Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Subir Bhaumik -Why is Bollywood so insensitive?

March 2, 2014 

Bollywood has big budgets, latest technology and an appeal across the world that would make any competitor envious. What it lacks is imagination and so often it fails to get its history right. The faux pas over ‘Gunday’ brings this into sharp focus. How could its makers get 1971 so horribly wrong! Is it just sloppy oversight, poor research and lack of historical perspective — or some kind of a ‘know-all attitude’ that permeates the entertainment czars who rule the tinsel town in the Indian financial-entertainment hub?

In late 2011, I had lunch with a top Bollywood producer, one who had started to produce films after having made his millions as an actor. He was out on a tour of India’s many regions to promote his latest hit. Having heard him out on his latest film, I made him an offer. I said there is a great plot waiting to be done into a war film because Bollywood has so few of them and those that are there are hardly worth talking about. He admitted Bollywood’s failure to produce great war films, despite the many wars India has fought after independence.

That is when I told him about ‘Operation Jackpot’, one of the best-coordinated naval commando operations in the history of warfare. If properly done, this could be Bollywood’s Guns of Navronne, I reasoned with the producer. I told him with some pride that the men who pulled off ‘Ops Jackpot’ were not the usual big moustache martial races of the sub-continent, but diminutive rice-eating Bengalis who blew up all available shipping on several East Pakistan ports within a span of few hours and left the harbours clogged to the nightmare of the beleaguered Pakistani commanders in 1971.

Just after I had finished, he chipped in — “But this is a Bangladesh story, how will I sell it to an Indian audience”. I had to remind the producer that 1971 was a Bangladesh story as well as an Indian story because the war was fought together. He appeared less than convinced even after I had told him that Indian naval officers were involved in the planning of the operation, though it was the brave Bengalis who executed it. He asked me for some preliminary research material on ‘Ops Jackpot’ which I agreed to provide. But it really did not take off and the producer never got back to me. I have not named him because I want no controversy and would keep looking for someone to do possible film on ‘Ops Jackpot’. But if the pre-condition of a Bollywood producer to do the film is to find an Indian angle to launch an Indian Rambo into the choppy waters of East Pakistan, I am afraid I am not game. Simply because though Indian officials were involved in planning ‘Ops Jackpot’, the action on ground did not involve them.

A few months ago, I had a long chat on this issue with my good friend Aravind Adiga, whose debut novel, White Tiger, won the 2008 Man Booker prize. He was in Kolkata, researching 1971 and we talked about the war, which I had seen at close quarters as a schoolboy in my hometown Agartala. Aravind has been a colleague at Time magazine and we have known each other for years. He lives in Bombay (I prefer that to Mumbai) and has many big-time contacts in Bollywood. He promised to pass on my idea to those who may possibly be interested to turn it into a film.

But what haunts me is that question, which others interested in the plot may also ask — where is the Indian angle to the story? How do we sell it to an Indian audience, how do we appeal to the huge Indian market? I have a ready answer — for all practical purposes, it was a war we fought together, so 1971 is both a Bangladesh story and an Indian story but a story we made together and not — I repeat not — made in isolation. For the Bengalis who sacrificed so much for independence, it was a dream come true. For India, and surely its military, this was its finest hour. But if any film is made or book is written on 1971, it has to have in fair measure both sides of the story — the Bangladesh side and the Indian side.

I strongly suspect that the makers of ‘Gunday’ have messed up in their eagerness to make a film for an Indian audience and have ended up projecting 1971 as an India-Pakistan war. That also betrays the classic Indian obsession with Pakistan — as if it is the one neighbour we have. Ignorance should foster humility but sometimes it promotes arrogance, especially in Bollywood, with all its wealth, power and reach. So the makers of ‘Gunday’ should not try to get away with a joke of an apology, saying they did not intend to hurt anybody’s sentiment. Very often, sentiments of a people and a nation are hurt inadvertently by foreigners who are ignorant and unwilling to double-check.

Bollywood films have huge budgets — surely some of it could be spared for research. Any researcher who knows 1971 — including many important Indians who played a role in it and are still alive — would tell the makers of ‘Gunday’ to get enough of the eight months of Bengali suffering and heroism into the film before it turns into an Indian story.

I have said this before and would say it again that Bollywood is one of the key elements of India’s soft power. From Russia to Egypt, from Japan to Africa, audiences swing to its song-and-dance extravaganzas. That is precisely why it is so important that governments in Delhi must be extra careful with what Bollywood does. The Censors must be more sensitive to episodes that could hurt sentiments in the neighbourhood and they surely need to impress on filmmakers to get their history right. 1971 was a great moment for both India and Bangladesh. We don’t want a ‘Gunday’ to spoil that wonderful ‘bliss-was-it-in-that-dawn-to-be-alive’ memory.

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