Sometime ago, we were having a spirited discussion on another blog about stalking in cinema influencing impressionable youth. At the time, apologists for the trope came up with several reasons why it wasn’t ‘all that’ problematic. One of the reasons frequently brought up as a rationalization was that cinema reflected society, and therefore couldn’t (shouldn’t?) be held solely responsible for young women being attacked, abducted, molested or even murdered. Never mind that no one asking to hold filmmakers responsible was saying that films were the only reason for these incidents, or even that they were the most important. All we were saying is that change needs to come from somewhere, and since cinema has such a huge reach and is an even bigger influence than most media, filmmakers and actors need to be a bit more responsible in what they show and how they show it. Pat came the response(s) that films and actors were a ‘soft target’; they were easy to blame, so ‘others’ could avoid blame. We were quick to deny that. Out of that denial came our petition that Iswarya, a post-doc student turned activist, is single-handedly pushing through. While she fights the good fight, other issues have begun roiling up, once again involving films.
Where stalking is concerned, I have no qualms about pointing the finger at cinema for exacerbating a social issue. By normalising such behaviour, by glorifying it as ‘true love’, by trivialising the consequences, films have given ‘stalking’ a respectability that the Indian legal system does not confer on it. Of course, it’s only been a few years since ‘stalking’ has become a criminal offence, subject to punishment.
Today, however, I am on the other side of the fence, arguing that films and film-makers should not be subject to the policing of a few, that they should not be held to ransom by people who are quick to take offence where none is intended, that someone, somewhere is ready to take offence at something, and that films are the first casualty. I don’t see my stand as being hypocritical or myself as practicing a double standard where films are concerned. For the two issues at stake are different.
Background: In the last week of September, a terrorist attack on the army base at Uri, Baramulla District, killed 19 soldiers and injured several others. It was one of the deadliest terrorist attacks on security forces in recent times. India retaliated with a surgical strike at the terrorist camps across the LOC. So far, so good.
Now: Why am I writing about a political issue/current events on a film blog? Because, somehow or the other, films become roiled – peripherally, perhaps – in the backlash. Tension between the two countries is understandably high. The unnecessary deaths of our soldiers have ignited the embers of nationalism, and that is understandable too. I can understand the mood of the nation. I can empathise with the urge to not have anything to do with the enemy.
Three big films, one a week from release, others racing to completion, have become mired in controversy. All of them have Pakistani actors in important roles: Fawad Khan in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Maheera Khan in Raees, and Ali Fazal in Dear Zindagi. The Uri attack and its aftermath led to all three films being blocked; a regional party decided to show its ‘patriotism’ by demanding that the Pakistani artistes be replaced in all these films; if not, they vowed, they would vandalise the theatres that ran these films. The producers of the films were threatened with bodily harm. Basically, what Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) did, was to hold these films to ransom. While Raees and Dear Zindagi still have some time to cope (the last I heard, Maheera Khan is out of Raees), it is Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil that’s at the centre of the storm.
Raj Thackeray just ignited the dynamite; social media erupted with patriotic messages and anti-Pak rhetoric, and slurs and accusations of anti-nationalism against Johar. Then single-screen theatre owners and the distributors’ organisations got into the act as well, making a decision not to screen Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The IMPPA (Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association) banned the signing of any Pakistani actors in Hindi films.
The argument from the self-declared patriots is that there’s enough talent in India; why should Johar sign Pakistani actors? Well, these people celebrate Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone making inroads into Hollywood. They take pride in every single achievement abroad. If it's validated by the Westerner, it becomes acclaimed in our country. That’s okay, then.
Also, why pick on films alone? As far as I know, we have trade relations with Pakistan. Why aren’t we asking our businesses to end all ties with our neighbour? Why don’t we tell our politicians to stop making unofficial stops and sharing cake with their counterparts? No? All Raj Thackeray and his goons can do is to pick on films as the softest target they can find. Especially a film that is vulnerable because it is so close to release.
It is a shame that a political party with no teeth at all can hold a city, an industry, to ransom. It is despicable that they can associate a foreign actor working in an Indian film as an insult to the soldiers who were martyred at Uri. Or that they think that banning a film is supporting the soldiers who died in the terrorist attack. It’s alarming that that their petty brand of jingoism is what passes off for patriotism/nationalism today. It’s horrifying that Karan Johar was forced to his knees in front of a man who is not fit to shine the shoes of the soldiers who died.
Should Karan Johar, or anyone else, sign a Pakistani artiste at a time when tensions are simmering between the two nations? When the hostility between the nations has prompted Pakistan to ban Indian films and television programmes in the country? Of course not. It would be the heights of irresponsibility to do so. However, it probably doesn’t occur to Raj Thackeray, the thugs who make up his party, or the sloganeering multitude (or they simply don’t care) that when Johar signed Fawad Khan (or Red Chillies and Excel Entertainment signed Maheera Khan or Gauri Shinde signed Ali Fazal) , it was at a time when the relations between our two countries was relatively peaceful. It was at a time when our Prime Minister was visiting his Pakistani counterpart both officially and unofficially. [Questioning that made Anurag Kashyap 'anti-national' as well.] Somehow, Johar’s action in signing an actor, any actor, for his film is a direct insult to the soldiers martyred at Uri. By arguing that he had every right to sign Fawad Khan who was legally allowed to work in India, and had a valid work visa issued by the Government of India, I’m probably being anti-national and unpatriotic as well.
So, after two weeks of stewing in silence, one of the industry’s most-respected film makers broke his silence to tender an abject apology. Looking like a man at the end of his tether, like he was forced to speak (figuratively) at gun point, he apologised for hurting the sentiments of the nation, and swore ‘not to work with artistes from the neighbouring country’ – he couldn’t even say ‘Pakistan’. He begged to be allowed to release the completed film – already cleared by the Board of Film Certification, and therefore legally allowed to be screened – because it would be unfair to the 300 members of the Indian cast and crew to not release the product of their blood, sweat and tears. [As one newspaper report put it, he looked like a hostage in a ransom video; only here, he was both victim and had to pay the ransom himself if he wanted to be free.]
And to whom? To a two-bit politician who gets off on making threats of violence and vandalism? Threats that are both illegal and that he has no right to make? For Johar has done nothing against the law of the land or the spirit of the nation. Raj Thackeray, on the other hand, has threatened the personal safety of an Indian citizen like himself, and harm to his property and that of others.
The result? In a lawful society, Raj Thackeray would be (should be) behind bars. In our India, in today’s India, he’s giving sound bytes on how this is a ‘victory’. Yes. Karan Johar caved, and who can blame him? The government that swore one day to protect him and see that Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is released without incident bent its knee the next day before a common thug, and licked his boots. Devendra Phadnavis, our other fearless leader, met Raj Thackeray along with Johar and the producers’ guild, and instead of clapping Raj Thackeray and his stupid sena behind bars, cravenly agreed to all of Thackeray’s demands.
Johar will insert a slide with a tribute to the martyrs of Uri. He will not work with Pakistani artistes ever again. And he (and the producers of the other movies) has to ‘donate’ Rs5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund.
The soldiers' deaths have become a political bludgeon. Paranoia and hatred have won. State-sanctioned terrorism is alive and well. Long live India! Jai Hind! Bharat Mata ki Jai!
Postscript: Since I wrote this diatribe, I hear that the Army is furious at being pulled into this row. They have insisted that the Army Welfare Fund cannot accept 'extortion money' (yes, that’s exactly the word that retired Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, former military secretary, and retired Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur have used) – that is ‘tainted’. Other senior Army officials have slammed the MNS’s extortion saying that all Army donations have to be voluntary, and that the Army reserves the right to reject any donation if they know it has been made under duress.
It will be interesting to see if Raj Thackeray has the guts to go against our Armed Forces and insist upon the blood money being paid (and accepted). Or whether he is satisfied at being the king of his little jungle, having shown his claws to a group of people who are vulnerable to his threats because it affects their lives and livelihood.