India, as it is today, has been polarised to such an extent from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, that you would dare not openly discuss and engage a stranger, or someone you have just met, in a political discussion.
This umbrella term 'political discussion' here encapsulates varied topics - from a conversation over our GDP to the state of minorities in the country, over demonetisation to getting accused as an anti-national because you woke up on the wrong side of the bed.
Our film industry often gets dragged into political conversation because quite simply put, as much as the industry wouldn't like to, one cannot have a piece of the pie without paying a price for it. As such, actors and filmmakers are expected to take a political stand on government policies. If you say something that remotely does not toe the government line, you become an anti-national and consequently, you are dropped by the brand you are a face of. Or your film takes a hit. Or your patriotic credentials are questioned. Or you are bullied till you apologise.
Since cinema, being an audio-visual medium, is the easiest, cheapest, most accessible form of entertainment and consequently, psycho-social reform in the country, what can filmmakers do to address the fast-changing socio-political and cultural landscape of our country?
Will they simply concentrate on producing cinema that strictly adheres to the mass-market, bourgeois standards and rarely challenge them? Or will they make films that can make the country's people question the status quo, give voice to the voiceless and force the audience to get uncomfortable and critically engage with the content of the film, not just as consumers but as free-thinkers? Or do our filmmakers have no faith in the intelligence of our country's people and are willing to let matters slide even as they are repeatedly put to ransom by politically-backed thugs over one pretext or another?
What is political cinema?
Is political cinema that which Prakash Jha makes? A story cobbled together from headlines with a simplistic, infantile description of complex issues headlined by top stars and some Arijit Singh numbers?
Is political cinema that which Ram Gopal Varma makes? A loud, bombastic re-telling of events, involving political parties, that have stopped being common knowledge and have become myth?
Is political cinema that which Anurag Kashyap makes? Genre films where the characters come off the street and in a matter-of-fact way give voice to political thought before they are killed, maimed or decapitated?
Or is political cinema the one which Aamir Khan makes? A populist narrative of young students coming together and taking charge to vanquish the corrupt ruling class even if that involves violence?
As much as the current crop of filmmakers, from the Kashyaps/Dhulias/Bhardwajs to Ghaywans/Motwanes/Behls, are lauded for bringing an international finesse to our storytelling wherein Indian films have begun to get closer to the best of international cinema than they were in the last 40 years, something vital is still missing in our films.
We need more films that make the status quo accountable and pose questions to the mainstream narrative.
For instance, Dibakar Banerjee's Shanghai, itself an adaptation of a politically charged novel, which questions the concept of urban development that more often than not comes at the cost of displacing the voiceless, the poor, the lower class, those that do not figure in the images of mainstream cinema.
We need more films like Gurvinder Singh's Chauthi Koot which takes place in '80s Punjab right after Operation Blue Star and shows the condition of an entire community fearing the law and the State simply because of their religious identity.
We need more films like Nagraj Manjule's Sairat where a story of caste-based violence is told in the guise of a conventional, commercial poor boy-meets-rich-girl-and-elopes narrative complete with five songs and masala moments.
We need more films like Q's Tasher Desh, an adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore's play of the same name, where rap music, colours, erratic editing, cryptic dialogues and discombobulating montages crash against each other to provide an essential commentary on sexual and political reawakening.
True political cinema challenges the mainstream; the mainstream in content, the mainstream in narrative technique, the mainstream in form and the mainstream in production.
While a film like Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab challenges the mainstream in content by showing us a different, darker and push-under-the-rug side of Punjab, Sriram Raghavan's Badlapur or Anurag Kashyap's Wasseypur films play around with the narrative structure a la Tarantino but within the trappings of mainstream cinema. On the other hand, while Q, Amit Dutta or Kamal Swaroop experiments with absolute disregard for mainstream cinematic form, somebody like Onir is political in his means of producing films, for example, his National Award-winning I Am was crowd-funded by donations through social media.
Most importantly, our filmmakers should challenge the very definitions of what political cinema is. Just making a film with a Muslim gangster as the protagonist or painting cultures of protest in a campus as Maoist conspiracies does not make a film political.
If at all our filmmakers consider their cinema as art and if they believe that art is meant to educate and inspire and not just entertain, then they better make more films that are genuinely political, films that shake up the establishment in all its manifestations.
(The writer tweets as @devarsighosh.)