In a promotional interview with Anupama Chopra, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, stars of the upcoming film Gully Boy, drew fire for their comments.
When asked about their political leanings, Singh and Bhatt said that they were unqualified to speak on political issues, but that they were “apolitical.” Their comments drew sharp rebuke on social media.
Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy is a movie about the life of a rapper from the slums of Mumbai, and is inspired by the lives of underground rappers DIVINE and Naezy.
What transpired in the interview
Chopra discussed how people critiqued Gully Boy film’s Azadi song, saying it “commodified” Kanhaiya Kumar’s famous chant. In 2016, Kumar, then a doctoral student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and president of the JNU Students’ Union, was arrested and accused of sedition by the Delhi Police for allegedly leading a protest against the 2013 hanging of Afzal Guru. The police alleged that anti-India slogans were raised during the protest.
Many right-wing groups like the ABVP had expressed their support over his arrest. However, Kumar was released and returned to the JNU campus to deliver a rousing speech, with loud chants for “azadi” (freedom).
Chopra asked Singh how the public would react to him posting a picture hugging Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Kumar’s azadi sentiment since it is contradictory. “These are very complicated questions,” Singh said.
Bhatt responded, “It’s as good as saying, ‘If I’m a drug addict in the film, and I’m not a drug addict in real life, then I’m still contradicting that’. This doesn’t mean I have to match my character on screen. I don’t think we give out a very strong political vibe as actors in general. And we understand that now is a time, particularly, when anything you say or do can be blown up and can be perceived a certain way.”
Singh also said that he was “pretty apolitical”. He elaborated, “I’m very, very apathetic when it comes to politics… There’s a lot going on in my life as an actor… So, I’m very very involved in my own little world.”
Apolitical is not what we need
Dub Sharma, who composed the Azadi track from the film, said that it had no connection with Kumar’s speech. “I think about different things and issues prevailing in society while composing the songs. But when the song reaches the public domain, everyone interprets in their own way,” he said.
Although Gully Boy is a commercial film, it is based on the lives of rappers DIVINE and Naezy who use their verses to talk about their lives in the margins, in the country’s ‘gullies’. Their songs have themes of social change, anti-casteism, and anti-corruption government corruption.
It is unsurprising that many viewers felt that Singh and Bhatt’s apathy towards Indian politics is symptomatic of a larger problem among the industry’s elite who prefer not to question those in power.
Responding to the video on Facebook, a commenter said, “Privileged people cashing in on stories of underprivileged (who gained cult status), and using Bollywood cliches to make it commercially viable product, eliminating realism and negotiating with underprivileged people’s first world (to make things look cool), so that their Bollywood cliches can work!”
While Singh and Bhatt’s performances in Gully Boy might be award-worthy, it is important to ponder over the level of responsibility they have in public discourse. Some have argued that positioning oneself as apolitical does nothing to challenge oppressive systems like caste and class that work to the disadvantage of millions of people every day.
Another Facebook user Akhil Shetty said, “It’s funny and ridiculous at same time that they don’t even understand the product they are selling.”
Others have said that Singh and Bhatt are examples of the Bollywood elite who profit off the stories of marginalised communities. Malavika Prasad tweeted, “how does a man starring in a film on gully rap get to claim he is ‘very very apathetic to politics’ because he has a lot going on in his personal life? does he not know a thing about gully rap?”
Bollywood shies away from politics
Of the few actors who are involved in Indian politics, not many are known as consistent advocates for social justice. Shobha S V tweeted, “If only Bollywood had some politically aware intelligent actors, art would have had a different meaning.
Over the years, only a handful of personalities in the film industry have voiced their opinion for causes they believe in. Most recently, Kangana Ranaut has critiqued the film industry’s deep rooted nepotism and sexism and has been met with disagreement and derision. Her peers have taken jabs at her for her opinion.
In 2018, Naseeruddin Shah’s event at the Ajmer Literature Festival was cancelled after right-wing groups protested the actor’s comments on mob violence. Shah called mob violence “poison” and expressed concern over the safety of Muslims in the country. Aamir Khan also echoed a similar sentiment and received backlash for his comments.
Khan also stood his ground with the Narmada Bachao Andolan issue when the Gujarat government wanted to raise the height of the dam. “I am saying exactly what the Supreme Court has said. I only asked for rehabilitation of poor farmers. I never spoke against the construction of the dam. I will not apologise for my comments on the issue,” he said.
When it comes to partisan issues like mob violence and censorship, heavy weights in the industry excuse themselves from the narrative. If, like Shah and Khan, they don’t, they are met with aggression.
It’s important for the average Indian to be aware of the kind of issues celebrities put their influence behind because they have the unique ability to control public discourse. On the other hand, if we find that Bollywood stars and other public figures are hesitant to publicly state their views, we must question the extent of our individual freedoms and the ability of our political leaders and parties to endure criticism.
The politics of Indian rap
One of the reasons Gully Boy is making headlines is that it promotes street rap or ‘gully’ rap, as it is known in India, that discusses the plight of ordinary Indian citizens battling poverty, racism, cateism, and gender discrimination.
Ginni Mahi, a young girl from Punjab, was bullied for belonging to a lower caste formerly known as Chamar. In her track Danger 2, she satirises the words of her bullies and sings, “Arre Chamar bade danger hote hain, panga nahin lena chahiye (Chamars are supposed to be dangerous, I should be careful).”
JNU student and rapper Sumeet Samos is known in the hip hop community for his caste narratives on the underrepresentation of lower castes in positions of power, Dalit suicides and killings, and the risk of inter-caste marriages.
MC Kash, an artist from Srinagar, has rapped about violence in Kashmir. In his song Kashmir’s Other Graveyard, he refers that unrest and likens it to mass deforestation in the valley. He sings, “Who can put an end to this when men can’t speak with men, and ask a brother when his axe comes down hard, how are we different if we were made by the same God? Everything the same for Mother Kashmir, graveyards in the wild, I like the ones in the streets.”
Even in the North East, rap and hip hop have become synonymous with individualism and protest. Kekho Thianmkho’s music video for I Am An Indian depicts true incidents of racism that he and his community have faced, from people staring and asking whether he’s Chinese to others calling Northeasterners.
Hip hop and rap have always been regarded as works of poetry because these genres portray the human experience in an unfiltered and irreverent way and often voice the struggles of the lowest and most neglected sections of society.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius