A tweet from a Frenchman has sparked off massive outrage in the Indian entertainment industry. The tweet questions Aamir Khan's right to play Lord Krishna in the actor's proposed screen version of the Mahabharata.
Taking umbrage, and rightly so, is poet thinker secular-extraordinaire Javed Akhtar, who has reminded this Frenchman (is he really French, or is it is just a case of monsieur ke frenchbeard mein tinka?) of how free of communal considerations popular art has always been in our cinema.
Javed saab is right. Since when has religion become a deciding factor in the selection of an actor? Some argue that the cultural conditioning and religious beliefs of an actor are important determining factors in his or her character transmutation. By that reasoning, Hitler must only be played by German Nazis when in fact I don't think he has ever been played by an actual Nazi.
And who can play Mahatma Gandhi better than Ben Kingsley? Is Kingsley a Hindu? Does anyone care?
Efforts to communalize art must be severely discouraged. Today they are saying Aamir Khan can't play Lord Krishna. Tomorrow they will say Ranveer Singh can't play Khilji or Deepika Padukone can't play Mastani. Are we first supposed to go through an actor's religious and cultural background before declaring him culturally fit to play a character?
Bollywood has always remained immune to cultural and religious identification. For years Pradeep Kumar and Mala Sinha starred in the movies as Muslim nawabs and begums, so much so that they were taken to be Muslim in real life.
Recalls the veteran actress Mala Sinha, "After I did Dharmputra Jahan Ara and Mere Huzoor, I was frequently mistaken to be a Muslim. And this was no issue at all. I remember Meena Kumariji was taken to be a devout Hindu woman since she played one in so many films. We are actors. We never restricted our range of characters on the grounds of religion or culture."
When did communalism creep into cinema? It's hard to say. Just the other day we applauded Salman Khan for playing Bajrangi Bhaijaan although there were murmurs against Salman Khan playing a Hanuman bhakt. We didn't hear Hanumanji object, though.
Salman remains the most exemplary figure of secular values in Bollywood. His father is Muslim, his mother is Hindu, and former actress Helen, whom Salman considers a second mother, is Christian.
The entertainment business in India has always been spoilt for choices as far as the potential to assume nationalities and religious flavours are concerned. So where did this horrific misgiving about Aamir Khan doing Mahabharata come from?
Ironically, the ugly communal question raised itself on the day actor Farooq Sheikh's 70th birthday was celebrated. Farooq played everyone from Sikandar Mirza in Garam Hawa to Avinash in Saath Saath with equal moderation and conviction. I wonder what he would have said about this current, utterly futile argument on whom the Mahabharata belongs to.
Maybe Vyasa and Peter Brooks could call a joint press conference to provide clarity. Until then, Jai Shri Krishna!
(Subhash K Jha is a film critic and movie expert)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)