keeping the black money and other serious irregularities. In 2011, a leaked cable from the Wikileaks revealed the underworld connections of the film industry, and how it welcomes funds from gangsters and politicians exploring for ways to launder their ill-gotten money, often christened as ‘black money’ in India. Similarly, a sting operation by the Cobrapost, a news website, had shown in 2012 some leading producers and directors allegedly admitting on camera about the modus operandi how the film industry operates in converting “black” into “white” money.
According to the aforesaid report, usually every film is produced and distributed through a complicated channel comprising of the studios and outside including exotic locations, distributors, exhibitors and artists, organised around star value and fame. The process of ill-gotten funds starts at the production level and this is the producer who actually organizes ad hoc unaccounted money often in the disguise of loans under bogus names, firms etc; then, the bogus credits and hawala entries are offset by bogus debits and fictitious expenses. Usually banks would be shy in funding unless the film banner signs a saleable star. Reportedly, some major production houses have even registered their companies overseas. All these features suggest that the film industry operates in a volatile environment with high exposure of the black money posing myriad challenges to the tax administration of the country.
Drug Abuse and Underworld Connection
Drug abuse by the Bollywood celebrities and their underworld connection is not a new phenomenon as it existed even in 1950s and 1960s. In the past, many actors had been caught and even prosecuted in drug related controversies. It’s just a coincidence that Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic death and alleged drug connection has opened a fresh debate on the subject. Recently, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) had arrested Rajput’s friend and partner Rhea Chakraborty and several others as part of the racket for procuring and supplying drugs to celebrities. Consequently, several Bollywood celebrities including a top actress are under the lens of the NCB. Similarly, there are many instances of symbiotic relationship between the Bollywood celebrities and underworld dons in the Hindi film industry.
Way back in 2001, Fardeen Khan, son of the noted film producer, director and actor Feroze Khan, was arrested for attempting to buy cocaine; the use and possession of which is illegal in India with a mandatory 10-year imprisonment. Later, a special court granted the actor immunity from the prosecution, following which he had to go through a de-addiction routine. Similarly, Sanjay Dutt was also found addicted to drugs, initially treated in the Breach Candy Hospital, Mumbai and later sent to a rehab in the United States to recover and keep him away from the public gauge. These are only few illustrations but the list of drug abuse cases in the Bollywood is pretty long. It’s not without substance when the rebellious actress Kangana Ranaut recently claimed that most of the Bollywood celebrities indulge in drugs and even specifically named a few contemporary celebrities on Twitter; she challenged them to undergo blood test to clear popular doubts and rumours about their drug addiction.
Drugs and underworld are deeply linked and are well known to go together in Bollywood as well. It is generally believed that this connection symbiotically flourished well in an organized way till about mid-1990s. Gangsters like Dawood Ibrahim were known to finance and invest in the Bollywood movies, at times even deciding its cast and collecting hafta (protection money) from many producers/directors. Consequently, the cine industry in Mumbai remained the target of extortion, experiencing various kinds of threats including murders. It is also no more a secret that many actresses like Sona, Mandakini, Mamta Kulkarni, Monica Bedi, and others, were closely associated with the underworld dons like Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim, etc. Haji Mastan was among the early celebrity gangsters, who married film actress Sona, allegedly because she looked like famous actress Madhubala.
The other noted liaisons of the Mumbai gangsters and the Bollywood actresses include Mamta Kulkarni and Vikram Goswami, Monica Bedi and Abu Salem, Anita Ayub and Dawood Ibrahim, and Mandakini and Dawood Ibrahim. Mamta had eloped with Vikram, who had many cases of money laundering and drug dealing, and the duo were finally arrested from Kenya. Abu Salem is currently in jail with his relationship with Monica gone sour. Actually, Dawood Ibrahim had remained an unchallanged underworld don nearly for a decade dominating the Bollywood too before disappearing from India after 1993 Mumbai bombings. He was known for interfering in film making and exhorting huge amount of money from Bollywood producers and actors, a fact, even admitted by bigwigs like Mukesh Bhatt, Boney Kapoor and Rakesh Roshan. Many Bollywood celebrities participated and performed in entertainment programs staged by Dawood Ibrahim either willingly or out of fear.
Before fleeing to Karachi, Pakistan in 1993, Dawood Ibrahim had ruled underworld with his D-company in Mumbai for nearly one decade and was chiefly involved in gold smuggling, real estate, drug trafficking and extortion mainly from Bollywood biggies. Even after leaving the country, he retained his hold on the underworld through remote control for a long time. Consequently, when the T-Series owner Gulshan Kumar apparently refused to subscribe, he was shot to death in broad daylight in 1997. Similarly, Bollywood producer Javed Siddique allegedly refused to cast Anita Ayub in his movie in 1995, and he was killed in a shootout in broad daylight by Dawood's gang. Actor Sanjay Dutt was convicted and jailed for procuring guns from the D-Company and keeping it at his home. These are only few illustrations and the history of the association and interference of the underworld with Bollywood is fairly infamous and long.
The term itself represents a euphemism for the custom of soliciting sexual favour from a person of any gender in exchange for the employment or role in the entertainment industry. The practice though illegal is prevalent in cine industries of the world for the purpose of primarily seeking acting roles more particularly in the Hollywood and Bollywood movies. In the most reported cases, the male lead actors, casting directors and film producers reportedly seek the favour of casting couch from the aspiring actors, mostly women but in some cases men too. Although the culture of the exploitation of women, and rarely men, exists nearly in all industries but the most such instances reported in India are from the Bollywood. Also, the media coverage is extended primarily to the film and fashion industries because people in these walks are more popular among the masses.
The practice as such is quite widespread and diverse because such experiences have been reported not only by the newcomers but also by the established actors. Here the basic difference appears that mostly women who are outsiders to the film industry have to go through this unpleasant experience while similar job seekers from the established families are spared. Also, different tactics and strategies are engaged by people to entice and seek sexual favours from the young aspiring actresses and actors. For instance, Bollywood actors such as Ayushmann Khurrana and Ranveer Singh have discreetly shared some of their such experiences in the past while they were still struggling for the roles in films.
While in past, most of the female victims in Bollywood tolerated the embarrassment and ignominy of the casting couch without revealing truth but the actors of the current genre are more vocal and frank about this. Some of the celebrities who have either shared or revolted against the sexual exploitation or such intended moves include names like Kangana Ranaut, Kalki Koechlin, Surveen Chawla, Ayushmann Khurrana, Tisca Chopra, Preeti Jain, Ranvir Singh, Sameera Reddy and Suchitra Krishnamurthy. Surveen admitted the truth of facing the casting couch while Kalki rejected the film offers when asked for such favours. Ayushman, Kangana, Tisca and Ranvir acknowledge the reality of the casting couch and are among the stars who reportedly did not compromise in such situations. The casting couch scandal involving Preeti Jain levying charges against famous director Madhur Bhandarkar had stirred the nation in the past decade but Bhandarkar was finally acquitted by the Supreme Court in 2012. Sameera Reddy philosophically concedes that it takes two hands to clap, and that no one is a victim, all are just players.
The aforesaid are just a few illustrations but the list of such instances is quite long. What Sameera Reddy said also has a valid point because sometimes aspirants indeed do it consensually for getting a break or an important role in furtherance of their career. However, in majority cases the situation is different where the aspirant becomes victim for some compulsions. In most of such cases, the indecent proposal materializes behind the closed doors, hence she or he cannot easily substantiate it with necessary evidence in any court of Law. To that extent, actress Suchitra Krishnamurthy is right when while acknowledging the existence of the casting couch, she said that some of the incidents never get light because of the lack of evidence. In several government and corporate organizations, several steps have been taken for the transparency and ethical conduct at work to curtail gender-based exploitation in the recent years but, unfortunately, the issue remains completely unattended in the entertainment industry.
Few years back, many common folks and celebrities in various parts of the world had come out in open to oppose this exploitative and ignominious practice at the work places and glamour industries in the form of the “Me Too” movement. Following the widespread sexual abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, an American actress Alyssa Milano wrote on Twitter that if all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted indicate 'Me too' as a status, it might give people a sense of the magnitude of this problem. This was soon followed by many prominent American actresses that soon became a global movement. In India, the catalyst for the Me Too movement was the former actress Tanushree Dutta who made similar allegations against the senior actor Nana Patekar in September 2017. As the movement escalated, it led to serious repercussions for MJ Akbar, then the Minister of State for the External Affairs and music director Anu Malik from the jury panel of Indian Idol 2018.
Secularism and Freedom of Expression
Traditionally, the Bollywood endorses the concepts of secularism, liberalism and the freedom of expression since independence in sync with similar concepts enshrined in the Indian Constitution but here again, unfortunately, they have towed the typical unwritten policy line adopted by the oldest national political party which ruled the country for the most time and has often been selective and negligent when it came to see the welfare and rights of the majority community in India. Accordingly, the secularism in India has become a synonym or tool of socio-religious appeasement of certain minority communities for the electoral politics. It is not surprising that after nearly six decades of division of country on the basis of religion, an Indian prime minister of the same national party had to declare that the minorities, particularly Muslims, have first claim on the national resources of India.
The aforesaid point can be explained with two simple illustrations. Let’s take the traditional crime scene in Mumbai, which is also the seat of Bollywood. Since 1960s, the Mumbai underworld has been dominated and controlled, barring few Hindu criminals, by the gangsters like Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim with a long list of celebrity criminals from the same community engaged in heinous crimes like drug trafficking, gold smuggling, extortion and land grabbing. However, the Hindi films produced in the Bollywood show Hindu dons/gangsters in most of the cases. Similarly, in the same films the Hindu priests are so often depicted as greedy, corrupt and hypocrite while the majority Muslim and Christian equivalents as pious and pure. Only few film makers have dared to depict the true position in films that could be counted on fingers. Top actors like Amir Khan is seen mocking Lord Shiva while the same actor would never speak on any social and religious evils of the Muslim community. The same actor in his TV series “Satyamev Jayate” depicted many alleged evil practices among Hindus but never thought it necessary ever even to talk about Halala, triple talaq, multiple marriages by men, Burka, Jihad, Madrassa education, stone-pelting, Gazwa-e-Hind, terrorism in Islam. Ironically, many Hindu celebrities too endorse the same line in the name of secularism, liberalism and freedom of expression.
Now the rebellious actress Kangana Ranaut may sound a bit harsh when she blurts out with anger exposing the hypocrisy of such Bollywood celebrities: “These so called ‘secular’ liberals only reacts to topics with ‘Jihadi agendas’, …Liberals cloak behind secularism like a wolf often hides behind a lion’s skin”. Conversely, they become eager to hit the streets holding placards and candles in their hands when an issue intently needs to be internationalized. Her anguish on the selective secularism is not out of context because, barring few exceptions, most of the Bollywood celebrities have kept stoic silence when Kashmiri Pandits are forced to move out of the Valley under the threat of Jihadis or Kashmiri Sarpanch Ajay Pandita is killed by the terrorists but the same people would be willing to rise in a solidarity act of producing a full length feature film on one odd mistake committed by the Indian armed forces or administration while dealing with the menace of terrorism in the Valley.
After the partition of the country on religious lines in 1947, the Hindu population in the country was nearly 85 percent which has reduced to below 80 percent by 2011 census, thanks to many controversial drives by certain community to outgrow population. After independence, many Muslim celebrities had adopted Hindu screen names out of the sheer apprehension lest they may not be accepted by the predominantly Hindu audience. But this apprehension is proved wrong and misplaced over the period because the Indian audience has gone by the skill and talent of the artist and not for the narrow considerations of caste, creed, religion, etc. This largely on account of the spirit of the Sarva Dharma Sambhav (all religions are alike) professed by the Hinduism since ancient times that Hindus accept and appreciate celebrities for their skill and talent irrespective of their race or religion. While the majority population of this country is clear, but most of the Bollywood celebrities still need to learn secularism and liberalism in the correct perspective.
For sure, it is not that everything is wrong and hanky-panky in the Bollywood. The entire nation is suffering on account of the Covid-19 pandemic in the year 2020 and so is the entertainment industry including the Bollywood, where the work is standstill nearly for the last seven months. Sushant Singh Rajput was indeed a very talented, versatile and upcoming actor who died in suspicious circumstances and the investigating agencies are yet to reveal his truth. It is true that this controversial case has received an unprecedented media attention during the past few months. At the same time, it is also true that barring few exceptions, the Bollywood at large maintained a stoic silence even when the names of influential personalities and production houses were highlighted for their role in ostracising the deceased actor. Now the entire Bollywood appears to have united to unequivocally defend self without qualifying the cause.
The ailments and evils cited in the aforesaid paragraphs are not imaginary but real whether the Bollywood celebrities acknowledge it or not. Many of these incongruities are being highlighted and debated in the news channels and social media when the industry is almost standstill and passing through a bad patch. Only a couple of months back, the audience had punished the latest release of a celebrity actress by boycotting at mass level for her participation in an event organized by people who are linked with the promotion of anti-national agenda and activities. The Bollywood needs to realize that they cannot shun or restrict the sentiments or opinion of Indian masses merely through any stricture or decree of the apex court. They also need to recognise and revere the importance and strength of the emerging social and electronic media in building opinion and shaping broad consensus on the issues of national interest. It would be more productive and rewarding if they could mobilize similar unity and solidarity for tackling the aforesaid Bollywood Blues which are ailing the industry for long by the ill-gotten vested interests.