A strange thing happened when a 34-year-old Bollywood star was found dead at his home in Mumbai on June 14th.
Police alleged that Shushant Singh Rajput killed himself because of mental health problems allegedly related to nepotism in the film industry.
Suicide is an extremely complex event that encompasses everything from brain biochemistry to family history to the desire to escape the self into the immediate circumstances of life. That makes any direct link between a suicide and a single event a stupid assignment at best.
But in the case of Rajput’s sad end, the plot was set by the police, despite claims by his own family that it was triggered by a friend who stole his money. And that unleashed the internet trolls on those who allegedly benefited from nepotism in Bollywood.
Her main target was Kareena Kapoor Khan, an incredibly successful actress with a glorious 20 year career who happened to be married to a Muslim star, Saif Ali Khan.
The right-wing trolls were merciless in defaming Kapoor Khan, whose family played a vital role in the development of India’s film industry until before the partition in 1947.
This deeply angry BC writer and Georgia Straight Author Gurpreet Singh for having long admired Kapoor Khan’s work. In addition, he saw the insults that were rained on them as yet another symptom of the growing intolerance and illiberal mindset that infected Bollywood.
For him, it symbolized what was happening in India under the ruling Bharatjiya Janata Party, which hopes to turn the country into a Hindu state.
But Singh was not only angry about the ongoing war on secularism and religious freedom in India. He decided to do something about writing a book From Nazneen to Naina: 20 years of Kareena Kapoor Khan in Bollywood and what that means for India and the rest of the world. The 143-page report on her career was published by Ludhiana, based at Chetna Parkashan.
For fans of Bollywood and Kapoor Khan there is a comprehensive analysis of their films and their appearances. But this is a Bollywood book with a twist: it also provides tremendous historical context behind the roles she has played, and shows just how far the political pendulum has swung in Bollywood throughout her career.
For example her debut film, refugee, focused on the hardships faced by stateless Bihari Muslims. It showed Kapoor Khan as Nazneen M. Ahmed, a Muslim woman who is looking for a home.
â€œNazneen’s parents had to leave the Indian state of Bihar when Muslim Pakistan was separated from Hindu-dominated India and communal violence broke out as a result,â€ writes Singh. â€œHindu and Muslim fanatics fought open battles in the streets. The bloodshed had resulted in massive population transfers.
“Fundamentalists on both sides murdered innocent Hindus and Muslims, creating fear in those who found no other way to save themselves than to leave their homes and wander elsewhere.”
However, Singh adds in the book, “The liberation of Bangladesh forced them to flee a second time on cultural grounds and discriminating against Bengali-speaking Muslims.”
“Bangladesh was separated from Pakistan mainly because of the persecution of Bengali Muslims, who were forced by the rulers of the theocratic Islamic Republic to adopt Urdu rather than Bengali as their language,” said Singh. “Since Bihari Muslims identified with Urdu and not with Bengali, their loyalty was questioned by many Bangladeshis who again forced them to migrate.”
This contextualization of real history helps explain how the parents of the character Nazneen fell into the trap of human traffickers. Singh points out too refugee was made while India was being ruled by a BJP-led coalition under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which had a love-hate relationship with Pakistan.
Nazneen gives birth to a baby and, according to Singh, becomes “a symbol of peace between the warring nations”.
“When I heard the news [the parents] congratulate each other and wonder which country the baby belongs to, â€says Singh. “Both agree that he should grow up as a world citizen of a nation without borders.”
From Nazneen to Naina also pays quite a bit of attention Agent Vinod, a 2012 thriller starring her husband. The theme was unity again, with Kapoor Khan playing a British-Pakistani spy opposite her husband, an Indian spy.
Singh writes that this film “had an important theme, how the two countries must unite and fight against those involved in global terrorism and the defense industry”.
In another Kapoor Khan movie, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, She plays a Hindu woman who helps a Pakistani Muslim girl who has been separated from her mother on a train station platform. It also carried a positive Indo-Pak message, so naturally religious fanatics on both sides of the border called for the film to be banned.
In 2018, trolls who support the BJP were furious again after Kapoor Khan posted a photo of herself calling for justice for the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl, Asifa Bano, by Hindu fanatics in Kathua. At that time, Singh writes, Kapoor Khan was known as the apologist of the Muslims.
But Singh points out that Kapoor Khan wasn’t intimidated. She has continued to speak out on various other topics unlike so many other Bollywood A-listers. Examples include her public comments on the Black Lives Matter movement and the police murder of Minneapolis-based George Floyd.
“Not only that, she condemned racism and bigotry within India against Muslims and so-called untouchables,” writes Singh. “She has also spoken out against the murder of father and son by the police in Tamil Nadu and has repeatedly called for help to artisans and migrant workers who are suffering from the lockdown.”
The nepotism controversy is only the latest in a series of staged episodes designed to tarnish Kapoor Khan. It has a double sting because her husband, another big star, is the son of famous Bollywood star Sharmila Tagore.
In reality, as Singh reports, the couple’s ancestors were leaders in the fight against British colonial rule. The great-grandfather and family patriarch of Kapoor Khan, Prithviraj Kapoor, inspired young people to participate in the independence movement with his pieces.
Saif Ali Khan’s mother is the great niece of the Nobel Prize-winning writer and poet Rabindranath Tagore, who denounced the British Raj and called for India’s independence.
Singh is visibly disgusted that the people who are now attacking Kapoor Khan are supporting a party that traces their ancestry back to a fascist movement that did not participate in the Quit India movement to secure independence.
“Among those who accuse Kareena of nepotism today are right-wing trolls and commentators who keep bringing up their marriage to a Muslim man and leaving no opportunity to brand her and her husband as Pakistani agents,” writes Singh.
Singh rightly points out that there was no way Kapoor Khan could thrive that long in Bollywood solely because of nepotism. Another female star, Kangana Ranault, has no qualms about handling the subject in inflammatory language, which the BJP leadership undoubtedly delights.
The reality is that actors won’t generate receipts unless they connect with the audience. Proof of this is the somewhat eventful acting career of Abhishek Bachchan, the only son of Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan.
Another example is Kapoor Khan’s own father Randhir Kapoor, who never came close to the career success of her grandfather Raj Kapoor or her uncle Rishi Kapoor or her sister Karisma Kapoor or her cousin Ranbir Kapoor.
In writing by Nazneen to NainaAs well as shedding light on the films of a popular Bollywood star, Singh has raised awareness of the impact of growing religious communalism on one of India’s defining characteristics: its Bollywood cinema industry.
The pernicious influence of the Hindutva ideology on Mumbai films is becoming increasingly evident – and Singh has followed it for some time in his articles on Straight.com.
Who would have thought that writing about Bollywood would become a job for a seasoned political beat reporter? Unfortunately this has become a necessity in India ruled by Narendra Modi.