In a recent interview with Film Companion‘s Anupama Chopra when actors Ranveer Singh & Alia Bhatt were asked about the criticism and the underlying irony around the omission of a few lines from the Gully Boy version of Azaadi, they immediately distanced themselves from the song. Singh, who has sung most of the songs in the film where he plays a rapper, passed the buck to song-writers Vivian Divine and director Zoya Akhtar by saying he wasn’t directly involved with the track. When pressed further about Singh’s picture with Prime Minister Modi and the omitted references to Manuvaad (casteism), Brahmanvaad (Brahminism) and Sanghvaad, the actor simply said he was ‘apolitical’ and thought the version used in the film was ‘still catchy’.
In another interview with Scroll, the film’s music supervisor Ankur Tewari explicitly stated that the song definitely did have socio-political overtones, but had nothing to do with the controversial JNU protests. “We used the song in the context of fighting economic disparity in our film, and it has nothing to do with JNU.” Tewari was quoted as saying.
It’s impossible to miss the irony that comes with the makers of Gully Boy choosing to be selective about their freedom of expression, in a genre of music that is inherently anti-establishment, in a song called Azaadi (freedom). And the outrage over the same is understandable. But consider this, in an industry that’s taken hostage over relatively lesser issues (see: Padmaavat), are we really that surprised that the makers chose to omit direct references that attack the current establishment? Also, do they truly deserve all the outrage? Especially in a country where Naseeruddin Shah gets death threats after he confesses to feeling afraid for his children. Where a fringe group assaults a director and issues death threats with impunity, are we really going to take Ranveer Singh to task for playing safe?
We obviously need to discuss the ‘censorship’ of the song, but it isn’t Zoya Akhtar & Co, who deserve the outrage. It is the larger political climate and an establishment that enables such unrepentant bullying. Everyone from Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan (arguably the biggest stars in the country) have burnt their fingers by saying things that are even remotely political. Then why do we suddenly place the onus on relatively younger stars like Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt to shoulder the responsibility of explicitly stating their politics?
Also, take a closer look at the ‘sanitised’ version of Azaadi in the film, and you’ll find veiled references to the ruling government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan (“desh kaise hoga saaf, tere niyat mein hai daag”) and its failed demonetisation exercise (“Noton ki sarkar hai na”). Even calling out nepotism, an age-old malaise in Bollywood and politics, the Gully Boy track does ‘stick it to the man’.
That obviously doesn’t absolve the songwriters from actively removing references to casteism and brahminical patriarchy. Haven’t we seen the storm provoked by a simple placard in the hands of Jack Dorsey? Why would anyone with a 50-crore film on the line, voluntarily sign up for such harassment and trolling? Criticising Zoya Akhtar and her team, is our easy way out of the argument. The harder part is to engage with an environment that has all but shut down the art of discourse.
It’s probably easier to mock a Hindi film’s ‘wokeness’ than to see the larger picture, where critics bank on subtlety to voice their dissent. It’s also unfair.
Disclaimer: The views/opinions stated herein belong only to the author, and aren’t necessarily endorsed by the publication.