BBC, Bollywood, Bans and Boycotts!

It’s pouring Bs in Bharat. In the news, I meant. BBC, a long-venerated medium in India is in the news these days for all the wrong reasons. A two-part documentary on India namely India: The Modi Question has put a question mark on BBC’s objectivity and has come under fire from the Government of India. The Government has used emergency powers to ban the documentary from being “viewed” in India.

I just watched the first couple of minutes of the documentary, so I am in no position to comment on the veracity of what’s being said in the same. However, from all reports, it seems that the documentary has tried to once again raise the question of Narendra Modi’s role during the Gujarat riots in 2002 when he was its Chief Minister. Notwithstanding what has been shown in the documentary, the banning of the same has invoked sharp reactions and has split opinions right in the middle.

On the one hand, you have the liberal group who have labeled the ban as undemocratic and unbecoming of a liberal society.  But the fact is, this is not the first time that a ruling government in India has gone after BBC content. Mark Tully, the iconic representative of BBC in India for years has listed many instances in the past from the days of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi when a story was asked to be pulled down or was banned. So, it is not unique to this government to resort to such aggressive actions when faced with uncomfortable content. On the other hand, there is the group that supports the ban and claims that in “New India”, we will no longer tolerate a hit job on India that too coming from BBC, a foreign media with its colonial hangover.

From what I saw in the first few minutes, I could make out the intent and the purpose of the documentary which I feel is to tarnish the image of India and more so Modi who is riding a huge popularity wave in India and outside. Therefore, in a way, I feel that the anger and opposition to the documentary are fully justified. However, is banning the same the right reaction? I reckon not for the following reasons.

First, in today’s age of the internet and technology, is a ban practically implementable? Even now as we speak, it is possible to look up this “banned” documentary and watch it. Second, “Answer to a book is another book”. This was a quote by Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was a tall opposition leader of course. So, the answer to a BBC documentary that is peddling a particular agenda is another documentary to counter it. Third, the banning of stuff fearing an adverse reaction within the country is all “Old India” stuff.  As a country now confident of its status in the world, “New India” should not resort to banning that only gives an impression of having a soft underbelly. The 2002 subject has been flogged in Indian media for two decades now and frankly, I feel that the country has moved on from it.  There is nothing new that this documentary is going to tell that is already not known in the public domain. So why fear a backlash now?

Fourth, the Streisand Effect. As per definition, this is a phenomenon in which an attempt to censor, hide, or otherwise draw attention away from something only serves to attract more attention to it. We are already seeing this in India where, in states that are not ruled by the BJP, the film is being shown on large screens on campuses with a vengeance.  The curiosity to find out what is in it that resulted in banning it draws in more people who otherwise are least interested in the subject. By the way, the Streisand Effect is named after American singer and actress Barbra Streisand, whose attempt to suppress the California Coastal Records Project’s photograph of her cliff-top residence in Malibu, California, clicked to document California’s coastal erosion, inadvertently drew greater attention to the photograph in 2003.

Now coming to the second B – Bollywood. Bollywood which actually means Hindi cinema made out of Bombay has been also in the news for all the wrong reasons of late.  A string of flops even of big star films and more off-screen controversies kept Bollywood on its toes the whole of last year.  This year has started with the release of the SRK starrer Pathaan on the big screen. Amidst social media calls for boycotting the same from right-wing groups, the film has managed to do well at the box office in the first four days, as per reports.

From this, it is clear that a film does not do well mostly because of poor content or reach and not necessarily due to boycott calls on social media.  One of the purported victims of the boycott saga last year was Aamir Khan’s, Lal Singh Chaddha.  I had watched the film and felt that film was a stretch. In my opinion, the film bombed due to bad reviews from critics and more importantly bad word-of-mouth feedback from those who watched it on the first weekend.  Despite being made very well, the content failed to connect with the audience that watched it. Therefore, it failed, and not just because of boycott calls. The same holds good for other films like Shamshera, Ram Setu, Dhakkad, Samrat Prithviraj, Jersey, and so on.

I haven’t watched Pathaan and hence I have no views on the film. From what I hear, it is a commercial action entertainer that has been made well though, it is from the same spy thriller genre that is being flogged in Indian films of late. Concluding that “Bollywood is back” because of Pathaan being a hit is also a simplistic view. By and large Indians like films and the big stars and would love to watch them on the big screen provided the content manages to engage with their sensibilities. There is no rocket science beyond this, in my opinion.  It is good to see the Prime Minister exhorting his party men not to waste their time going after films and calling for boycotts.  He should extend the same logic to bans on documentaries and other content as well.

Next week, the country will move to discuss another B – the Budget and hopefully, it will set the tone for what is said as “Bharat’s Decade”!

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