Recently Neeraj Ghaywan, Director of Masaan, advertised some job vacancies in filmmaking, with the condition that only candidates from certain castes (Dalits, Bahujans or Adivasis) could apply. This led to a mini controversy with Vivek Agnihotri, Director of The Tashkent Files, accusing him of bigotry and indulging in a practice that threatens talent. Vivek was then accused of being blind to caste realities and unleashing ‘trolls’ on Neeraj.
It’s not for the first time that Vivek Agnihotri vs Neeraj Ghaywan has made news. Earlier in 2018, Vivek had tweeted a short note about how a Dalit politician, presumably Prakash Ambedkar, was traveling in business class while he, a Brahmin, was traveling in the middle seat of economy class in the same plane, seemingly suggesting how caste equations in India were no longer the same as earlier. Neeraj had replied to Vivek’s tweet saying he was a Dalit who could achieve a lot without using his caste identity, and next time he will offer his business class seat to Vivek if they happen to be in the same plane.
The tweet attracted massive traction and was picked up by many media houses, and led to debates. Broadly, Vivek was painted as a villain trying to negate caste realities of modern India while Neeraj was seen as a magnanimous star aware of the ground realities. Similar comments are being made again in wake of Neeraj’s post and Vivek’s reaction to it.
OpIndia talked to Vivek Agnihotri about the whole controversy. OpIndia’s questions are in bold text, and Vivek’s responses to them follow in normal text.
Isn’t it like Déjà vu? Perhaps you knew that if you take on Ghaywan, you’d be under such attacks again, then what made you take him on?
I was fully aware of that the casteist, communal and communist lobby of the media and entertainment industry will go after me. They will write articles against me and vandalise my Wikipedia page. But what Neeraj has done is to start a very dangerous trend and thus I thought to not let it go uncontested.
In the name of minorities, secularism and social justice, a particular set of people have acquired money and power. The only cause that has been helped with such activism is the self-interest of these people. Caste being a sensitive subject, everyone tries to stay away from it, but someone must speak. The fear of not speaking up is what I am trying to defeat and make others also speak up.
Film industry has never cared about caste when it comes to employing people. The only criteria are competence and talent. Neeraj is trying to paint a different reality. This is the reason why so many film professionals called me and said ‘Vivek you are the only one who can speak against it’. Everyone feels it’s wrong, but won’t speak as they will also be attacked. My conscience tells me I must speak against this sinister politics of Neeraj.
But one can argue that what Ghaywan has tried to do or is trying to do is not any different from caste-based reservations, which is policy of the State. Whether Left, or Congress, or BJP, or even AAP – all of them have supported reservations. Can you explain what is dirty and dangerous here?
I’ll tell you what is dangerous here. What will stop now from say a Muslim producer to say that he will employ only Muslims? What if a crazy Brahmin says I’ll employ only Brahmins? Then a Jain producer will say he will produce films of only Jains. A distributor decides to release films made by people of his own caste. Atheists like Javed Akhtar say that they won’t write bhajan for movies like Lagaan. And at CBFC, if Prasoon Joshi decided to give favourable certificates to films made by Brahmins only?
This used to happen at one time when underworld and mafia used to fund only those who followed their ideology (if any) or agenda. Do Neeraj and his political mentors want to run film industry like a mafia?
Furthermore, are we going to bring in reservations and quotas in an already struggling industry like films? Then what’s the difference between Karni Sena and Neeraj Ghaywan’s politics?
So you believe that this will fuel sectarianism and people will become aware of their ethnic identities – something you insist that Hindi film industry is not suffering from?
I was in Delhi before I came to Mumbai. In Delhi often people used to ask me about my caste and background. In 25 years that I have spent in the Film industry, not even once anyone asked me my caste nor did I ask anyone. Suddenly, since the advent of Ghyawan’s politics, things have started changing. In my office we have come to learn that some of my assistants are from the so-called lowest castes. I can feel the change in the vibes. Not because anyone cares what is their caste, but there is this sudden consciousness on both sides, and it’s never good for creativity.
It has already created a discussion. How long do you think before a casteist/discriminatory politician jumps and exploits the situation? Also, Bollywood may not be a big vote bank, but it’s a very influential group. What will stop a Prakash Ambedkar or Raj Thackrey to create vote banks/influence groups and exploit the situation? What if it extends to language, region, etc.? These are the same people who found fault with Shiv Sena for trying to politicise Bollywood, now it’s all kosher if it’s politicised in name of Dalit rights?
In a recent interview, Ghaywan has talked about how Hollywood implements measures to attain diversity among the movie crews and staff. He says that one can’t name 5 Dalit actors or filmmakers, and thus Bollywood also has a problem of diversity – a problem he is trying to solve. You just said that you only recently discovered the caste of some of your staff. Are you saying that perhaps there is decent representation of various castes among Bollywood, just that we are not aware of it?
First thing Neeraj must learn that Bollywood is not Hollywood. Hollywood has always been divided on race. Bollywood, never. In theatre, music, literature, we never discriminated. All Muslim classical singers worshipped Saraswati and Krishna. Hindu actors go to dargahas before the releases. Mohammad has sung bhajans and Rams have sung qawaalis for Allah. Dileep became Rahman but we never cared. Most of the India doesn’t even know that Gulzar is not Muslim.
Art is one place in India where we have always risen above sectarian identities. Neeraj and his political mentors want to bring it down. I’d fight to my last breath to see these western concepts of wokeness and social justice don’t enter in an already inclusive field of creativity. It is a case of cure being worse than the disease. This will harm art the same way political concept of ‘secularism’ has destroyed the meaning of sarv dharm sambhaav in India.
Let me ask Neeraj, has he ever met a viewer who buys tickets based on filmmaker’s caste? Can he complain tomorrow if the upper-caste audience decides not to see his films – the same people who made his film Masaan so popular and made him rich. Then why stop only at employing Dalits, he should also pledge not to take funding from any upper-caste producer and not to cast upper-caste actors. That explains their hypocrisy.
In The Tashkent Files, the protagonist is a Dalit and a woman. But not even once we took advantage of this fact and tried to indulge in some woke PR. I made her Dalit because not often we see protagonists, who are trying to bring social change, coming from the weaker sections of the society. I believe in equality in art, but in artistic manner. Not by putting up hoardings and shouting that “hey, see I believe in equality. I practice equality”. I don’t distribute pamphlets on it.
I don’t think anyone will disagree about the religion part in Bollywood. In fact, one can say that Muslims are over represented! However, the contention here is caste. Those who support such things argue that upper-caste filmmakers like you can’t tell a story from point of view of a lower-caste person. For true creativity, all stories should be told. Hence such things (what Ghaywan is doing) are not against creativity but for creativity. How do you respond to that?
What is more important? The message or the messenger?
By that logic, films against poverty must be made by poor and a film against unemployment must be made by an unemployed. What kind of rubbish logic is that?
Raj Kapoor made films against social disparities; didn’t they move you? Didn’t Pink make you think? Was it made by a woman? Shyam Benegal’s movies started a revolution on caste issue. Are Anurag Kashyap and Ramgopal Verma Mafia dons?
Then I shouldn’t have made a film on Shastri because I am not Lal Bahadur Shastri’s descendant. Modi must stop thinking about the industry because he is not an industrialist. This is laughable logic created by communist columnists who have no skin in the game.
Perhaps their grouse is that Ragini Phule, the Dalit woman protagonist in The Tashkent Files, is not ‘Dalit enough’. You have not shown her with a Rohith Vemula photo or such things, you didn’t even insert a narrative that her editor was being unfair to her as the editor was from upper-caste. That is the ‘true Dalit narrative’ that upper-caste filmmakers like you are blind to.
Only a Dalit who lives life and thinks about issues as per them is a true Dalit?
The character of Ragini Phule was a very well thought out decision I took after speaking to many Dalits. All of them supported my belief that unless we show people from the weaker sections doing extraordinary things, they will not be inspired to be like them. Now, if I had shown Ragini Phule as a victimised oppressed person, I’d have just continued the existing discussion. But by showing her as empowered woman who can challenge the system, I have changed the conversation. All the Dalit intellectuals I spoke to agreed that if we really want to help the cause of Dalits, the conversation must change from a stereotype of weakness to strength.
Neeraj and his political mentors want to continue a particular narrative and I want to explore other sides of that narrative too. Now you tell me who is being creative? Someone who wants to stick to a formula, someone who wants to stick to a particular political narrative, or someone who likes to move away from accepted formulas and narratives. That’s the difference. I want weaker people to believe that they can change the system and Neeraj wants them to believe that someone else will change for them because they are hapless. That’s the difference.
I want to change it and celebrate the success of ordinary Dalits. When I had tweeted about a Dalit leader travelling business class, I felt no reason to celebrate success of a dynast politician. But Neeraj somehow decided to link his identity to that dynast leader when it was not about people like him. He decided to ‘other’ me, a person from the same industry, but be one with a politician, a person from another fraternity altogether, just because of caste. I am proud that Neeraj travels business class, and I don’t need his seat. Him traveling business class is proof of how Bollywood has not cared for his caste. He has earned his business class seat, and I will celebrate that success, but not of a dynast politician who wants to stick to a particular brand of politics for his own benefit. It’s a tragedy that Neeraj wants to continue the same brand of politics.
So where do you see this battle of ideas going, especially in Bollywood?
To be honest, it’s not even battle of ideas. It’s pure politics. And let me say it directly – because of Modi’s advent, the ‘secular’ and communist lobby of Bollywood is rattled. First they cheered Award Wapsi and then ‘we are afraid’ campaigns were promoted through big stars. They failed miserably. Then they started firing though some misguided filmmakers through tweets, but they also failed miserably. Some had to leave Twitter. Now this is the new card – the D card.
Neeraj is nothing but a pawn of his political mentors. He is trying to cover up this sinister politics under the garb of equality and diversity, but since this is fake and wrong, this will also fail miserably. In my I Am Buddha foundation, we have mentored so many young people not because they were from lower-castes but because they are talented and smart. We celebrate creativity irrespective of where it comes from.
Interesting. But Modi himself is a Bahujan as per their own definition of including OBCs into it. It’s confusing how a Brahmin Agnihotri is with a Bahujan Modi, but is still against Bahujans!
Because unfortunately people are stuck only with the surnames. We are beyond that. They see only Agnihotri in my name, but I am Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri. They neither know the Vivek nor Ranjan.
That brings us to the last questions, and perhaps unrelated. You have only recently started using your full name as Vivek Ranjan Agnihotri. Ranjan is the name of your father one will assume?
No. My father’s name was Prabhudayal Agnihotri. He was a Sanskrit Professor and mentored Dalit students for PhD. One of his Dalit students was Ranjan, who he thought was an ideal student. He wanted me to be like him. That’s how I got my full name. In Bhopal nobody knows me as Vivek, they know me only as Ranjan. Never told anyone because it was not needed, but now that you ask, well…