Bollywood doesn’t need Russell Peters’ torch. It needs a flamethrower
Yes, Russell Peters probably dislikes Bollywood, but why is that surprising? Half of Bollywood hates Bollywood. Assistant directors will tell you how messed up actors are. Directors will tell you how messed up studios are. Writers will tell you how messed up the whole system is. They complain about stars who can’t act, who charge too much, and who offer too little. And yet they thrive; film journalists let them live with these opinions without public inquisitions demanding the truth about what and who they’re referring to.
Peters’ transgression was grave—it was obvious the moment he made it—because his criticism of Aishwarya Rai was painfully specific. He made the classic mistake of the outsider: naming names. Worse still, he used her as an example of the malaise afflicting Bollywood. No one told him that because we dislike rocking boats here, we speak of things in general. So we say ‘politicians’ when we mean ‘Sharad Pawar’ (check out the opening story in this issue’s Small World section). We say ‘actors’ instead of Aishwarya Rai, or Abhishek Bachchan, or Katrina Kaif or Sunil Shetty. The complicity of the film journalist, who believes different rules apply to his profession here, begins with the realisation that access is everything, and so to report criticism without providing a defence of some kind could lead to professional difficulties. Doors close, phones ring a little less, breaks are harder to come by, and one morning you find a horse’s head in your bed.
A system this comfortable takes its traditions very seriously. It spends much time and effort preserving invisible lines that take outsiders years to master. It is unforgiving of transgressions like Peter’s. Heck, ask Vivek Oberoi. The critical are shunted to Bollywood’s periphery, a wintery place filled with art filmmakers and NRI producers. Of course, Peters will suffer no such fate. He will return home, where he intends on keeping his day job making people laugh, and appearing in movies whose processes are unfamiliar to much of Bollywood. Meanwhile, we here are left with Rai and others whose fortunes are determined by their face. To have to live with this year after year, without pause, with little respite—now that’s offensive.