Then & Now: Bollywood & Its Changing Relationship With Those in Power

It’s one thing to get stars to pose for a selfie, and another to get them to endorse a brand of religious politics.

Hot Take
6 min read
Hindi Female
"Aman ka jhandaa is dharti pe/ Kisne kaha lahrane na paaye/ Yeh bhi koi Hitler ka hai chela/ Maar le sathi jaane na paaye! / Commonwealth ka daas hai Nehru/ Maar le sathi jaane na paae!"

(Who said we can’t hoist a flag of peace on this earth? This is some follower of Hitler. Get him, don't let him slip away. Nehru is a slave of the commonwealth. Get him, don't let him slip away).

This poem, penned and recited by one of India’s greatest lyricists and poets, Majrooh Sultanpuri, landed him in jail in 1951. Sultanpuri subsequently served out a two-year sentence after he flatly refused to tender an apology.

He wasn’t by any means the first or the only Indian film industry personality to see the inside of a cell in those post-Independence years.

The Leftist Movement Questioned the Newly Formed Govt of Free India

The Leftist movement, a highly vocal critic of the British during the freedom struggle, continued questioning whatever they perceived as social injustices under the newly formed government of free India. And more often than not, they found themselves on the wrong side of the establishment.

Actor AK Hangal famously came to Bombay in 1949 with just Rs 20 in his pocket after spending three years in a Karachi jail for being a communist. That same year, actor Balraj Sahni was picked up from a Communist Party procession and served out a two-year sentence.

It’s one thing to get stars to pose for a selfie, and another to get them to endorse a brand of religious politics.

In 1949, Balraj Sahni was picked up from a Communist Party procession and served out a two-year sentence.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)


The relationship between Hindi cinema and the engine driving a freshly- minted nation was clearly off to a rocky start, but things began to change with a quid pro quo of sorts. As Nehru’s India settled into comfortable socialism, commercial filmmakers received an unexpected boost.

The burgeoning relationship with the USSR helped Indian filmmakers release their films to the entertainment-starved audiences there.

Films like Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 and Awaara, Dev Anand-starrer Rahi, and Sunil Dutt-Nargis starrer Mother India were released in multiple languages across the different socialist republics of the USSR. A win-win for all sides, the Soviets saw Indian films as harmless escapism, and a much safer alternative to the “corrupting” influence of Hollywood. 

It’s one thing to get stars to pose for a selfie, and another to get them to endorse a brand of religious politics.

Films like Shree 420 were released in multiple languages across the different socialist republics of the USSR.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Funnily enough, what worked for commercial Indian films back then were the unrealistic rags-to-riches stories and fantastical endings.

While filmmakers like Satyajit Ray found critical acclaim in the west, their brand of “real” cinema was scoffed at by mass audiences back home. India, after all, was no different from the Soviet Union in that the audiences just needed cinema to be a form of escape from the struggles of everyday life, and these films sold hope above everything else.

Even Dilip Kumar’s films that toed the line between the struggles of the common man and entertainment, always sent audiences back home with a song on their lips and hope in their hearts.

Commercial Hindi cinema had rapidly become a significant weapon in Nehru’s arsenal of diplomacy.

As the country’s biggest cultural export, these films also helped the new government reinforce Hindi as India’s official language to the rest of the world, something that was already becoming a bone of contention within the country. 


Early 1970s – The Birth of Violent, Politically Loaded Films

The early 1970s saw a huge shift in Hindi cinema as simple, romantic films gave way to violent, politically loaded ones.

The murky reality of a country reeling under poverty and the rule of corrupt politicians began to make its way to screens as did the saviour – an “angry young man” who bore out the fantasy of taking revenge on a system that had miserably failed him.

The collective disillusionment proved to be more than just words from a good script though. When Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in the country in 1975 and cracked down on dissenters, some of the loudest and bravest denunciation came from film stars, particularly those who knew their voices carried weight for the millions of this country.

Icons like Dev Anand and Manoj Kumar led public protests and were joined by the likes of Shatrughan Sinha, Pran, and a very young Danny Denzongpa. Others like Kishore Kumar walked the talk by refusing invitations to perform at government and Congress party functions. 

How The Establishment Cracked Down on Protesting Actors

The retribution was swift as these stars suffered a ban on their films and songs being broadcast on Doordarshan and All India Radio.

Doordarshan even telecast Manoj Kumar’s new release Shor two weeks before it hit theatres, causing huge losses to the film’s producers. Gulzar’s Aandhi, allegedly inspired by the life of Indira Gandhi, was set to release during the early days of the Emergency, but got banned for 21 months for its unflattering bits.

This then became the blueprint for the establishment as it carried out what can only be called a vendetta against an entire industry. The dissenters though, remained unfazed as they continued to speak against what they saw as a blatant attempt to curb their freedom of expression. Legendary director Hrishikesh Mukherjee even began inserting tongue-in-cheek jokes about the Emergency in his films. 

It’s one thing to get stars to pose for a selfie, and another to get them to endorse a brand of religious politics.

A poster of Aandhi.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)


How Have Things Changed Now?

The film industry has since been a critical voice whenever faced with political corruption and social injustice, on- and off-screen.

If we had multiple “angry young” Sunny Deol films taking on the land mafia and corrupt politicians in the 1990s, we also had parallel cinema showcasing the plight of India’s most underprivileged.

Every voice was important, and every voice was heard. 

Until now, that is. The stories being told on screen have gradually become either apolitical or heavily in favour of the politics of the ruling dispensation. It’s what’s happening off-screen though, that’s even more concerning. 

One doesn’t need to be a genius to examine what’s happened between the current regime and the film industry over the past decade.

Multiple film personalities had spoken up against the previous government, the rampant corruption, and scams. One might even go as far as to say that they had a huge hand to play in the fall of that government, through their mass appeal and social media reach. Is it any wonder then that the new government began entertaining hopes of doing what Nehru had done 70 years ago?

Co-opting the most influential voices to control the message though, is easier said than done.

It’s one thing to use one’s position to get people to pose for a selfie, and another to actually get them to endorse an extreme brand of religious politics.

When you have an industry that’s as diverse as our film industry, you’re bound to have more people that exhibit a secular humanist worldview. And people who lean left are inherently anti-establishment and will always question all the wrongs being meted out to those without a voice.

As religious bigotry began pervading our daily lives, lynch mobs and fringe groups began flexing and making their presence felt.

Bollywood got its fair share of attention too, with film sets being ravaged just because someone somewhere didn’t agree with something that was rumoured to be in the film. Oh, and it was now also cool to issue threats to chop off a female actor’s nose.

Some spoke up and were promptly told to relocate to our neighbouring country, while others had to suffer incessant online trolling. Things only got worse with the government announcing its controversial Citizen Amendment Bill.

Multiple film personalities like Pooja Bhatt, Rajkumar Rao, Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Dia Mirza, Ali Fazal, Anubhav Sinha, and Kabir Khan spoke up in what now seems like the industry’s last stand in a battle that was all but lost. That was four years back. Since then, we’ve gone through a well-orchestrated attack against the industry by the powers that be, fronted by a sycophantic media and backed by the world’s most powerful online troll army.

Today, those that retain a spine might not speak up for fear of losing their platforms but will slip in a smart scene or dialogue here and there and let their work speak of their politics.

For those that don’t, however, one hopes it’s ka-ching time. After all, imagine the ignominy of being called out by your fans for not knowing the difference between the Maldives and Lakshadweep. Imagine being mentioned in the same breath as Kangana Ranaut, Anupam Kher, or Vivek Agnihotri. Imagine doing all of this for free.

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Topics:  Bollywood   Anurag Kashyap   Dev Anand 

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