If one were to look at what is occupying TV news channels and social media, it would seem India’s tanking GDP and rising job losses, and tensions with China in Ladakh are less important than exactly what time actor Deepika Padukone reached Mumbai from Goa after being summoned for questioning by the Narcotics Control Bureau for some hash she allegedly wanted in 2017.
For the last three months, Bollywood has been used by government-friendly TV channels as political distraction. Bollywood is the new JNU. What was demonised as the Tukde Tukde Gang is now the Nashedi Gang. Bollywood has always been the opium of a large section of Indian masses. Now, its salacious WhatsApp secrets are tumbling out, and the voyeuristic masses are transfixed. Indians have a new public enemy No.1. Just the way Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar were once. The names change, but the chant remains the same – ‘lock them up’.
A selfie with the PM won’t protect anyone
In the breathless coverage of Deepika Padukone since her name cropped up in the NCB probe, senior reporters from news channels were sent to follow her car to the airport. We have seen close-ups of her airport look, and we have been told, in what are apparently breaking news alerts, that her husband was part of a conference call with her lawyers.
And of course, we know the most vital information of all – what does Kangana Ranaut think of all of this, because she’s the go-to Bollywood deep throat for TV channels.
In January 2019, when a group of Bollywood actors and filmmakers took a group selfie with PM Modi, it became a huge deal, a marker of the PM’s successful co-opting of the film industry, and by extension, of India. Little matter that one-and-a-half years later, selfie-taker Ranveer Singh’s wife Deepika Padukone is the latest to be at the centre of Narcotics Control Bureau’s (NCB) drug probe. Eight months ago, she was at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), standing in silent solidarity with students who had been physically attacked during protests. Coincidence, of course. Even selfies with Prime Minister Narendra Modi are no longer a kavach (shield) for Bollywood stars and filmmakers.
All the different gangs
Funnily, before that one moment at JNU, Deepika Padukone had never really been known to stick her neck out on political issues. Neither, for that matter, do Rakul Preet Singh, Sara Ali Khan or Shraddha Kapoor. They have always remained completely apolitical, unlike Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, who did try to speak out against the growing atmosphere of intolerance a few years ago, but received major backlash. (The latter has received fresh criticism for meeting the Turkish President’s wife, proving people are still not over his ‘betrayal’.)
Yet, these largely apolitical actors now find themselves at the centre of a massive political storm.
This is “a signal to others to stay quiet or things will get even worse”, says Rasheed Kidwai, author of a recent book titled Neta Abhineta: Bollywood Star Power in Indian Politics. He adds that earlier, even though there were actors who took the plunge into active politics, such as Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha, there was a dignified bonhomie and cordiality between them. Now, there is an atmosphere of ‘divide and rule’, of ‘with India or against India’ in Bollywood.
Again, this is not surprising, given the narrative of distraction that has taken shape in the last few years, about all the different ‘gangs’ attempting to allegedly destroy the nation. We have the Tukde Gang, the Khan Market Gang, the Award Wapsi Gang, the Nepo Gang and now, of course, the Nashedi Gang. The last is especially dangerous because it’s a gang made up entirely, it would seem, of women – more on that later.
Bollywood has always been political
That Hindi cinema is India’s most pervasive messaging tool is no secret, so for it to be used as a political tool to distract attention is hardly surprising. Politicians right from the time of Jawaharlal Nehru have understood the power of movies to sway public opinion – and that was in an age when there was no 24-hour media or social media. So, it is not new for politicians to use Bollywood – as Kidwai says, “The easiest way to control the thought process of India is to control Bollywood.” But the difference is in what they use it for.
In his book, Kidwai writes of Nehru’s friendship with cinema titan Prithviraj Kapoor and his astonishment — on a tour of Russia — that Stalin kept asking him about Raj Kapoor’s film Awara.
Nehru’s interest in the movies stemmed first and foremost from his own personal interest in them, and it was the same decades later with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was known for his love of movies. When Dilip Kumar was at the receiving end of backlash because Pakistan wanted to honour him with the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, it was Vajpayee who told him to ignore the critics and go ahead and accept it.
Back in the day, maybe Indira Gandhi could use the one existing TV channel, national broadcaster Doordarshan, to try and prevent people from attending Jayprakash Narayan’s rally by getting the channel to air the smash hit Bobby at the same time, but now, there are so many private players that the nexus between politics and media is far wider. Additionally, because of the nature of social media, everything a celebrity posts and everything they don’t post about becomes political.
Do only women in Bollywood use drugs?
Last year, during the kanwar yatra, I went to visit a number of shivirs (camps for the kanwariyas to rest) and chatted with several of them about, among other things, their marijuana use. They, in fact, openly smoked joints while being interviewed, and talked about how it is ‘Bhole ka prasad’. Kanwariyas and sadhus are known to use cannabis, and in fact, a retired police officer has even gone on record to say a sadhu’s chillum would have more drugs than the 59 grams that Rhea Chakraborty was arrested for.
But summoning religious folk for questioning, that too men, obviously spreads an inconvenient message. Apart from the obviously convenient timing of the NCB probe into Bollywood’s drug use is the fact that the only people in Bollywood the agency has so far seemed interested in investigating are women.
This is also not the first time a Bollywood actor has been accused of drug use – Fardeen Khan was accused of attempting to buy cocaine almost 20 years ago, but it was never blown up to the extent that it obliterated all other news, because “a pretty woman is seen as an audience getter, no one cares if a guy is on screen” rues Kidwai.
Kidwai calls it “the packaging of a state-sponsored distraction” — the way the endless media coverage of the NCB probe is salaciously accompanied with pictures of these women in revealing clothes, to feed into the misogyny that already exists. There will be a still from Deepika’s film Cocktail, in which she wore bikinis and drank alcohol, but “you won’t see the news channels showing stills from Chhapaak (her most recent film, in which she played an acid attack survivor), because that doesn’t feed into their narrative and it isn’t glamorous.”
In all this, who do we blame? India’s Pied Pipers or the believing masses that so easily forgotten Sushant Singh Rajput’s death? Therein lies a message for democracy.
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