The strange, sad and scandalous silence of Big B

SHARANYA KANVILKAR writes from Bombay: Everything that’s happened over the past fortnight in this great metropolis built by those who have made it their home, from near and far, has been on expected lines.

A political nobody with a surname that is a byword for intolerance picks on the poorest of the poor “outsiders”. Unemployed and unemployable “locals” bash them up, and smash their source of livelihood for the benefit of the TV cameras. An opportunistic coalition here (and in Delhi) allows a cub-coward to purr, and then stages a mock arrest. The usual suspects hem and haw in the studios. The Supreme Court reads the riot act.

Where, in this well-scripted charade—what we Mumbaikars call “drama baazi“—where, I have been wondering, is Amitabh Bachchan?

Because, you see, this spark of chauvinism that has become a nationwide fire of identity politics was lit in his name.

Raj Thackeray said that though Amitabh had become a superstar in Bombay, his interest was in Uttar Pradesh. That’s why, he reckoned, Big B said, “Mai Dilli raha, Calcutta raha, Mai Bambai (not Mumbai!) raha. Phir bhi meri pehchan, chhora Ganga kinarewala hi hai.” That’s why he stood for elections from Lucknow. That’s why he had set up a school in Aishwarya Rai‘s name in UP. That’s why he sang “Khaike paan Banaras wale….”

That below-the-belt thappad and the media coverage of it is what caused hundreds of bhaiyyas and Biharis to take the fast train from Nasik to whereever they came from, many of them sneaking through the windows in fear; one of them actually giving birth to a baby in the sterilised environs of a stinking toilet. That is what has caused the exodus of migrant workers from the real estate industry in Poona bringing it to a halt. That is what led to a slanging match in the Bihar assembly. That is presumably is what led to a West Bengal minister to hit out at Marwaris. And so on.

But the voice of Mr Bachchan—the stately sutradhar in many a movie, the deep baritone in many a documentary—has been mysteriously missing.

The only voice emanating from the Bachchan household has been that of wife Jaya Bachchan, a Samajwadi Party MP.

“I don’t know who Raj Thackeray is, but I heard that he owns huge properties in Maharashtra…In Bombay…Kohinoor Mills. If he is willing to donate land, we can start a school in the name of Aishwarya here.”

And the only other voice has been that of family factotum Amar Singh, who said Big B was “sentimentally very hurt”.

“Let Thackeray come out with a list, what all he (Bachchan) has done for UP and what all he has done for Maharashtra. If he has not done much more for Maharashtra, where he is residing, then on his behalf I am saying, he will leave Bombay,” he said.

Yes, thank you, but where is the sage voice of Amitabh Bachchan, the BBC’s star of the millennium, in all this?

What does he think of his contributions being questioned so cruelly by a Raju-come-lately? What does he think of those finger-waggging goondas who killed an engineer who spoke their language in the name of their language? What does he think of the salt of the earth scurrying away to safety?

Who, in Amitabh Bachchan’s view, is an outsider in his cosmopolis?

Strangely, sadly, scandalously, we do not know, because Big B has been, like only Big B can, busy at work when not being “sentimenally very hurt”, letting his acting do all the talking, as Sunil Gavaskar might say.

Why, is a question the Biharis and bhaiyyas who have by now presumably reached their gaon, should be asking.

One way of looking at Amitabh Bachchan’s deafening silence is to see it as the right step. In an overheated atmosphere, there is no point adding fuel to the fire or else more lives and livelihoods will be lost. In a vitiated atmosphere, where the speculation is that the Congress and the NCP did all this to eat into the Shiv Sena’s core competencies, saying something could vitiate the atmosphere even further.

Maybe, but really?

How does a man who pops up in every second commercial on TV selling everything from chawanprash to cars suddenly lose his voice when the nation and his City wants to hear him most? How does a man who wails each time the taxman pursues him lose his voice when the axman starts pursuing the meek? How does a man who waxes eloquent of the “kum jurm” in Uttar Pradesh lose his voice suddenly when the jurm in amchi Mumbai is in his face?

Amitabh Bachchan may have his reasons.

Maybe the angry young man is no longer as angry since he is no longer as young.

Maybe the stakes—not just for himself but Abhishek and Aishwarya too, maybe for the entire film industry which has thousands of “outsiders”—are too high to be squandered on a two-bit Thackeray.

Maybe, but in his silence India’s most famous voice has failed Bombay—worse, he has failed the ordinary people of this country, the star-struck who camped outside his hospital and prayed for his health when he was swinging between life and death after being injured during the shooting of Manmohan Desai‘s Coolie.

Bachchan’s home, his family, his livelihood, his reputation, his contributions are intact, and beyond debate. But by not confronting a cub-coward head-on, by remaining silent, and by allowing two-bit goondas to drive fear and hatred into the hearts of thousands, Bachchan has failed the City of Dreams—the City where he realised his dream.

Maybe, AB Baby, bred on a billion commercials, has lost the art of speaking without a cheque dangling in front of him. Then, again, since the family has fallen back on Bal Thackeray for support, maybe the silence is appropriate.

Photograph: courtesy The Guardian

Also read: Will Amitabh do anything for money?

Will Amitabh do anything for money—dviteeya?