A strange thing happened when a 34-year-old Bollywood star was found dead in his Mumbai home last June 14.
Police claimed that Shushant Singh Rajput had committed suicide due to mental-health issues, allegedly related to nepotism in the film industry.
Suicide is an extremely complex event involving everything from brain biochemistry to family history to a desire to escape the self to immediate life circumstances. That makes any direct linkage of suicide to a single event a fool’s errand, at best.
But in the case of Rajput’s sad ending, the storyline was established by police, notwithstanding claims by his own family that it was triggered by a girlfriend stealing his money. And that set the Internet trolls loose on those who had allegedly benefited from nepotism in Bollywood.
Their prime target was Kareena Kapoor Khan, an incredibly successful actor 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 casting aspersions on Kapoor Khan, whose family played a pivotal role in the development of the Indian film industry dating back to before Partition in 1947.
This deeply upset B.C. writer and Georgia Straight contributor Gurpreet Singh because he’s long admired Kapoor Khan’s work. In addition, he saw the insults being rained upon her as yet another symptom of the growing intolerance and illiberal mindset infecting Bollywood.
To him, it symbolized what’s happening in India under the ruling Bharatjiya Janata Party, which hopes to turn the country into a Hindu state.
But Singh didn’t just fume about the ongoing war on secularism and freedom of religious expression in India. He decided to do something about it, 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 account of her career was published by Ludhiana-based by Chetna Parkashan.
For fans of Bollywood and Kapoor Khan, there’s extensive analysis of her movies and her performances. But this is a Bollywood book with a twist: it also offers a tremendous amount of historical context behind the roles she played and demonstrates how far the political pendulum has swung to the right in Bollywood over the course of her career.
For example, her debut film, Refugee, focused on hardships faced by stateless Bihari Muslims. It featured Kapoor Khan as Nazneen M. Ahmed, a Muslim seeking a homeland.
“Nazneen’s parents had to leave the Indian state of Bihar when Muslim Pakistan was separated from Hindu-dominated India as a result of which communal violence broke out,” Singh writes. “Hindu and Muslim fanatics were fighting pitched battles on the streets. The bloodshed had resulted in a massive transfer of population.
“The fundamentalists from both sides murdered innocent Hindus and Muslims, causing anxiety among those who found no other alternative to save themselves, but to leave their homes and migrate elsewhere.”
However, Singh adds in the book, “the liberation of Bangladesh forced them to flee for the second time because of cultural reasons and discrimination from Bengali-speaking Muslims”.
“Bangladesh was separated from Pakistan mainly because of the persecution of Bengali Muslims who were forced to adopt Urdu and not Bengali as their language by the rulers of the theocratic Islamic republic,” Singh continues. “Since Bihari Muslims identified themselves with Urdu and not Bengali, their loyalty came under question by many Bangladeshis who forced them to migrate once again.”
This contextualization of real history helps explain how the character Nazneen’s parents ended up falling into the trap of human traffickers. Singh also points out that Refugee was made while India was governed by a BJP-led coalition under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which had a love-hate relationship with Pakistan.
Nazneen gives birth to a baby, therefore becoming “a symbol of peace between the warring nations”, according to Singh.
“Upon hearing the news, [the parents] congratulate each other and wonder which country the baby belongs to,” Singh notes. “They both agree that he should grow up as a global citizen of a nation without borders.”
From Nazneen to Naina also devotes a fair amount of attention to Agent Vinod, a 2012 thriller. The theme was again unity, with Kapoor Khan playing a British-Pakistani spy opposite her husband, an Indian spy.
Singh writes that this film “had an important theme of how the two countries need to unite and fight against those involved in global terrorism and the arms industry”.
In another Kapoor Khan film, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, she plays a Hindu woman who’s helping a Pakistani Muslim girl separated from her mother at a railway platform. It also carried a positive Indo-Pak message so naturally, the religious bigots on both sides of the border called for the film to be banned.
In 2018, BJP-supporting trolls were again enraged after Kapoor Khan posted a photo of herself calling for justice over the rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl, Asifa Bano, by Hindu fanatics in Kathua. At this time, Singh writes, Kapoor Khan was characterized as an apologist for Muslims.
But Singh points out that Kapoor Khan wasn’t intimidated. She has continued to speak out on various other issues, unlike so many other Bollywood A-listers. Examples include her public comments on the Black Lives Matter movement and the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd.
“Not only that, she denounced racism and bigotry within India against Muslims and so called Untouchables,” Singh writes. “She also made a statement against the killing of a father and son by the police in Tamil Nadu and made repeated appeals to help artisans and migratory workers suffering due to lockdown.”
The nepotism controversy is only the latest in a string of manufactured episodes intended to tarnish Kapoor Khan. It carries a double sting because her husband, another major star, is the son of famed Bollywood star Sharmila Tagore.
The reality, as Singh reports, is that the couple’s ancestors were leaders in the fight against British colonial rule. Kapoor Khan’s great-grandfather and family patriarch, Prithviraj Kapoor, inspired young people to participate in the independence movement through his plays.
Saif Ali Khan’s mother is the grand-niece of Nobel Prize–winning author and poet Rabindranath Tagore, who denounced the British Raj and called for India’s independence.
Singh is clearly disgusted that the people now attacking Kapoor Khan support a party that traces its lineage to a fascist movement that didn’t participate in the Quit India Movement aimed at securing independence.
“Among those who are accusing Kareena of nepotism today are right wing trolls and commentators, who keep on bringing up her marriage to a Muslim man and leave no opportunity to brand her and her husband as Pakistani agents,” Singh writes.
Singh quite rightly emphasizes there’s no way that Kapoor Khan could have thrived for so long in Bollywood merely due to nepotism. Yet another female star, Kangana Ranault, has no qualms going on about this topic in inflammatory language that no doubt delights the BJP leadership.
The reality is that if actors don’t connect with audiences, they don’t generate box-office receipts. For evidence of that, there’s the somewhat checkered acting career of Abhishek Bachchan, who’s the only son of Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan.
Another example is Kapoor Khan’s own father, Randhir Kapoor, who never came close to matching 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 From Nazneen To Naina, Singh has not only shed light on a beloved Bollywood star’s films, but also stirred up awareness of the impact of growing religious communalism on one of the defining features of India: its Bollywood cinema industry.
The pernicious influence of Hindutva ideology on films coming out of Mumbai is becoming increasingly apparent—and it’s something that Singh has been tracking for quite a while in his articles on Straight.com.
Who knew that writing about Bollywood would become a job for a veteran political beat reporter? Sadly, that's become a necessity in Narendra Modi-ruled India.