Shobhaa Dé interview: ‘In Bollywood, earlier it was alcohol, now it is substance abuse’

Ritu Jha–

Noted author, editor and columnist Shobhaa De was one of the keynote speakers at the South Asian Literature and Arts Festival (SALA) 2023 held in October at Menlo College in Atherton, California. In an interview with indica, De, 75, spoke abput Bollywood’s patriarchy, its alco-narco culture, the stigma around mental health and her father, whose gait, she said, was that of an army general and how proud she is of him.

“I loved the setting, the response,” she said of SALA 2023. “The visitors were informed, interested, enthusiastic, and encouraging. I loved all the sessions that I could attend, and I can only see it getting bigger.”

She took a walk down memory lane in her chat with indica. “I have enormous regard for what my father represented. His values, courage, fearlessness, lack of compromise on matters of integrity. Every decision he took was with a family-first attitude. My mother and he had a very solid marriage based on mutual respect, and trust. We had a very communicative relationship till the end. Even at 98, he was sharp. His mind was that of a 45-year-old. He walked every single day. His gait was like an army general, was a very self-respecting man with a lot of pride and was self-sufficient. And those are the legacies that I am very proud of,” she said.

De, then Rajadhyaksha and later Kilachand, became an editor at 22, with the famed film magazine Stardust. “I was a copywriter with the person who owned Stardust, Nari Hira. He was a game-changer, he took chances in an unknown market and succeeded. He was clever enough to give a very young, inexperienced person a chance at something that no one would have ever imagined she would succeed at.”

She edited Stardust for close to 12 years, and changed film journalism and writing in India. “It showcased Bollywood without its frills, without cosmetic makeovers and humanized the stars,” she said. “The idea was not to be hostile, nasty, or put the stars down. But how can you talk about show business if it has no masala anywhere in the world?”

She said the show business has itself undergone a massive change around the world. “There is a lot of mythology around showbiz and Bollywood. And it’s not just Bollywood. It’s showbiz across the world. That’s how showbiz functions. It functions on mythology, fantasy, and voyeurism.” 

In one of her interviews, she had said that Bollywood is a separate planet. “It is,” she said. “Bollywood,” she empahsizes, “has always been and will continue to be patriarchal. The women who opt for a life in showbiz know that, and perhaps they opt for it for reasons other than equality. Money, fame. But there’s exploitation. There’s sexualization, objectification.”

She admits there is a huge narcotics culture in Bollywood. “What used to be alcohol culture, is now narco culture. Perhaps even an alco-narco culture. The stress levels are so high that they all need a stressbuster. In the old days, it was alcohol, now you have easy access to whichever substance you want.”

Talking about mental health issues in Bollywood, De added: “It takes a lot of courage to talk about depression or other mental health issues and have open conversations around it. Deepika Padukone launched an initiative a few years ago that dealt specifically with mental health and a foundation that deals with mental health. She herself has talked very candidly and very bravely about her own struggle with depression. Even now there is a stigma, though it’s much less than earlier. I am involved myself because my youngest child is coping with anxiety attacks. I read her post this morning on Facebook, and I’m so proud of her because she has analyzed it so very well. It should not be a silent secret.”

On what has kept her going and relevant, she said: “You have to, first of all, understand the importance of staying relevant for a lot of columnists and people who are public figures, they tend to hang on to a past and get very disconnected with the present. Whereas if you lose the pulse of your readership, if you lose the pulse of your viewership, if you’re living in some kind of a cocoon or in a bubble, then you are doomed as a professional writer. It’s important to be alert at all times, picking up signals that society is throwing at you. I see that as my primary commitment to what I do and staying relevant. I’m deeply interested in monitoring change. I have a sense of curiosity, which is inexhaustible. So, it’s not tough.”

A very outspoken person on print media and social media platforms does she now balance her words before airing her views? “Yes, I do. It’s something that’s imperative and unavoidable, given the environment today that does not encourage the free expression of views or opinions. And it’s too much of a price to pay to go out there and say what you want, because I’m not only responsible for myself, but I also owe a responsibility to my family. And it’s also pretty pointless because it’s expression. Any expression, any thought, any communication, any point that you make which goes against the current mood of the political environment is likely to be either misconstrued and used against you, or most editors will shy away from publishing a columnist who’s speaking a bit too stridently or raising issues that are not sitting well with the current political environment.”

But, does that mean she has become cautious and wary of calling a spade a spade? “Not always, for certain publications, yes. But there are other publications that are still fighting the good battle on behalf of citizens. And I’m glad that I have those platforms because those are completely unfiltered opinions. And so far, my editors have been extremely supportive and the publications have never once tried to in any way inhibit my way of saying what I want to say.”

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