Acting on conscience

The annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards, better known as the Oscars, are a much-anticipated event because they are perceived to be the gold standard of movie-making. Over the past half century, however, many actors and directors have used this glittering global platform to express their, mostly dissident, views — not without some discomfiture for the organisers. Compare this with banal and tepid Indian movie awards, where artistes rarely do more than thank god and sundry relatives and associates. In a country as intensely political as India, it is inconceivable that the film world does not hold political views at variance with the dispensation in power. The fact that they choose not to air their dissidence at public events says much about the state of democratic freedom seven decades after independence. 

This year’s Oscar ceremony, for instance, was noted for a powerful acceptance speech by Joaquin Phoenix (Best Actor) for his role in Joker. Mr Phoenix spoke about the many injustices he sees: “I think whether we’re talking about gender and inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights — we’re talking about the fight against injustice.” This wasn’t a full-on criticism of the current political dispensation in the US but a trenchant critique of the collective governance failures. A week before, at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, or Bafta, awards, he bluntly spoke of the “systemic racism” in the film industry, a comment on the all-white acting nominations line-up (Mr Phoenix is white). Brad Pitt, also receiving his first Oscar, took time to call out the US Senate trial on President Donald Trump’s impeachment. “They told me I only have 45 seconds up here, which is 45 seconds more than the Senate gave [former US National Security Advisor] John Bolton this week,” he said.

Mr Phoenix and Mr Pitt are part of a long tradition that dates back as far as 1973, when Marlon Brando, nominated Best Actor for his performance in The Godfather, boycotted the Oscars and sent a native American in his stead to protest the US government’s maltreatment of this community. The Oscar organisers banned nominees sending representatives thereafter but that did not deter those with a conscience. Vanessa Redgrave defending the Palestinian cause (1978), Richard Gere on China’s human rights violations in Tibet (1993), and Michael Moore (2003) criticising the invasion of Iraq are prominent examples among many who have used the Oscar stage in this manner. Doing so certainly demands courage. Both Ms Redgrave and Mr Moore were excoriated. Meryl Streep, who used the Golden Globes platform to call out Mr Trump for mocking a handicapped journalist, was at the receiving end of a vicious twitter campaign, including from the president.

Why do Indian film personalities shy away from airing their views on such platforms? One reason could be the Indian government’s role in award-dispensation — it runs the National Film Awards, which remain the most coveted of Bollywood prizes. Another could be the vituperative trolling and threats to family that Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan faced when they pointed to growing intolerance in India. Commercial considerations too probably act as a powerful deterrent. Bollywood stars earn sizeable revenues from endorsing products and services. A country in which the business community remains beholden to the government, companies are unlikely to embrace activist actors. Witness the severance of Snapdeal’s contract with Aamir Khan after he tweeted comments about intolerance as recently as 2016. In short, India has a long way to go in matching the kind of open irreverence for political power that characterises the developed West, and unlike the Oscars, its film award ceremonies reflect that distance to full democracy.

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