Dictionaries define the medieval concept of the ‘court jester’ as: ‘a clown or buffoon who is employed by a noble or royal for entertainment; also called fool’.
Sounds familiar? It does read like a pretty apt description of how we, the Indian film industry, are viewed by the sundry powers-that-be at various levels. The crucial distinction being that while the court jesters of yore were compensated by the royal purse for the self-deprecatory mirth they provided, we receive no such reward for the ‘privilege’ of being derided. On the contrary, we finance it with our taxes!
We may be a substantial source of employment – not only for our high-profile actors but also the legion of skilled and unskilled personnel from all sections of society that are directly or indirectly involved in the creation and consumption of filmed entertainment.
We may arguably be the most variously and heavily taxed commercial endeavor in the country, especially when you factor in the size of our topline and the miniscule number of our profitable products vis-à-vis other (far more lucrative) trades that are also subject to a punitive tax regime like the tobacco and alcohol industries.
We may be the creators of India’s best-known and most-loved cultural export that resonates from Minneapolis to Manchester to Moscow to Marrakesh to Melbourne, and is the most effective purveyor of the nation’s soft power.
We may have in our fraternity the most influential and aspirational icons of the country whose popularity and fan following are routinely piggybacked on, not only by various public authorities to peddle an array of public service messages but also by political parties to draw in crowds at their election rallies.
Yet, while everyone is more than happy to ride our bandwagon whenever they want to, and exploit it in whichever manner they deem fit, the moment we face any adversity – and we do so, unfortunately, with alarming frequency – we stand alone.
After all, even the misery of court jesters makes for entertainment.
For the film industry to be viewed, and treated, as pushovers is by no means a new phenomenon and stoically tolerating whatever comes our way – or doesn’t – has for long become our second nature. But what has changed in the last few years is the substantial lowering of the bar in terms of the stature of those that ride roughshod over us.
Earlier, it was usually the Central government – and occasionally, State governments – that made us dance to their tune through their multiple agencies like the censors, the law & order machinery, the Animal Welfare Board et al, and by imposing new taxes, without offering any incentives/relief, in annual Budgets. But, lately, we seem to have become fair game for every Tom, Dick and Harry who is looking for a punching bag, a sitting duck whose profile guarantees them instant publicity and whose lack of clout ensures that there are no repercussions.
And so it is that fringe groups can storm our film shoots in broad daylight, physically assault our most storied filmmakers and brazenly promise to do so again.
And so it is that political parties with a single seat in state assemblies can hold our biggest releases to ransom till their egos are massaged with ‘reassurances’ from their high-profile hostages.
And so it is that goons can openly threaten theatre owners on national television, reminding them of the high cost of replacing the shattered glass that would result from exhibitors screening a film deemed hurtful to the goondas’ tender sentiments.
When, and how, will this nonsense end?
Let us be upfront and admit that there are no clear-cut solutions. We live in a thin-skinned democracy where literally millions of special interest groups are quick to take affront to any slight, real or perceived. And the high-profile and news-worthiness of our vocation will always make it an attractive target for those who seek their 15 minutes of fame off our reflected glory.
Moreover, much as we can express our anguish and Tweet our support, collective and united action from us as an industry is difficult given the very nature of our business where those with an imminent release have everything at stake while others can afford to indulge in talk of strikes and boycotts because it really doesn’t affect them at all.
But while our options may be limited, they are not non-existent.
For one, we can maintain a blacklist of states/regions/cities/locations where our colleagues have faced troubles and collectively refuse to contribute to those local economies by shooting there.
We can refuse to entertain the many governmental departments and agencies that expect us to endorse and promote their causes gratis but are mute spectators when we are messed around with. Which is not to say that our stars shouldn’t lend their names to such campaigns, but why do it for free when there is no quid pro quo?
Finally, perhaps those of our colleagues who are also active in the political arena can do more – much, much more – in leveraging their parliamentary offices and political party affiliations for the benefit of the very industry that undeniably played a part in giving them the public profile and popularity that launched their political careers.
We don’t want any special favours, we don’t expect any extraordinary privileges. All we ask for is the right to go about our business – making and exhibiting movies – without having to be constantly looking over our shoulder while doing so.
That, even for lowly court jesters, isn’t too much to ask for, is it?