A dark turn in the city of dreams

Illustration: Keshav  

On Saturday, October 22, representatives from the Film and Television Producers Guild of India Ltd., Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray, and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis met in Mumbai to resolve a month-long predicament facing film-maker Karan Johar and his soon-to-be-released movie Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The meeting lasted between 45 and 60 minutes, during which several proposals were reportedly put forward.

At the end of the meeting, Mukesh Bhatt, the president of the Producers’ Guild, announced that a voluntary donation of “a certain amount” would be made to the Army Welfare Fund, regardless of whether the film makes a profit or not. If the film turns in a profit, there would be further donations, the Guild said. Mr. Thackeray later pronounced to the press that this amount was “penance money of Rs.5 crore to be paid as tribute to the armed forces”.

The Guild also agreed to not cast any Pakistani actor in their movies in future. Mr. Johar said he would put a slide to honour and pay tribute to the armed forces before the slide honouring his late father Yash Johar appears on screen.

‘Political extortion’

This development raises many questions. A democratic society should not only ask them, but also be able to weather the uncomfortable answers. What does it say about the state’s inability, or unwillingness, to stand up to extra-constitutional threats? Two, should the Chief Minister’s office be used to broker a deal between two parties, instead of asserting its authority and standing up to hooliganism and ensuring law and order? And three, what does it tell us about Mumbai’s fading status as a hub for liberal, progressive political discourse when the Chief Minister plays mute spectator to what many would term political extortion?

To be sure, Mr. Johar, Mr. Bhatt, and the rest of the Hindi film industry do not come out of this looking very good either. If the support to the Indian military comes as an afterthought because a film’s massive investment is at stake, even the most apolitical, non-opportunistic constituencies would get angry. This sentiment is evident among the Indian public, the same people who would fork out hundreds for a ticket. To argue that film-makers are not involved in politics, or are not influenced by it, is a weak excuse, a cop-out. Mr. Johar and his colleagues in the Hindi film industry have done exactly that.

Mr. Johar was, like the rest of us, not aware of the sudden turn of events and the anti-Pakistan sentiment being whipped up. It is a simplistic explanation, however, to a complex situation. Therefore, we must get back to the questions at hand.

The first is to ask is how the MNS (or any political party, for that matter) can presume, and be allowed, extra-constitutional power to enforce a ban on cultural expression, be it films, books, plays, cartoons, paintings, stand-up comedy, etc, solely because it does not cohere to its ideology, or because it allegedly hurts nationalist sentiments.

A history of caving in

There is a significant difference between a call for boycott and a ban. A boycott is a democratic way of protest; indeed it is something our freedom fighters quite effectively used against the British. A ban, on the other hand, refuses to acknowledge the citizen as an individual who can think and decide for herself, and imposes the will of the state on her. This is not only unconstitutional, it is also an assault on the democratic principles upon which our Republic was established — that the first and foremost duty of any government in any democracy is to protect its citizens’s freedoms and rights at any cost.

The Ae Dil Hai Mushkil episode is not the first time that the freedom of expression has been sought to be suppressed. In 1988, the Rajiv Gandhi government prohibited the import of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses following complaints by Muslim organisations. In 2004, a little-known outfit named Sambhaji Brigade in Maharashtra attacked the renowned Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune because James Laine had used it to research a book about Chhatrapati Shivaji, a passage from which they were objecting to. In 1998, painter M.F. Husain’s house was attacked by Hindutva outfits for his paintings depicting Hindu goddesses. In 2005, then aged 90, he left India and lived out the rest of his life in exile. The list is endless.

One could argue that these cases did not have patriotism or nationalism as the basic point of dispute, and that Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is different because it has a Pakistani actor in a small role at a time when India is attempting to isolate Pakistan diplomatically for state support to terror acts targeted at India.

Diminishing the Chief Minister’s office

Coming to the second question: why was the Maharashtra Chief Minister’s office — irrespective of who occupies it — used to mediate and broker a deal between a film producer and a political party? In fact, why did Mr. Fadnavis, who also holds the Home portfolio, not stand up to MNS hooliganism by assuring adequate protection to Mr. Johar for the screening of his film?

Brokering a peace deal between warring factions can be a noble cause. This wasn’t the case here. It was akin to a case of a school bully taking on a soft target, and the principal deciding to side with the former. Let’s not forget two things: one, it was the Union government (led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, to which Mr. Fadnavis belongs) who gave (and continues to give) work visas to Pakistani actors; and two, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had announced last week that all measures would be taken to aid the release of the film.

With his inability to stand up for the politically weak and succumbing to threats of violence, the Chief Minister has set a precedent for similar protests in the future. It is a dangerous template, and enough vigilante groups will see the terrain to be easy for political pickings. Mr. Thackeray’s party, which has negligible clout in the State legislature or in policymaking, has been trying to retain its public relevance by consistently using threats of violence against chosen communities (migrant workers from north India, the film industry, etc), threats that are eventually ignored by the state.

Silence, in such cases, is complicity, and let’s not pull our punches, the Chief Minister’s silence speaks volumes.

In Maharashtra, Mr. Fadnavis has been surrounded by political fires in the last three months, the biggest being the silent Maratha agitations across the State with a cumulative 1.25 crore people having protested on the streets. To placate them, the State government introduced a new education quota. That has clearly not worked, as the silent marches continue, and the anger simmers. And now, by tacitly agreeing to Mr. Thackeray’s demands, even while coming across looking as a mediator, Mr. Fadnavis has weakened the office of the Chief Minister.

‘Bombay meri jaan’

This brings us to the third question, that of the idea of Mumbai itself. The city has been defined by its various qualities, but three things stand out: it has historically stood for liberal thought, respect for law and order, and embracing newcomers as its own. This openness has been under attack for many years now. And by siding with Mr. Thackeray, the Chief Minister has struck another blow against the city’s ethos. It is for this reason that Mr. Fadnavis’s role in the Ae Dil Hai Mushkil imbroglio is yet more disturbing. He has activated a vicious vortex, and being the astute politician that he is, he will soon realise that there is no way out.


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Printable version | Nov 23, 2021 5:08:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/A-dark-turn-in-the-city-of-dreams/article16079550.ece

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