ByShobhaa De /

What started off as a rather grotesque ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ has rapidly degenerated into a dark comedy or horror show. Tell me — is there nothing worse happening in India besides Bollywood stars doing drugs? Or is there a sinister pattern emerging, as several alert critics have been pointing out — are our so-called ‘neutral’ government agencies merely doing their (hit) jobs by targeting top stars and minor players, in their unseemly rush to ‘clean up’ showbiz? Why are they hand-picking these particular stars and not several others who may be equally guilty? Getting Deepika Padukone to abort her shooting schedule and show up meekly when summoned to the Colaba guesthouse of the NCB is a surefire way to burn up social media, stay in the headlines and dominate television prime time. The ‘nautanki’ of the NCB knows no limits! That goes for prime-time anchors, too. They seem to be high on something more potent than the power of TRPs. Come on — viewers are done with the ‘ghisa-pita’ stretched out story about ganja-smoking stars. How much longer are you going to flog it?

Everyone has realised it is no longer about SSR, or Rhea or any of those associated with SSR’s death. It is now an insane shikaar to selectively implicate big names from Bollywood in an effort to: a) divert national attention from ‘unimportant’ crises, fiscal, legal, and Covid-related issues; b) assume control of Bollywood through intimidation and threats. The second aspect is very important, given the incredible, almost immeasurable influence of Bollywood on the nation’s imagination. The long-term benefits of insidiously taking over the lives and content of India’s vibrant entertainment industry are obvious. Apart from the monetary angle, it is the idea of entertainment itself that’s at stake.

When a concerted effort is made to paint a terrible picture of an entire industry by picking on high-profile, successful targets, the government machinery effectively chokes free cinematic expression and sends out a strong message to those who aren’t willing to kneel down and surrender to the state. This form of pressurising is being witnessed across other cultural platforms — in the rewriting of our history books, renaming of heritage sites, restructuring of institutions and the gagging of media. Bollywood had been spared so far. But the SSR case provided the perfect alibi to muscle in and hijack an entire subculture that has spoken the language of India’s masses for over a hundred years.

This is an opportunity to move in swiftly (timing is everything), using the smokescreen of massive ‘drug abuse’ and smoothly taking control. Once it’s a done deal, all those self-righteous fellows strutting around with a holier-than-thou attitude will disappear into the woodwork, not to be seen again. Hatchet job complete. Mission accomplished.

Yes, there are Bollywood A-listers who do drugs. So do B-grade politicians. And sadhus. And businessfolk. And traders. Many others. I mean, drug use is not Bollywood’s vice exclusively. Why has not even a single politician’s name emerged? These are the same netas who party with their Bollywood buddies and try desperately to project a ‘kya kool hai hum’ vibe. Do you mean to say they sip Thums Up and avoid coke at cosy private bashes where they are regulars? Get real. Everybody in the glamourous Juhu-Bandra party circuit can provide countless stories about these high-living politicians. Surely the same rule applies to them? But that’s naïve thinking. The agenda is far bigger than nabbing a Deepika or Sara or Shraddha. It is about making them prime examples and sending out a menacing message to other popular Bollywood players — play ball henceforth, varna… varna kya? Varna, lots! No wonder half of Bollywood has gone into hiding, wondering when their NCB summons will arrive.

Just like the other ‘opium of the masses’ —cricket — is firmly in the hands of politicians, their sons and other industrialists from the same camp, Bollywood too will find itself gheraoed by these very greedy, grasping netas who will not just milk it as a business but also alter its very composition. Watch! Bollywood is poised to become India’s most potent propaganda machine. Already one can see the polarisation taking place smoothly and seamlessly, with favoured stars/producers/writers getting feted and rewarded for pushing supposedly patriotic/mythological films and crushing the competition. One can safely predict the names of Bollywood stars who will line up for Padma awards in 2021. Using a Bollywood tragedy to influence Bihar elections is just testing the waters for the big bang to come — the total takeover and makeover of Bollywood.

Strike me dead for saying this, but why pick on women? Bollywood women? From drug suppliers, to peddlers, to consumers and casual users of illegal substances, it would appear the narcotics trail in Bollywood is controlled by women, for women. Breathless questions like, “Will Deepika be arrested?” are tossed around. I am glad to note that her husband Ranveer Singh has put in aformal request to be present during his wife’s questioning at the NCB guesthouse in Colaba. He has cited her “anxiety issues” – and one cannot trivialise those. Is it a mere coincidence the NCB has only summoned a succession of high-profile female stars and their associates (a few men, too, but so far, nobody of any consequence), based on mere WhatsApp chats? When Deepika Padukone, India’s biggest female superstar, with the highest earnings, is called for questioning in what is being called a“clean up”, it is time to question the questioners. Satish Maneshinde, Rhea Chakraborty’s sharp and knowledgeable lawyer has done just that by raising valid points about the intervention of the NCB in the matter. He has called it an “illegal probe”.

Frankly, one feels like asking these overzealous NCB fellows, who are busy rounding up movie stars, whether they have bothered to seriously investigate the real, ground-level state of drug abuse in Mumbai. Have they ever tried to nab well-known drug peddlers who, in the pre-Covid days, used to regularly hang around posh SoBo schools offering a tempting menu of every conceivable drug under the sun to rich school kids? What about the notorious Nigerian drug dealers openly selling narcotics on the streets of Colaba, right under the noses of cops? And is it true that drugs are routinely offered as bribes by political parties to voters? Udta Punjab boldly revealed the rampant use of narcotics in that state – nothing much has changed there. So, by laser-focusing on Bollywood stars and summoning a Deepika for allegedly asking Jaya Saha, “Maal hai kya?” the NCB is revealing its real goal, which is to intimidate and threaten Bollywood celebrities who are on the wrong side of the political fence.

The frenzied media coverage of just one sensational investigation is about to step up and go into further overdrive. As if it wasn’t ludicrous enough for a TV channel to dispatch reporters to tail Deepika’s car from her hotel to the airport in Goa, and report excitedly that “Deepika’s luggage is in the second car”, to socialites chattering mindlessly about the “airport looks” of Sara, Rakul and Deepika, it’s one big tamasha. Observers have been busy analysing and deconstructing the body language of stars after the drugs scandal broke, and pointing out how they now walk around with their heads lowered, no waves, smiles or namastes for the cameras. Look at it this way: In their place, would you feel like greeting mediawallas thrusting their mics aggressively in your face, pummeling and pushing you around while yelling out rude questions? Nothing wrong in keeping one’s head lowered when the occasion calls for it. Bollywood’s humiliation is complete.

Besides, Bollywood is going through its worst patch at the moment, even without the drugs angle. Reference: The repulsive post by someone named Payal Ghosh, with a graphic, vulgar description of what she claims she was subjected to when she visited Anurag Kashyap’s home, in search of a role. Who knows what really happened. But the crude manner in which the sordid story is playing out is sickening. Perhaps for the very first time in Bollywood, one is witnessing a fascinating ‘Ex-Factor’ development, with former wives and girlfriends coming out strongly in support of the accused men.

In Anurag’s case, ex-wife Number 1and ex-wife number 2 have vouched for the man and given him a glowing character certificate. This has inspired the #MeToo accuser, Payal, to tartly ask, “If he is such a nice man, and they love him so much, why did both of them leave him, huh?” Round 2 is now in the wives’ court.

What happens next is worth monitoring closely. The #MeToo movement is comatose in India, and on life support worldwide. More’s the pity. The drug scene in showbiz is one story that may or may not die down as quietly or quickly. A few careers are irreparably ruined. A few more will follow suit. After the bloodbath, will Bollywood turn ‘clean’ and goody goody? Scare tactics work only as long as the heat is on. If Maneshinde succeeds, the NCB sleuths may have to pack their bags, back off and go home. What they are doing is more to grab headlines than actually tackle the drug menace with its multiple tentacles. If they took as much interest and raided a few farmhouses outside Delhi, they may discover more ‘maal’ than they know what to do with.

Till then, ‘Maal hai kya?’ has replaced ‘Kitney aaadmi thhe?’ as Bollywood’s most quoted dialogue.