Thirty-four of Bollywood’s top production companies, many helmed by the biggest stars, and four industry bodies, on Monday, filed a lawsuit in the Delhi High Court against “media trials”. They have also sought directions against two news channels, seen as close to the ruling dispensation, for their “irresponsible, defamatory and derogatory” remarks against Bollywood and its personalities. Select media coverage, in the wake of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide, portrayed the industry as a den of crime, drugs, and nepotism.
The case is significant for two distinct reasons. One, it will throw open the question of free speech and its limits. While it is tempting to frame the issue only in terms of free expression — and media platforms must be allowed to publish and broadcast all forms of investigative stories and diverse views — the fact is that this right to free speech comes with a degree of responsibility as constitutionally stipulated. To accuse people of murder, without any evidence, cannot be constructed as free speech. Some media outlets have also, often, provided a platform for hate speech. While the State cannot be trusted to regulate the media — for it will become a way to exercise control — self-regulation has failed too. The case must trigger a conversation on the need for a statutory-but-independent regulatory mechanism for television news.
India is also in the midst of a larger culture war. The political Right, which believes it is through culture that society and eventually politics is shaped, appears to view Bollywood as representative of the ancient regime, with its focus on pluralism and the presence of liberals as well as Muslim figures. The fact that the industry has a range of underlying issues — from a history of shady financing to nepotism — allows the Right to stoke public distrust. The effort appears to be to delegitimise existing Bollywood power structures and create a parallel, more pliant, “nationalist” industry which will shape ideological and cultural consciousness as desired by dominant political actors. This newspaper does not endorse any illegal activity that may be taking place in the film industry. But the fact is that Bollywood has been an internal unifying thread for citizens, a secular space, an important economic hub generating employment and revenue, and a huge asset for India’s soft power. It may need reform, but to paint the industry as evil is both wrong and dangerous. Bollywood unifying to defend itself is positive.