A tweet from a Frenchman, questioning Aamir Khan’s right to play Lord Krishna in the actor’s proposed screen version of the Mahabharat, has sparked off a massive outrage in the Indian entertainment industry.
Taking umbrage, and rightly so, is poet, thinker and secular-extraordinaire Javed Akhtar, who reminds this Frenchman how free of communal considerations cinema has always been in our country.
Javed saab is right. Since when has religion become a deciding factor in the selection of an actor? Some argue that the cultural conditioning and religious beliefs of an actor are important in the way that they portray and interpret their character. By that reasoning, however, Hitler must only be played by German Nazis!
And what about Ben Kingsley who played Mahatma Gandhi to perfection?
Efforts to communalise art must be severely discouraged. Are we first supposed to go through an actor’s religious and cultural background before declaring him or her culturally fit to play a character?
Bollywood has always remained immune to cultural and religious identification. For years, Pradeep Kumar and Mala Sinha starred in movies as Muslim nawabs and begums, so much so that they were taken to be Muslim in real life too.
Recalls veteran actress Mala Sinha, “After I did Dharmputra, Jahan Ara and Mere Huzoor, I was frequently mistaken to be a Muslim. Meena Kumari ji was taken to be a devout Hindu woman since she played one in so many films. We are actors. We never restricted our range of characters on the grounds of religion or culture.”
So when did communalism creep into cinema? It’s hard to say. Seems just like the other day that we applauded Salman Khan for playing Bajrangi Bhaijaan, although there were murmurs against the actor playing a Hanuman bhakt.
Interestingly, Salman remains the most exemplary figure of secular values in Bollywood. His father is Muslim, his mother is a Hindu and former actress Helen, whom Salman considers a second mother, is a Christian. Bollywood has always been spoilt for choices as far as the potential to assume nationalities and religious flavours are concerned.
Ironically, the ugly communal question was raised on the day actor Farooq Sheikh’s 70th birth anniversary was being celebrated. Farooq played many characters, from Sikandar Mirza in Garam Hawa to Avinash in Saath Saath with equal conviction.
Javed Akhtar, who posted a series of angry tweets on the French journalist’s comment on Aamir Khan being unsuited to do Mahabharat says, “I’ve always maintained that religion is non-applicable to my life. In fact, in all government forms, I state ‘non-applicable’ in the religion column. My son, Farhan, follows the same policy. And his children too. I abhor those who try to divide our society and the entertainment industry on religious grounds.”
Adds Hansal Mehta, “We are always going to pay the price for our fear, passivity and subservience to whoever rules us and whatever ideology they espouse.” Industry spokesperson Ashoke Pandit has the last word. “Bollywood can never be communalised. Anyone who tried this before flopped. It’s a profession where such thoughts never arise.”
Strangely though, many others from the film industry are quiet, even though Aamir is not just any other actor. His contribution to the Indian entertainment industry is unparalleled. He has told some amazing Indian stories, and changed the way Bollywood works, technically and creatively. The least other directors, writers, producers and actors can do is to speak up. Maybe they think that by speaking up they will become a part of a controversy. But by being silent, they are also encouraging such bigotry....