Sometimes, words go beyond their literal meaning and become symbols. They become part of an ecosystem of thoughts and beliefs, and even come to represent movements. But popularity has its own baggage. Take the rather legitimate case against the co-opting of the ‘Azadi’ chant that became synonymous with mass dissent in the upcoming film Gully Boy.
While the film and its music have been getting critical and popular appreciation alike, many have taken an issue with the song ‘Azadi’. Originally written and performed by musician Dub Sharma as an ode to the many student protests against the government and authorities that broke out with the suicide of Hyderabad university student Rohith Vemula in 2016, it soon came to be associated with dissent and protest (all things dubbed anti-national) in general.
Student political leaders such as Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid became household names after allegedly raising chants of ‘Azadi’ in Jawaharlal Nehru University in the same year during a controversial protest against the hanging of Afzal Guru who was sentenced to death for involvement in 2001 terror attack on Parliament. They and others still face sedition charges for raising the slogans and leading the movements.
The heavy implications and associations the word carries made it a bit difficult to watch actors Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhat, the talented duo who play protagonists in the film, sit on a couch on set for a popular talk show with film critic Anupama Chopra and commodify ‘Azadi’ into a brand of popcorn for Indian yuppies to munch on while watching national debates on the freedom of expression.
“It’s a catchy track,” Bhat said. “I’m apolitical,” Ranveer said and added that he was busy with his work and personal life. The song is catchy and people have all the right to be apolitical and busy. But it’s a tad disappointing to find out that popular influencers, especially artists, choose to exploit issues for artistic and commercial gains without taking a stand about the issue in real life.
Dub Sharma’s ‘Azadi’ spoke of the right to equality, and freedom from caste atrocities, government repression, saffronisation of politics and more. It sought freedom from ‘Manuwaad’, casteism, religious discrimination. The chants have also been used by protesters in Kashmir.
But Ranveer Singh can’t deny that politics exists even in the entertainment industry.
Think about the glamourized PSAs starring Akshay Kumar — the so-called ‘poster boy’ of Swachha Bharat in Bollywood. Or Vicky Kaushal who recently gave many in the government a new catchphrase and a new favourite film in ‘Uri’.
But that is not the problem. The problem is, perhaps, in the casual flippancy with which the actors proclaim that they are “happy bunnies” who wake up in the morning and sing “bolo Azadi” because they like the “energy” and “melody” of the sing.
‘Azadi’, which was foremost a call for women’s emancipation even before it became the hitherto war cry for students in 2016, is a peppy Bollywood number now.
Is it belittling all the movements that have been given a voice by the call for freedom? Not really. The symbols and institutions that have used the chant represent a greater endurance and history and the loss of one symbol is not enough to blot out the heritage of dissent. Not as much as the BJP and the Congress co-opting the slogan for petty campaigning, anyway.
And films and music are some of the best forms of dissent in any case so maybe it’s a good thing that Zoya Akhtar appropriated the chant and made it more resonant with a larger audience. The song itself is lyrically impressive and reflects to some extent what the chant is meant to symbolise in reality. Perhaps she should have given her “apolitical” actors a memo on appropriate responses to questions on the political nature of the very political music of her film.