Aamir speaks up… yet again

SHASHI BALIGA | Updated on: Apr 14, 2011


As I write this piece, a deceptively frail-looking 72-year-old has set India afire with a fervour that has cut across every divisive line that we have managed to create since Independence.

On Saturday, April 9, thousands gathered at Jantar Mantar, the epicentre of the movement to force the Government's hand on the Jan Lokpal Bill. When Anna Hazare broke his fast with a glass of orange juice, the crowd roared. Millions across the country rejoiced.

When Hazare announced his fast on April 5, few foresaw the impending impact, though we should have: this is the man who was, after all, instrumental in pushing through a unified Right to Information Act across the country in 2005.

But one observer raised his voice in unequivocal support for the activist early on. On April 6, the day after Hazare announced his fast, actor Aamir Khan wrote to the septuagenarian. After informing Hazare that he had gone through both the Government-proposed draft and the version that the activist is proposing, he told him: “I would like you to know that I am one among thousands who are fully supportive of your efforts… You are an inspiration to the youth of this country and my prayers are with you.”

For good measure, Khan also wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, saying: “I would like to humbly submit to you that based on all the material that I have read, what Mr Hazare is saying makes a lot of sense to me.”

After warding off any accusations of presumption (“I have no doubt that a man of your experience and knowledge knows more about this issue than someone like me”) Khan ended his letter thus: “It is therefore with great hope and all humility that I request you to pay heed to the voice of Mr Anna Hazare. I would like to submit to you that the nation is slowly but surely collecting behind Mr Hazare in appreciation for what he is fighting for. I am merely one of many who support Mr Hazare and have come to appreciate that this upright 72-year-old man is willing to sacrifice his life in the fight against corruption.

“We look to you, sir, with great hope.”

If I have quoted at length from the letter, it is to illustrate a point: these are not the letters of a publicity-seeking person; this is an emotional but reasoned appeal from a celebrity seeking to use his popularity for a larger cause. Not for Khan the token tweet or me-too statement; he did his homework before sending off those letters.

More Bollywood names followed. Actor Anupam Kher, producer Pritish Nandy and director Madhur Bhandarkar visited Hazare in Delhi while a stream of other film personalities declared their support for Hazare.

The captains of industry were strangely silent, though. These are the worthies who, one might think, would stand to gain the most if corruption were to be tackled. They are our “stalwarts' and “eminent personalities”, businessmen who are, alas, forced to pay bribes and commissions to get their work done, because well, you know how corrupt our system is.

Why then, did so few of them stand up to be counted when Anna Hazare embarked on his anti-corruption mission? It was only later, when the momentum had gathered and, if one might be uncharitable enough to remark, Hazare seemed to be on the winning side, that we heard some voices from big business.

Instead, it was Bollywood — the community that big businesses will often turn its nose up at and not lend money to — that spoke up for Hazare. The same entertainers who are often perceived as a rather flaky, promiscuous, narcissistic, publicity-hungry lot were among the first and most prominent of his supporters.

Just as some of the most vocal critics of fundamentalism and votaries of peace with Pakistan come from the film fraternity; the names of Mahesh Bhatt, Farooque Shaikh, Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi come to mind instantly.

I was there at the candle-light gathering at Mumbai's Gateway of India when Shabana joined the gathering. The flashbulbs popped away but for the citizens assembled there, she was just one of them. Many present were too young perhaps to remember how she herself had gone on a hunger strike in the 1980s to draw attention to the plight of Mumbai's slum-dwellers, caught between the devil of the slumlord and the deep sea of Indian politics. But they took her seriously, for she has a record that all may not agree with, but most respect.

In fact, it was pretty much the same story across the media. Every newspaper carried actors' pictures and quotes; news channels ran their quotes endlessly on their news tickers and invited them into their studios. Indeed, in one Times Now debate on the eve of Hazare's victory, three of the six panel members were film personalities. Anupam Kher and Pritish Nandy were among the usual suspects, though Rishi Kapoor was not. In normal circumstances, the composition of this panel might have been dismissed as ‘too filmi' but on that day, it seemed to pass muster, given that the film fraternity has been so vocal in its support of Hazare.

However, one panelist, lawyer Meenakshi Lekhi, did question their credentials during a particularly acrimonious exchange. “I need to know more about you other than your acting skills,” she remarked curtly to Anupam Kher. One could well ask: Whose fault is that? The filmwallahs were there not because they had won any acting awards but because they had stood up to be counted when it mattered — in this case and others. Nevertheless, Meenakshi seemed to demand that the Bollywood brigade exhibit their credentials before they were allowed to speak their mind.

Did Meenakshi, like many others, believe they were in it for the publicity? As any B-town biggie will tell you, publicity can be a two-edged sword. And when it rides on a political issue, it can do more harm than good.

When Aamir Khan stood behind the Narmada Bachao Andolan, his movie, Fanaa , lost crores of business after the Gujarat wing of the BJP imposed an unofficial ban on it. Anupam Kher has had his house vandalised after his support of Anna Hazare because some goons claimed he had shown disrespect to the Constitution. Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan would have a lot to tell you about what Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena did to their film My Name is Khan .

In short, a political issue would actually be the last avenue actors would look to for publicity — unless they felt strongly enough about it to risk some collateral damage. In this case, anybody wary of incurring the wrath of the ruling party would have stayed away.

That much of Bollywood didn't take the easy route is a measure of their willingness to speak out for a cause they believe in. So, Meenakshi and those of your ilk, could we give this oft-dismissed community its due this time at least?

Published on April 14, 2011
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