Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan speaks out in rare moment for freedom of speech in India

Indian film icon Amitabh Bachchan raised the issue of freedom of speech and tightened censorship on the film industry in recent years, in a rare break for Bollywood’s studied silence on political matters.

The 80-year-old actor, who is known for steering clear of politically charged statements and controversies, made the remarks at the inauguration of the 28th Kolkata International Film Festival in the western state of West Bengal.

Mr Bachchan began his speech by "saluting" Kolkata for its artistic temperament that "embraces the essence of plurality and equality".

Referring to the history of censorship in Indian cinema, he said: "But even now, I am sure my colleagues on the stage would agree, questions are being raised on civil liberties and freedom of expression."

He added that since the advent of cinema in India in 1913, films have gone through tremendous change, ranging from the subject to the medium.

"From mythological films... the advent of the angry young man in the 70s and 80s viewed against the countless frustration of unemployed youth to the current brand of historicals couched in fictionalised jingoism along with moral policing.."

His remarks came in the wake of a controversy surrounding a contentious Indian film titled The Kashmir Files, which was backed by prime minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist government.

"The range has kept audiences reflection on the politics and social concerns of our times through single screens, videos, multiplexes and now the burgeoning OTT."

Mr Bachchan cited the works of three pioneer filmmakers from the state – Academy award winner Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak – known for highlighting the cause of the poor, the rebel, and the downtrodden.

He continued: "We the film fraternity would do well to remember these stalwarts and their artistic convictions as the entertainment industry all over the world goes through a radical change."

Shah Rukh Khan, perhaps the country’s most celebrated actor, also spoke out about the “narrowness” driving social media.

Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan (R) with actor Amitabh Bachchan (AFP via Getty Images)
Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan (R) with actor Amitabh Bachchan (AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Khan’s upcoming film Pathaan has been facing backlash from right-wing outfits over the clothes worn by him and his co-actor Deepika Padukone in a video of the song released online.

The anger of members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is directed towards a song called Besharam Rang or shameless colour, in which Ms Padukone can be seen dancing in an orange bikini.

The colour is similar to saffron – a hue considered holy by adherents of the Hindu religion and appropriated in recent times by the extreme right-wing ecosystem in India.

At the ceremony, Mr Khan said: “Cinema and advent of articulation through social media platforms have now become the foremost expression of human emotions and experience.

“The collective narrative of our times is shaped by social media and contrary to the belief that the spread of social media will affect the cinema negatively, I believe cinema has an even more important role to play now.”