Bollywood’s newest A-lister tackles caste, sexual violence

Indian Bollywood actor Ayushmann Khurrana takes part in a promotional event for his Indian crime thriller Hindi film ‘Article 15’ in Mumbai. (AFP)
Updated 27 June 2019
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Bollywood’s newest A-lister tackles caste, sexual violence

  • It is rare for Bollywood to give top billing to two of India’s weightiest subjects
  • The film’s title refers to the section of India’s constitution which outlaws discrimination

MUMBAI: A young man with erectile dysfunction, a pianist who pretends to be blind, and a sperm donor raking in the cash: unconventional roles have catapulted Ayushmann Khurrana into Bollywood’s A-league.
Now the 34-year-old, one of the most popular actors in Hindi cinema at the moment, is set to tackle two of India’s weightiest subjects — caste discrimination and sexual violence.
Khurrana plays an upper-caste police officer assigned to investigate the rape and hanging of a low-caste woman in “Article 15,” which hits screens across India on Friday.
Such cases are depressingly common in the pages of India’s newspapers, but it is rare for Bollywood — renowned for its cheery song and dance routines — to give them top billing.
“This practice has been going on for decades. With a film like ‘Article 15’, the discussion about caste discrimination comes into the mainstream,” Khurrana said.
The film’s title refers to the section of India’s constitution which outlaws discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex and place of birth.
The movie — directed by Anubhav Sinha — drew inspiration from several true stories, including a 2014 gang-rape and the 2016 flogging of a low-caste Dalit family.
It is a departure from Khurrana’s usual roles in family comedies, and Sinha was initially skeptical about casting the actor as police officer Ayan Ranjan.
“Ayushmann is aware of his branding as a family audience, which is why at first even I could not see him in this part. But I was stoked by his keenness and conviction for this subject matter,” Sinha said.
Khurrana began his career in theater, moving onto radio and reality TV before debuting in Bollywood in 2012 in the romantic comedy “Vicky Donor” where he played the sperm donor.
He gained widespread acclaim for “Shubh Mangal Saavdhan” (Beware of Marriage) in 2017 before notching two of the biggest hits of 2018, a year when several industry superstars flopped at the box office.
In crime thriller “Andhadhun” (The Blind Melody) he played a pianist who is the only witness to a murder; in “Badhaai Ho” (Congratulations), a shocked 25-year-old trying to deal with the news that his middle-aged parents are expecting their third child.
“After the success of the last few years I feel able to make courageous choices and choose radical cinema,” Khurrana said in a phone interview.
“The films I am doing are about content, credibility and respect,” he added.
Khurrana’s stock is on the rise outside of India too. “Andhadhun” recently grossed $43 million in China to become the third-highest grossing Indian film there ever.
He believes streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime are increasing the reach of Indian films that break the usual Bollywood mold, and in turn spread his popularity, among India’s vast diaspora.
Khurrana returns to type for his next two offerings: “Bala,” where he will play a man trying to cope with premature balding, and “Dream Girl,” both due out this year.
He will then shoot alongside Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan, before playing a homosexual man from a socially conservative family in “Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan.”
Khurrana hopes the latter movie will help change attitudes in India, where gay sex was illegal until September last year.
“(A)... cruel bias against homosexuality still exists,” he said.
“A subject like this needs a mainstream actor and certain tonality to reach a larger population and start a conversation,” the actor added.


Why ‘Gone With the Wind’ eclipses both ‘Avengers’ and ‘Avatar’

Updated 14 min 7 sec ago
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Why ‘Gone With the Wind’ eclipses both ‘Avengers’ and ‘Avatar’

  • The $402 million taken in by “Gone with the Wind” after its 1939 release places it in a paltry 285th position in raw dollar terms
  • That compares to $2.7902 billion for “Avengers: Endgame,” which this weekend just squeaked past the “Avatar” total of $2.7897

NEW YORK: Even as Disney confirmed Sunday that “Avengers: Endgame” had become the top-grossing movie ever, film historians noted that “Gone With the Wind” still has a strong case for being the most successful film of all time.
The $402 million taken in by “Gone with the Wind” after its 1939 release places it in a paltry 285th position in raw dollar terms. But that ignores the huge role of price inflation over time.
The epic historic romance, set during and after the US Civil War, sold the enormous 215 million tickets in the United States, far and away the record in that category, according to the Internet Movie Database. It’s box office was boosted by seven national releases between 1939 and 1974.
“Gone with the Wind” would have sold $1.958 billion worth of tickets today in the US market alone, based on what the National Association of Theatre Owners says was an average US ticket price in 2018 of $9.11.
Worldwide, and with inflation taken into account, the film would have taken in a stunning $3.44 billion, the Guinness Book of World Records has estimated.
That compares to $2.7902 billion for “Avengers: Endgame,” which this weekend just squeaked past the “Avatar” total of $2.7897.
Consider also that the US population in 1939 was a mere 130 million, roughly 200 million less than today.
For some, however, the success of the epic film — it runs three hours and 58 minutes — is troubling.
With a story line based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell, some historians see it as one of the most ambitious and successful examples of Southern revisionism.
Immediately after the Civil War (1861-1865), there was a broad push in the US South to cast the formerly slave-holding region in a softer light.
Those purveying the so-called “Lost Cause” ideology insisted that the Southern states had fought not to preserve slavery, but because the North was infringing on their political independence.
Yet in their declarations of secession from the Union, the Southern states were clear about their primary motive: the Northern states’ refusal to extradite escaped slaves and their “increasing hostility... to the institution of slavery,” as South Carolina’s declaration stated.
“Slavery is not even a critical issue in the movie,” said Kathryn Stockett, author of “The Help,” about black maids in the South in the early 1960s.
“You have these African-Americans that are working for these white families, and it’s as if it’s just their job... something they chose to do,” Stockett says in the documentary “Old South, New South.”
For Randy Sparks, a Tulane University history professor, “Gone With the Wind” exemplifies the way Southerners were able to impose their version of events.
“There aren’t many cases in history,” Sparks said, “where the losers write the history.”
It was thanks to “Gone With the Wind” that in 1940 Hattie McDaniel, who plays Scarlett O’Hara’s faithful slave “Mammy,” won the first Oscar awarded to a black actress.
But racial segregation was still deeply rooted in Hollywood, as in many parts of American society, and on Oscar night McDaniel had to sit at a small table in the rear of the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel, far from the film’s big stars, Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable.
Producer David O. Selznick had to intervene personally to secure her a room in the Ambassador, which refused to admit black customers until 1959.