Under ‘normal’ circumstances, The Kashmir Files that made more money at the box office on the first weekday of its release after the weekend, a rarity in most industries worldwide, would have been celebrated by the struggling Hindi film industry. However, considering that it puts forth a perspective that hasn’t been the standard for popular Hindi films as far as the narrative goes, Bollywood’s silence and dismissive attitude towards it is hardly surprising.
Filmmakers have often displayed their preferences and political title both on and off the screen. A few months after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s return as prime minister in 1980, the late Feroz Khan dedicated his film Qurbani to the living memory of the ‘prince’ Sanjay Gandhi and bowed before the ‘mother’ of the nation, Indira Gandhi. Intriguingly, the dedication that has Feroz Khan’s voice-over reveals that the filmmaker had never met Sanjay Gandhi. What is more interesting is that Khan, or for that matter many in the film industry, never chose to openly talk about the horrors of Emergency that targeted many in their fraternity.
Individuals such as Dev Anand, Kishore Kumar, and Shatrughan Sinha were blacklisted for not towing government diktats. During the Emergency, some films, such as Narendra Bedi’s Maha Chor (1976) that featured Rajesh Khanna, had a scene where the former extolls the incumbent government and tells a young child that the government is working for a better tomorrow where no one will be poor or hungry no black-marketeer would be spared. The prime minister’s son, Sanjay Gandhi, had allegedly destroyed the negative of Kissa Kursi Ka (1977), a film that starred Shabana Azmi and considered India’s first political spoof. It was reportedly not too flattering of the Congress government. He was later held guilty of burning the prints by the Shah Commission and imprisoned for a month.
The Congress has been in power for longer than any other party since India’s Independence. The larger-than-life aura of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who was India’s prime minister for 17 years, became an indelible part of popular cinema’s imagery and, dare one say, narrative. One needs to hear some of Pandit Nehru’s Red Fort speeches delivered on 15 August annually to see how his statements and thoughts found an outlet in dialogues of Dilip Kumar in films such as Paigham (1959).
Emergency changed how the Hindi film industry, especially popular cinema, responded to political dispensation. It was a period where one couldn’t question the government, and no one wanted to push the envelope. The Censors asked Ramesh Sippy to reshoot the ending of Sholay where Thakur Baldev Singh (Sanjeev Kumar), a retired police officer, kills a dreaded brigand, Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). Sippy’s father, GP Sippy, a celebrated film producer and industry leader, advised him not to be a rebel and go against the authoritarian government.
One can also see the drop in the quality of popular Hindi cinema in terms of subjects and themes post-1975, which can also be directly attributed to the fear set in during Emergency. Moreover, the return of Mrs Gandhi in 1980 after the fall of the Janata government ensured that industry top cats never spoke about all the excesses committed during the 21-month long Emergency imposed between 25 June 1975 and 21 March 1977.
The industry’s silence towards The Kashmir Files means many things. More than the industry being uncomfortable with the shift in the narrative or the support that the film has garnered from the government that includes an endorsement by the Prime Minister, the audience response (read box office collection) has rattled it. For a while, the audiences have exercised their choice in terms of viewing, which in other words, can be translated as rejecting typical Bollywood fare with gusto. Therefore, when a film like The >Kashmir Files that operates within the so-called system of production, distribution and exhibition sets the cash registers with the same audiences, the industry would find it extremely difficult to remain silent.
One can see a slight shift within the Hindi film industry with Akshay Kumar, Suniel Shetty, Abhishek Kapoor, Arjun Rampal and a few others ‘acknowledging’ the film. If it were to embrace The Kashmir Files, it wouldn’t lose as much as it expects but regain much of the lost ground with the viewer.
The writer is a noted author and film historian. Views expressed are personal.