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By Vijaylakshmi Nadar, Bureau Chief. Copy Edited By Adam Rizvi, New York TIO: The impromptu celebrations, outside Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan’s residence, on October 29, by thousand’s of his followers, to welcome ‘prince’ Aryan Khan amidst a media frenzy, unnerved many. Fans had descended, unmindful of the drug charges leveled against Aryan Khan, by India’s premier agency, the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), followed by an intense media trial for almost a month.
This is the kind of pure adulation that a Narendra Modi, even as the prime minister of the country cannot even dream of.
To control the complex, secular, pluralistic, and progressive structure of Bollywood, which infuses life into all kinds of subjects, and can whip up a national frenzy, with a film, sometimes just a song, topped with international acceptance for it, around the world, has long been the desire of the Modi government.
The fact that this industry operates with a will and a milieu of its own, has its own ecosystem, and is not really dependent on any political party for sustenance, makes it even more daunting.
The ham-handed way in which the Modi government has tried to control this industry and transpose all its goodness onto itself, by terrifying the industry into submission, is shocking.
The industry did try its best to make peace with the Modi government, to deflect the constant attacks on it, through the Enforcement Directorate (ED), Income Tax (IT), and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), since it came to power in 2014. Cleaning up the industry was a flimsy excuse used to target actors and directors, who dared raise concerns about the wrongdoings by this government.
Modi government also let loose the NCB on them, with a sustained campaign by the media to certify industry folks as druggists, debauched and corrupt, pushing the industry into a sullen silence and shock, during COVID.
Most countries and their leaders took the humane path to tackle the COVID crisis, but the Indian government did exactly the opposite. Like the rest of the country, the film industry suffered too. The extended lockdowns brought the industry to a crippling halt. Instead of sympathizing with them, a peeved Modi government which is yet to get over its dramatic loss in Maharashtra to the Shiv Sena, Congress, and the National Congress Party (NCP) combine, in November 2019, soon started targetting its critics in the industry.
One of the first victims was director Anurag Kashyap, who has been consistently vocal against the Modi government. Sexual charges were filed on him besides labeling him as a “druggie”.
However, the largest and most concentrated assault on Bollywood has been after actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s (SSR) suicide in June 2020. The assault was timed to get a maximum electoral advantage in the Bihar elections in October/November that year.
The national media launched an attack on Bollywood, claiming that the nepotism prevailing in the industry, pushed SSR, a talented actor from Bihar, also an “outsider” to his death. After this set of allegations ran its course, actress Rhea Chakraborty, who was SSR’s girlfriend, was painted as the witch who drove him to his death. The media turned the suicide into a “murder” and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), headed by Modi’s blue-eyed boy Rakesh Asthana, took over the investigation. Since the post mortem report could not be fudged, the investigation reached a dead end.
The post of the zonal director, NCB, Mumbai which was vacant for almost a year, was then hurriedly filled in August 2020, by Sameer Wankhade. He was a man obsessed with Bollywood. terrorizing it from his various postings in the DRI, Air Intelligence Unit (AIU), and National Investigation Agency (NIA).
Within a week of his taking charge, Rhea Chakraborty was arrested on drug charges. Despite no drugs being found on her, the NCB kept blocking her bail, by insisting that she was part of an international drug cartel. She was finally released on bail by the High Court after 32 days in prison. with her career and reputation destroyed.
It is not at all a surprise that even after a year, no charge sheet has been filed in the matter and the media has gone completely silent on the issue. Serenading a series of women superstars including Deepika Padukone, Sara Ali Khan, and Shraddha Kapoor, for “questioning”, garnering extreme publicity, keeping not just the industry on a “who next” fear alert, has raised questions about NCB’s and Wakhade’s credibility too.
There is yet another major election around the corner, this time in Uttar Pradesh, and Hindu Muslim sentiments need to be stoked. As facts would have it, after the low that Rhea Chakraborty’s release brought, Wankhade too was itching for another big catch to catapult him to fame again. BJP was also looking for a distraction from the huge landing of 3000 kgs of heroin at the Mundra port, from Afghanistan in September this year.
To stop these large quantities of cross-border drug seizures is what NCB was created for 35 years ago. It has now degraded itself to chasing consumers, found with a few grams of mostly cannabis, if at all, something which is strictly in the domain of the local police. Cannabis has been legalized in many countries, including the US.
As if making monumental blunders in the Rhea Chakraborty case was not enough, Wankhade repeated his histrionics, this time with the son of the Badshah of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan.
23-year-old Aryan Khan who was invited as a guest aboard a luxury cruise liner, `Cordelia’ headed for Goa, was caught before he even entered the ship along with a few other youngsters.
Despite no drugs in his possession, he was literally kidnapped from the spot, making a complete mockery of arrest proceedings. About six grams of cannabis was supposedly found in the shoes of 26-year-old Arbaaz Merchant. Model Minimum Dhamecha, who was arrested with a few others too had no drugs in her possession.
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To ensure that Aryan Khan’s custody was extended, NCB was represented by Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Anil Singh, just to save face, after NCB failed to make any headway in its charges. The ASG trusted by the Modi government, represented NCB, in its case only against Aryan Khan, not the other accused, though they were arrested along with him.
Why would the son of one of the richest men in the Indian film industry, studying in a US university, and currently in India, only because of the COVID break, be a part of an international drug cartel? Similar charges had been leveled against Rhea Chakraborty too.
In the excitement of landing Aryan Khan as a prize catch, Ananya Pandey, the daughter of actor Chunkey Pandey, and a close friend of Aryan Khan, was summoned for several days for intense questioning.
Some old WhatsApp chats were used by Wankhade to accuse 23-year-old Ananya Pandey, to have “supplied” drugs to Aryan Khan. Her harassment stopped only after Wankhade himself landed in a hot soup, after being subjected to a series of exposes, including extortion, by NCP minister Nawab Malik, from October 6 till now. The fact that the case opened last year, in which Deepika Padukone and others were summoned for questioning, is still open, after 14 months, despite nothing concrete coming from it, lends credibility to the extortion charges against Wankhade.
Senior NCB officials from Delhi sent to his rescue from Delhi are believed to be distancing themselves from Wankhade now, in the light of the exposes. They are also reported to be upset that Wakhade initially hid the fact that no drugs were found on Aryan Khan.
There is a method to this madness. It costs Sameer Wankhade, absolutely nothing to go after these A-listers, grab one of the most vulnerable, file false charges against them, mysteriously leak all the details to the media, trigger a media frenzy, delay bail as much as possible and emerge as “Singham” from the whole exercise. Basic questions like whether the charges were even established or what was the purpose of the whole exercise, the silence of Indian laws, on what happens to victims of false cases and arrests are simply swept aside.
Bollywood has never shied away from voicing opinions on issues affecting the country in the past. But now fearing the worst, Bollywood remained largely silent in the face of the government’s catastrophic response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Indian film industry is vibrant and churns out over 2,000 movies a year, providing employment to several thousand industry specialists. It is progressive, secular, with actors, directors, producers, and technicians from all religions and regions. Bollywood holds sway over the sentiments of millions, organically built over the decades, which all of Modi’s money and campaigns cannot buy. This secular, progressive industry does not quite fit into BJP/RSS’s designs of ushering in a Hindu cultural renaissance.
The Modi government launched an attack on Bollywood, within months of coming to power in 2014.
Aamir Khan was hideously trolled simply for mentioning that his Hindu wife Kiran Rao felt unsafe because of rising religious intolerance in the country. Shahrukh Khan got compared to Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed by Yogi Adityanath, for expressing similar sentiments of rising intolerance in the country. This is a dog whistle for BJP supporters to attack and call for a public ban against these stars, attacking their films and products endorsed by them.
Saif Ali Khan was trolled and threatened for naming his firstborn Taimur, a Mughal ruler.
In this desire to suppress dissenting voices from Bollywood, Hindu actors and directors to are being attacked. Deepika Padukone was threatened for her show of support to students of the Jawaharlal Nehru Unversity (JNU), simply by showing up in their protests. A cash award was also announced by a BJP supporter, to cut off her nose, for simply essaying the role of a Rajput queen in an intimate scene with a Muslim king, in the film `Padmavati’.
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Recently, Prakash Jha, a well-known director too, was attacked on the sets, where he was shooting the next season of ‘Ashram’. The first season of Ashram on Netflix had featured machinations of a Hindu religious guru, to manipulate religious sentiments to build his empire.
The BJP MP from Madhya Pradesh Pragya Thakur, a virulent Hindu leader, out on bail, after being in jail for several years, on terror charges, went to the extent of saying that henceforth all scripts will have to be vetted by BJP leaders before any such film “hurting” Hindu sentiments can be made.
Last year, yet another famous director Anurag Kashyap, who has faced incessant online attacks, was the first to mention Sameer Wankhade. He spoke about how Wankhade has attacked Bollywood, from every law enforcement officer that he has served in. Kashyap mentioned how his bank account was frozen for two years by Wankhade. When the matter was dragged to court, 15 minutes before the hearing, the account was de-freeze. Wankhade later told Kashyap that he was being made an example of.
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Bollywood did try to make peace with the Modi government, after the constant attacks on them. Last September, a BJP power broker Mahaveer Jain, managed to ferry a bunch of A-listers on a private jet for a photo-op with Modi, at a time when Rhea Chakraborty was still struggling for bail. The A-listers included the likes of Ranveer Singh, Ranbir Kapoor, Varun Dhawan, and Karan Johar among others, but not a single Muslim face featured in the list, a chilling reminder of what Modi really wanted from Bollywood.
Just a year before this photo-op, several other A-listers which included Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan, along with Rajkumar Hirani had agreed to be part of the Modi government’s flop #ChangeWithin initiative, to spread Mahatma Gandhi’s message. The hypocrisy couldn’t have been more evident and the initiative died with just one short film. The short couple of minutes film, featured eight Bollywood stars reading out Gandhi’s messages.
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Powerful, superstars like Amitabh Bachchan, who was quite vocal during the previous Dr. Manmohan Singh government, chose to stay silent, despite attempts to completely sully the reputation of Bollywood. When his actress wife Jaya Bachchan and a Member of Parliament with the Samajwadi Party, spoke against the attacks, she too was threatened by online trolls.
A few weeks later, a group of producers mustered up enough courage to file a defamation suit against several national media channels allied with the Modi government. Though it is evident that Bollywood’s only chance of survival, given the weakening of democratic institutions, including the justice system, lies in rallying together and marshaling its star power, very little is being done in that direction. Even a Shahrukh Khan had to fight alone, the hard legal battle to rescue his cub from the wolves.
Read from this author Vijaylakshmi Nadar:
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