In what has been described by many as a hostage video of sorts, film-maker Karan Johar on Tuesday pleaded for his film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil to be released on October 28 without violence or disruption. The assertion of his patriotism — that he puts his country before everything else, that he respects the Indian Army and the sentiments of the time — may have made his detractors gleeful but it was disappointing to see a powerful and influential Bollywood personality brought down to his knees by political bullies and coerced into saying that he will not engage with talent from the neighbouring country given the prevailing circumstances.
It happened on the same day a film delegation — comprising Mukesh Bhatt of Vishesh Films, Fox Star Studios CEO Vijay Singh, Disney India managing director Siddharth Roy Kapur and Apoorva Mehta of Dharma Productions — met the commissioner and joint commissioner of police in Mumbai who assured the film all protection against the threats by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), that has been targeting it for having Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in a small role. To see Johar go so defensive then reveals the utter lack of trust and confidence in the city and State law and order machinery. At another level, it is also indicative of how a wave of hysteria can sweep away any signs of rationality in the nation and the society. And, if this is the case with those in the film industry who are supposedly empowered, what to say of the smaller film-makers who have nowhere to run and hide? Meanwhile, the MNS, it seems, is still not in a mood to relent.
A long history of bullying
This ‘capitulation’ may have elicited deep disappointment and outrage but is also not such a surprise especially if you look at the past and find Johar facing similar pressures at the time of the release of My Name Is Khan (when Shah Rukh Khan faced Shiv Sena wrath for questioning the non-inclusion of Pakistani players in the Indian Premier League teams) in 2010 and Wake Up Sid (2009) with the MNS objecting to the use of the word Bombay instead of Mumbai in the film. Unfortunately, there are no assurances against such bullying in the future either.
Johar is not the only one. There has been a long history of cinema falling prey to mobocracy aka extraconstitutional or extralegal censorship. Unofficial threats against films have been springing up at the slightest provocation despite getting cleared by the censors. In 1988, Govind Nihalani’s TV serial Tamas was targeted for ostensibly disturbing communal harmony. Film-maker Hansal Mehta was heckled, his face painted black by the Shiv Sena for an innocuous dialogue in his film Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! (2000) taken amiss by a community. Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania (2005), based on 2002 Gujarat riots, was obstructed by goons at the Goa film festival. In Gujarat the multiplexes refused to play it fearing riots. He was reportedly asked by the multiplexes to get approval from Babu Bajrangi, one of the main accused in the riots.
Often the extralegal censorship gets backed by the States citing law and order problems. The Supreme Court was moved after Vishwaroopam (2013) was banned by the Tamil Nadu government as some Muslim groups found it offensive. Da Vinci Code (2006) was banned in Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Nagaland and Mizoram for hurting Christian sentiments. The Mayawati government in Uttar Pradesh stalled Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan (2011) on the assumption that it showed Dalits in a bad light. Madhur Bhandarkar’s Traffic Signal (2007) didn’t get screened in Himachal Pradesh because the State government found the word “kinnar” for eunuchs objectionable as there happens to be a community of the same name in the State.
Those in the small, independent and documentary field fight extralegal censorship as a routine matter. The screening of Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (2004), on the Gujarat riots, was obstructed at Jawaharlal Nehru University by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activists and by the Hindu Jagran Manch at a film festival in Bangalore. Sanjay Kak found a private screening for friends of Jashn-e-Azadi (2007) stalled by the police in Mumbai.
While the film industry, quite rightfully, has been fighting for an overhaul of the Censor Board, it is time it also braced itself to negotiate censorship by fringe groups as well that seem to operate akin to the extortion by roadside goondas portrayed in countless films. It needs to learn subversion and defiance beyond filmmaking, business acumen and managerial skills and stand together in opposition.
But that is easier said than done. While documentaries and smaller films can take recourse to subterranean rather than mainstream modes of release, the big-ticket films become more vulnerable because of the big money riding on them. No wonder Johar spoke of “300 of the cast and crew”, how it was not fair for them to face turbulence. It gets even more problematic when an already divided film industry finds itself as polarised as the rest of the country.
A new narrative of nationalism
The MNS has capitalised on the Uri attack and India’s “surgical strikes” to manufacture a new narrative of patriotism, confined only to cinema, which implies eliminating everything Pakistan. Opportunistic organisations like Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association and Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India followed suit without pausing and thinking things through. Zee Zindagi has been working towards replacing Pakistani serials with more “international” content. No wonder the Pakistani classic Jago Hua Savera got dropped from Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival with Star on a complaint by a city-based organisation, Sangharsh. A pity when the festival otherwise scores many a progressive point through its selection of some radical films and by honouring the political, Sixth Generation Chinese film-maker Jia Zhangke.
Not only is the current cultural exchange being jeopardised, there is an attempt to sidestep history. This, when we are technically not at war with Pakistan, when the government hasn’t really stopped any exchanges with it. The purging of Jago Hua Savera then is quite in tune with the unofficial sanitisation drive of the times. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has just one Fawad Khan. The 1959 film, directed by A.J. Kardar, however, is a confluence of talent from the then East Pakistan, West Pakistan and India — the screenplay by revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz based on an original story by Bengali writer Manik Bandopadhyay, Indian music director Timir Baran co-composing the music with Pakistani producer-composer Nauman Taseer, and an outstanding performance by Tripti Mitra (of the Indian People’s Theatre Association).
Ali Nobil Ahmad recently wrote on the film in The Guardian : “With Faiz’s poetry, their pro-poor message of justice, solidarity and minimalist riverine aesthetics would not go amiss in today’s subcontinent of bombastic nationalism, chauvinistic religion and unbridled capitalism…” If only one could have seen it.
If this is the case with those in the industry who are ‘empowered’, what to say of smaller film-makers who have nowhere to run and hide?