View from here - Bullying row taints Bollywood

22nd January 2010 at 00:00
Education groups in India are angry about blockbuster's 'glorification' of initiation rite, says Michael Shaw

It is hard to travel far in any of India's major cities this month without seeing the grinning face of actor Aamir Khan. On the walls of shacks and office buildings, at bus stops and train stations, appear posters for his latest film 3 Idiots - a blockbuster which has swiftly become the highest grossing Bollywood film ever made.

In many of the posters Mr Khan appears alongside his two co-stars, their smiling heads poking out of a row of barrels. But a series of controversies about the film have, at least temporarily, wiped the smiles off the actors' faces. For 3 Idiots has been blamed by education groups for a new wave of "ragging", a form of bullying in schools and universities similar to the "hazing" of students joining American fraternities.

As well as showing such an initiation rite, the film features a key scene in which a character kills himself. Some campaign groups are now also accusing the film of sparking a series of youth suicides at the start of this month.

In Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, three teenagers committed suicide in 24 hours. Among them was 13-year-old Sushant Eknath Patil, whose body was discovered by his teachers in the toilets at Shardashram Boys High School.

The state government of Maharashtra, in which Mumbai lies, has announced it will now review the film. Vijaykumar Gavit, its medical education minister, told the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) that if 3 Idiots contained "provocative" scenes which could have prompted the suicides or ragging, the state would write to the Central Board of Film Censors asking it to act.

Ragging in educational institutions has been the subject of national concern in India for more than a decade, with several states outlawing it, and strong action taken by the Indian Supreme Court.

The angriest attacks on the film have come from the Coalition to Uproot Ragging from Education, which published a study last year suggesting that between July 2008 and June 2009, 12 people died and five others attempted to commit suicide because of ragging.

Harsh Agarwal, head of the coalition, said that 3 Idiots' director Raj Kumar Hirani had also promoted ragging in his previous film. "The movie is glorifying it, treating it as a subject of fun," Mr Agarwal told the IANS. "This must end as hundreds of students across India suffer a lot due to ragging."

But the film's star has hit back. Asked about the suicides at a press conference, Mr Khan said: "The film is actually about anti-ragging. It's about problems in our education system. It tells that we shouldn't stress our kids for the career that we want them to pursue. Kids are telling us that after seeing this film their parents will understand them better."

Mr Khan was backed by one of the few people who is an even greater Bollywood star: Amitabh Bachchan. He defended 3 Idiots, saying it sent out a "strong message" on the education system, and that it was ludicrous to blame it for ragging, as the problem has existed for many decades - including during his own student days, when he was a victim of it.

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