Fixing Bollywood, in more ways than one

Bollywood in crisis: The death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput has become a political issue in India, hogging the national headlines, often outdoing dire news on the Covid-19 pandemic, economy and a tense border stand-off with China. — AFP

MOST weekends, my golfing quartet includes a friend named Amos Ng, and it is the rare outing that he does not bring up Bollywood, which he seems to follow more closely than I do.

There are few Aamir Khan movies this Singaporean businessman has missed, and last weekend he surprised me by talking of another production called Bahubali, of which I was not aware.

It speaks to the importance of India’s biggest cultural export – the fruits of a frenetic industry that churns out close to a thousand films every year in a dozen languages – that its reach is so long, even outside India.

The films have also proved a tenuous glue in some tricky bilateral ties. These days, when relations between Asia’s two largest nations are in a severe dip, the movies emerging from Mumbai, or Bombay as it used to be called (hence, Bollywood), are useful reminders of so much that is still common between China and India.

I once heard Aamir Khan say that he sat quietly in the audience when one of his hit movies, Dangal (Wrestling Match), was being screened in a hall in China and the audience reacted to the same emotional touch points as did movie- goers in his own country.

Within India, Bollywood’s cultural impact is colossal, overshadowing other film centres such as Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata. Watch Mumbai’s packed commuter trains and you might spot a youngster riding on the roof, tilting his head just in time to avoid an approaching cable, just as he might fancy a movie hero doing. Dozens of young talents arrive in the huge metropolis every week hoping for a chance at stardom.

City of dreams, drugs and politics

Mumbai also happens to be India’s wealthiest city and the capital of its most prosperous state, Maharashtra, rather in the way California is to the United States. It also attracts the attention of the underworld, which once thrived on gold smuggling but has since turned to extortion and, reportedly, drugs, after the government freed up imports of the yellow metal.

For several reasons, therefore, Mumbai – and Maharashtra – are a prize catch for India’s political parties.

These days, the state and the city, including its massively funded Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation, are controlled by the Shiv Sena party, a nativist outfit quietly encouraged by the once-dominant Congress party in the 1970s to take on the late Datta Samant, a powerful trade union boss who had paralysed the city’s textile industry.

While the Shiv Sena has taken on a Hindu nationalist profile in the past two decades, it has cut its alliance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is eyeing the state for itself. More irksome for the BJP, Shiv Sena rules Maharashtra with the help of Congress and another regional party.

It was into this city of dreams that Sushant Singh Rajput, a 1.78m-tall, well-muscled young man from faraway Bihar state, arrived some 15 years ago after forsaking an education in engineering. Unlike most others who found only disappointment, Rajput achieved a measure of success over the past decade, starting in television and migrating to movie roles, some of which won critical acclaim and commercial success.

But, according to several media reports, he was also struggling with a drug habit, insomnia and bipolar disorder.

On June 14, the 34-year-old star was found dead in his home, hanging from the ceiling fan. Mumbai police, India’s best-regarded police force, filed the case as a suicide.

The death has stayed on national headlines since, often outdoing dire news on the economy and a tense border stand-off with China, not to speak of a spreading pandemic that has placed India next only to the United States in the morbidity count.

After the actor’s family disputed the police version of death by suicide and fingered Rajput’s actress girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty for allegedly abetting his death and feeding his drug habit, the state government in Bihar, which is allied with BJP and headed for state assembly polls, took up the case as a political issue.

Chakraborty arriving at a police station for an enquiry a day after been granted bail in Mumbai.— AFPChakraborty arriving at a police station for an enquiry a day after been granted bail in Mumbai.— AFP

The federal authorities moved in rapidly. Chakraborty and more than a dozen others were arrested. The Central Bureau of Investi-gation, which reports to Modi, has taken over the case. The federal Enforcement Directorate, which handles illegal money flows, is involved in the investigation and so too the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) – unusual since drug offences are usually handled at the station house level.

A procession of actresses, including one who joined an anti-Modi government student protest in New Delhi some months ago, have been questioned by the federal agencies. Massive airtime and newspaper acreage have been devoted to Bollywood’s seamier side, its clubby nature and proclivity to shun those who do not belong to favoured cliques.

A medical board from the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences has endorsed the suicide filing. On Wednesday, the Bombay High Court threw out the NCB’s case against Chakraborty and released her on bail, not accepting its charge that she was an active member of a drug syndicate. It also disagreed with the NCB’s position that high-profile people should be treated harshly to set an example.

No one disputes that there is much about Bollywood that needs fixing. It is also undisputed that Bollywood is part of the heroin and amphetamine scourge spreading across the country, with syndicates reportedly attempting to introduce the habit to students by having ice-cream stalls outside schools lace popsicles with drugs.

The Modi government in New Delhi, which is focused on national security, inherited this situation, and if any government has the will to check this menace, it has to be this one.

Soft power and national glue

Yet, India needs to be careful that in trying to fix Bollywood, it does not break it.

Its internal fissures are evident. The brilliant character actress Kangana Ranaut and other figures such as Akshaye Khanna and the durable legend Amitabh Bachchan are either vociferously pro-Modi government or ominously silent in standing up for colleagues under the gun. Many Indians are asking themselves if they should be so wild about a bunch of self-

obsessed, possibly dysfunctional, talents and alarmed that their fan support might be feeding criminal activity.

But Bollywood, for all its internal problems, is more than an entertainment factory. Films are also a key source of the country’s soft power as well as a national glue.

Soviet-India ties were lifted in the 1950s and 1960s by the Russian craze for the late Raj Kapoor, whose extended family continues to have a large presence in Hindi films. Since 1998, when his Muthu began a 100-day boxoffice run in Japan amid widespread economic gloom, the Tamil film hero Rajini-kanth has enjoyed a massive following in that country.

Indeed, Dr Manmohan Singh, who was then India’s Prime Minister, was said to have received a standing ovation from Diet members when he informed his audience that he was aware of the popularity of Odori Maharaja (Dancing Maharaja).

The film industry also holds a mirror to India’s sense of self. In the 1950s, the handsome Mohammed Yusuf Khan was known to adoring Indians as Dilip Kumar after he chose a Hindu screen name better suited to the times – India had just emerged then from the furies of its bloody Partition when Pakistan was cleaved out as a nation for Muslims.

It is a tribute to India’s nation-building that today music producer AR Rahman, an Oscar winner, who was called Dileep Kumar at birth and gained his Muslim name after his family converted to Islam, has not seen his new religious identity dimming his popularity in the predominantly Hindu nation. Critics of Modi and the Hindu-oriented BJP would say that this, precisely, is why the party is wary of Bollywood and seeks to put its own stamp upon it. India’s three leading male stars – Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Aamir Khan – are Muslims.

Annoyingly for BJP, Shah Rukh is particularly close to the Gandhi siblings who run the Congress party, Rahul and Priyanka, while Aamir’s wife Kiran Rao once openly mused about leaving India, with minorities feeling a sense of siege in BJP-ruled India.

Salman, for his part, has been an enthusiastic participant in the Shiv Sena-promoted festival for Lord Ganesha for two decades and even mentioned as a potential Congress candidate from Madhya Pradesh, his home state.

Beyond Bollywood

On Sept 18, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state, run by the BJP, announced plans to build the “biggest and most beautiful” film city on 400ha of land, just across the border from Delhi. The idea, clearly, is to lure some of Bollywood into the Hindi heartland.

Amid Bollywood’s recent struggles, it is worth pondering why if filmmaking in Asia – whether in India or Hong Kong – is so messed up and yet so profitable, other jurisdictions should not be assessing it for a business opportunity.

At no time has there been such hunger for original content, whether for television or the big screen.

Ports being moved elsewhere or unused exhibition grounds can free up space for movie studios. Less developed islands like Singapore’s Pulau Ubin as well as the Malaysian hinterland provide excellent locales for the inevitable rustic settings of many Asian films. The financial services industry would be happy to service the legitimate financing needs of producers.

And Bollywood is not the only opportunity.

If the ongoing tech and supply chain decoupling should develop into a cultural separation between China and the rest, there surely must be prospects of catering to global popular culture from a neutral venue.

Just as corporate icon Peter Seah was tasked in the late 1990s with leading a committee to bring more buzz to Singapore, maybe it is time to ask bussinesmen like Ho Kwon Ping or Koh Boon Hwee to see if parts of India’s or Hong Kong’s film industries can be lured across. Who knows, it may even help fire up the Singapore media scene.

There will be some impact on society, of course. But surely, if an island can host two casino resorts without significant danger to its society, a film industry need do no worse. — The Straits Times/ANN

Ravi Velloor is associate editor at The Straits Times, a member of the Asia News Network (ANN) which is an alliance of 24 news media entities. The Asian Editors Circle is a series of commentaries by editors and contributors of ANN.

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