Karan Johar's statement on the eve of his movie's release and the accompanying breast-beating among our chardonnay-swigging socialists is mystifying, but not unexpected. No sooner has the embers of a phony 'intolerance' debate died down that another crafty narrative has emerged from its ashes.
This new, layered narrative holds that ever since Narendra Modi-led NDA government came to power, India is in the grip of a creeping fascist rule that uses any ruse — such as vilification of poor Pakistan and its well-meaning people — to whip up frothy jingoism which is then utilised as a danda against dissenting Indians. Johar's video message where he proclaims his patriotism fits perfectly as the latest example of such government-sponsored persecution.
Our "desh", cry anguished, indignant 'liberals', has quickly undergone so much "badal" that it can't be recognised from even two years ago. Marauding barbarians are no longer waiting at the gates, they have broken through and are now pillaging the 'idea of India'. The 'secular fabric' is being put through the washing machine of claustrophobic hatred. Armed men in jackboots are putting guns to the head of our artistes and creators and forcing them to say: "yes, yes, I am a patriot too"!
I use the word 'mystifying' because Johar's statement reveals a lot more in the subtext than it does in the words made explicit. And the argument hidden in the subtext is based either on lack of information or a faulty interpretation of events tailored to tap into the victimhood narrative for easy conflation with the larger pseudo-liberal charge of "fascism" against Modi government.
Before I come to the timing of Johar's message, which is no less significant, let's first do away with the cobweb of deception that he spins.
The nub of the debate is that the director's upcoming Diwali release Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM), also featuring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan, is under threat. The threat has emerged from two sources.
One, a body of mainly single-screen theatre owners in four states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Goa have decided not to screen ADHM keeping in mind "public sentiment". The Cinema Owners Exhibitors Association of India's (COEAI) decision is not binding on any of its members.
As Indian Express points out, "only two institutions can disallow a film from playing at cinemas – CBFC and the court of law. No organisation, association or political outfit can threaten or advice to ban a film from cinemas that too after the film has been cleared by the CBFC. Such a ban is illegal."
Great. So what has been the role played by CBFC, a government body?
The Pahlaj Nihalani-headed Central Board of Film Certification has cleared the movie with a U/A certificate. Nihalani has, in fact, criticised the cinema owners for their attempt to stop the screening. Crucially, multiplexes, the target audience for Johar's vanilla flicks, have not sought any ban.
The second threat to ADHM comes from Mumbai-based Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) which has issued a veiled threat against multiplexes. MNS leader Amey Khopkar was quoted by PTI as saying: "We will oppose the screening of the movie everywhere in the state. If any multiplex operator dares to screen the film, they (operators) should remember that multiplexes are decorated with expensive glass sheets".
Though the Central and state governments have had no role to play in these moves, a point is being made that it is the responsibility of the administrative machinery to provide security for the film. Fair enough. Let us take a look at what Devendra Fadnavis administration has done on this front. Can it be accused of dereliction of duty?
A team from Johar's Dharma Productions has met Mumbai Police Commissioner Dattatray Padsalgikar and Joint Police Commissioner (law and order) Deven Bharti. The team, which was also accompanied by Vijay Singh of Fox Star Studios (the distributors) and Mukesh Bhatt (president of Film & Television Producers Guild of India) has sought protection for multiplexes who plan to screen the film from 28 October.
The Telegraph reports that cops have assured all help from their end with Deputy Commissioner of Police Ashok Dudhe clarifying: "Mumbai police will provide adequate protection to cinema theatres as and when required."
It's clear that not only has the government at any level not called for a ban, the administration of the sole state where ADHM faces threats of vandalism from a marginalised political party has promised all help and protection. The cops have assured that all multiplexes and even single screen theaters would be adequately insured and protected. And to suggest that a few non-participating single-screen owners can even mildly affect ADHM's box-office collections is laughable.
So the question is, whom did Johar refer to when he said "it's not fair to scrap the film now. I respect the country's sentiment today. I condemn terror and have immense respect for the Army. But to ban the film is unfair to my crew…"
If the government has ensured protection and multiplexes are ready to screen his Diwali release, why is he so perturbed? The answer, as the newest winner of Nobel Prize in Literature would have said, "is blowin' in the wind."
Johar may not be a critically acclaimed director but as the maker of box office hits, few would know the pulse of the nation better than him. Patriotism might be a dirty word in some conceited circles but it throbs in the veins of unwashed commoners. The consecutive attacks on our soldiers from non-state actors reared, funded and furbished by Pakistan has been the proverbial straw that finally broke the camel's back.
When Indian army moved across the LoC and demolished some of the terror factories, they were also acknowledging that collective call for payback emanating from a billion Indians. A shaker of dreams and mover of emotions like Johar would understand that this impulse, right now, can only be ignored at his own peril.
Johar's statement, therefore, wasn't induced by gun-toting government agents, as some bilious 'liberals' have suggested. It was a belated acknowledgement of that will that is fed up with Pakistan-sponsored terror and disgusted with apologists from this side of the border who routinely justify the million perfidies of that state for reasons best known to them.
A common refrain is that people-to-people connect goes a long way in stabilising and maintaining peaceful a relationship with neighbours, however misguided they are.
If cross-cultural exchanges are beneficial to both nations, why have ties not been normalised despite seven decades of exchanges? Why have we been forced to fight repeated wars against Pakistan despite a thousand ghazal concerts and a million cocktail parties? Why has Pakistan slapped a blanket ban on all our movies and channels? Is the onus of maintaining good relations only our prerogative? Won't business as usual send a signal that Pakistan is to be rewarded for its perpetual delinquency?
Much has been said about Johar's apparent "groveling tone" and how he has been unjustly forced into compliance. The self-shaming is an invocation of the same narrative that sees fascism behind every ticking of clock.
Truth is, the government has made it amply clear that visas of Pakistani actors will not be revoked and they are free to work as before and that people-to-people exchange will continue. In absence of a tangible reason, Johar's "groveling tone" is therefore a clarion call against public mood that is in favour of a spontaneous boycott. It is this that has sent the chill in his spine.
Johar kept mum till he realised that he may be hit with a financial loss. In his words on not casting Pakistani actors "Going forward I would like to say that of course I will not engage with talent from the neighboring country given the circumstance," there is still a sense of outrage. The subtext is that of a war that he doesn't recognise and has no stake in.
After all, the mortars that rain on our border, the bullets that pierce the walls of our villages are far removed from his glitzy stratosphere. The world that the likes of Johar and Bhatt inhabit is different. They spreads love in eternal spring, guided by mellifluous ghazals that speak of common ancestry while our men in uniforms ring up relatives of a 24-year-old sepoy to tell them that their breadwinner has "attained martyrdom".
As a retired Indian Major recently wrote in an open letter: "Will sending Pakistani artists back, stopping cricket and business with Pakistan actually end terror from Pakistan? No, it most certainly will not. But there is an emotion called solidarity. You cannot make films, play cricket and do business as if everything is fine, because it is not. It makes the soldier wonder aloud, “Why should I alone bear the weight of conflict?"
For our 'narrative-makers' though, Johar's attempt at 'martyrdom' rings truer than the deaths of a hundreds of Sudhees Kumars. Sudhees who?