So despite the brouhaha of the past few weeks, producer-director Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM) finally came to theatres as scheduled this Diwali weekend.
Johar’s film is out on 3,000 screens across India, and early trade reports reveal that it has earned impressive sums of money in its first four days. Many members of the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India (COEAI) — an apex body of single screen theatre owners in parts of Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat and Karnataka — screened ADHM in their halls, ignoring their association’s appeal to skip films featuring Pakistanis. All this despite the fact that Johar ultimately did not pay Rs 5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund, the penalty reportedly demanded of him by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) for casting Pakistani star Fawad Khan in this film.
What then was all the pre-release sound and fury about? Have MNS, COEAI and other chest-thumping ‘nationalists’ overnight forgotten their affection for the Indian Army personnel killed allegedly by Pakistani terrorists in Uri in Jammu & Kashmir on 18 September 2016, which was their ostensible reason for targeting ADHM? What happened to the “patriotic feelings” and “public sentiment” these organisations have tomtommed in the past few weeks in this context? The answers to these questions — complex yet so obvious — expose the hollowness of their much-touted, high-decibel ardour for the country and Indian soldiers. Bear with me while I explain.
In the autumn of 2016, as India hurtles towards a bizarre form of anti-democracy, perhaps it is time to introduce a new expression in our vocabulary: crying beef.
We should have coined it when Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched by a mob last year, allegedly over suspicions that there was cow’s meat in his fridge. Thirteen months later, as we drown in a post-Uri din created by self-styled gatekeepers of Indian nationalism and MNS persists with its demand for a boycott of all Pakistani artistes by Bollywood even post-ADHM, the phrase “crying beef” ought to be entered in the National Thesaurus of Patriotic Pretences.
The practice of crying beef dates back to an era long before ADHM or Akhlaq, certainly before Independence, even before Christ. It is not restricted to India. It possibly took root when Earth witnessed the earliest semblance of human society. Still, Akhlaq’s murder and the ADHM imbroglio are high-profile present-day reminders of its prevalence in Indian society at a time when established and aspiring criminals are latching on to religion and nation like never before to camouflage and/or justify their crimes, often in blatant collusion with the establishment.
When Akhlaq — an elderly Muslim in an Uttar Pradesh village — was slaughtered on 28 September 2015, allegedly on suspicions that he and his family had slaughtered a calf and eaten its meat, news reports told us the following: that police said the attack took place after an announcement about the family eating beef was made from the local temple’s public address system; that police sent samples of the meat found at the victim’s residence for testing, since cow slaughter is illegal in UP; that the family told the press they had mutton in their fridge, not beef.
In subsequent months, the tragedy has taken a further farcical turn with a court ordering an FIR on charges of beef-eating against the dead man and his family this July, while police and media investigations suggest that beef may have been a mask for a very different motive.
Times Now reported in October 2015 that the man arrested as “the key conspirator behind the killing… had a personal enmity with Akhlaq”, according to the UP police, and that he “forced the temple priests to make announcement about Akhlaq’s family consuming beef” (sic). RSS’s student’s wing, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, was quoted in The Indian Express as claiming that the lynching was revenge for one of Akhlaq’s sons being in a relationship with a Hindu girl. The Quint last November quoted an unnamed eyewitness claiming that 8-10 assailants were already in Akhlaq’s house when the proclamation was made from the temple, and that Akhlaq was killed before the mob arrived. Going by that last version, a rumour of beef consumption was allegedly used to incite a mob to help the real culprits escape.
The actual motive behind Akhlaq’s killing may be proved some day. Until then, a crucial angle in this horrendous saga merits scrutiny: that a communal cover (read: beef) was allegedly used by the murderers who knew that this fake story — if indeed it was fake — would sound perfectly plausible to investigators, media and the public because of the beef-related frenzy that had been whipped up by the ruling party and its allies across India in the preceding months.
This then is what it means to cry beef: to cloak personal vendettas, narrow political agendas and petty business interests in the garb of larger national, religious or other communal interests. Read: pretending to back a cause you claim is noble and using that cause to disguise your true intentions. Example: X cried beef to get rid of his enemy Mohammad Akhlaq; or as we have now seen, Raj Thackeray cried beef over ADHM to retain his relevance in Maharashtra politics.
When Thackeray Junior broke away from his late uncle Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena to form MNS in 2006, he managed to divide the Marathi vote. In the 2009 state elections, MNS won 13 out of 288 assembly seats, but was trounced in 2014 with just one seat in its kitty. Mumbai — filthy, smelly and sadly lacking infrastructure — is not short of concerns this Thackeray could take up to win back the votes he lost, but the nephew knows what the uncle always did: that the press takes long to recognise genuine social work, that extra-Constitutional diktats and physical force are a quick route to the spotlight. Proof: the present ruckus over ADHM is the first time since the 2014 debacle that Junior has made national news again.
On the face of it, his party’s call for a boycott of Pakistani talent by Bollywood is an expression of solidarity with the families of the 19 Indian Army personnel who lost their lives in Uri. In reality, the open threats and illegal demand for a donation by Johar to the Army is just another headline-grabbing show of muscle power by the organisation.
Before reports emerged that Thackeray and Johar had reached a settlement, MNS’s Amey Khopkar repeatedly told the press: “We will break glasses in multiplexes that show Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.” The outrage caused by such open declarations of the intent to commit violence served to divert considerable media attention away from question marks over the Uri attack itself and other equally pressing, related problems.
Successive ruling parties in Maharashtra, including the supposedly non-right-wing Congress, have avoided arresting the top brass of both Senas as far as possible because their aggression always served an unspoken purpose. Maharashtra’s present ruling party, BJP, has in all likelihood not silenced Thackeray or Khopkar by arresting them for their pronouncements about ADHM (instead arresting some low-rung MNS workers) because the commotion generated by hooliganism wrests the spotlight away from the BJP at the Centre. The party should rightfully have faced heat for the intelligence failures that led to the Uri massacre in the first place, especially following Union Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar’s own admission that unspecified lapses led to the attack. Instead, follow-up coverage of Uri on prime time television has largely been taken up for weeks now by bigots bullying Bollywood. Parikkar even got to take the moral high ground in the matter by condemning the reported extortion effort by MNS.
If you think about it, it is a perfect formula.
Want to remind the public and press of your existence? Cry beef over Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, picking on a soft target like Bollywood instead of demanding that India should cut off political and business ties with Pakistan. In fact, pick on Johar in particular because you remember that he keeled over in an instant when you threatened to stop shows of his production Wake Up Sid back in 2009 because a character in the film referred to “Mumbai” city as “Bombay”.
Want to help your bosses at the Centre? Cry beef over Thackeray, as the Maharashtra Chief Minister did. Devendra Fadnavis essentially abandoned the Constitution by ‘mediating’ between Johar and Thackeray instead of arresting the latter while he openly attempted hafta vasooli (extracting protection money) from a filmmaker who he was threatening with violence. It matters not that the CM was lambasted from several quarters for his ‘intervention’ because … voila! … he got the diversionary media coverage he wanted.
Pretty much every individual or organisation involved in the ADHM melee has been guilty of similar games.
On 29 September, the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association (IMPPA) – an umbrella organisation of Hindi film producers – passed a resolution asking all members not to work with “any artistes, singers or technicians from Pakistan until… the Government of India declares that all is well with Pakistan and India”. The decision came a day after the Indian Army conducted “surgical strikes” on the other side of the India-Pakistan border. IMPPA’s stated goal was to penalise Pakistani artistes working in India for their silence following Uri and the earlier assault on an Air Force base in Pathankot in Punjab in January 2016. There are wheels within wheels worth mentioning here though.
IMPPA president TP Aggarwal was reportedly responsible for a rumour which spread like wildfire on social networks and off-mainstream, right-wing media platforms after the Uri attack, a rumour according to which Fawad Khan had badmouthed Indians and Bollywood to the Pakistan press, a rumour that Aggarwal could not substantiate when it was traced back to him by journalist Suresh Mathew of The Quint in early October. It is also worth noting that the executive committee member who was the face of IMPPA in publicising this decision is a producer who was little known in the public realm until he began positioning himself on TV channels as a voice of BJP following the party’s 2014 general election win, a self-appointed role for which he was rewarded with a membership of the Central Board of Film Certification a.k.a. Censor Board.
Notwithstanding the rumour-mongering and telling affiliations, ADHM’s release this weekend is not humiliating for IMPPA since they had stated from the start that they would not oppose films featuring Pakistanis that were already under production or complete. The organisation now wiping egg off its face though is COEAI.
On 14 October, almost a month after the Uri attack, with just two weeks to go for ADHM’s release, came news that COEAI had decided that no film with Pakistani artistes would be released in member theatres. One possible theory about this theatre owners’ association’s delayed discovery of its love for the Army is that the planned boycott was a strategy to renegotiate deals with the film’s distributors Fox Star Studios India when they had their backs to the wall close to the release date — a tactic that political, religious and socio-cultural groups and individuals usually use while threatening to stall a film’s release. COEAI Honorary General Secretary Sharad P Doshi denied this charge on CNBC Awaaz on 19 October.
Industry watchers believe COEAI was primarily driven by fear of MNS, a reason it de-emphasised while grandly claiming to act in national interest. This is evident from the fact that once Johar and MNS arrived at a truce, COEAI too initiated noises about softening their stand.
The association now admits that ADHM has been released on many if not most screens under its purview. A member who does not wish to be named points out, “Those who did not show Ae Dil Hai Mushkil probably felt it would not do well anyway in their theatres since the trade has from the start considered it a film better suited to multiplex audiences than single screen audiences while the week’s other release, Shivaay, has been considered better suited to single screens.” (Remember that COEAI covers single-screen theatres, not multiplexes.)
There you have it — another motivation. All that anti-Johar ‘nationalism’, it seems, was a front for economics and opportunism: since single-screen theatres were not expected to attract large audiences for ADHM anyway and since free publicity could be garnered by joining the anti-ADHM herd, it perhaps made sense to COEAI to cry beef over the film’s ‘unpatriotic’ casting.
COEAI president Nitin Datar is now at pains to explain that the association had at no point “boycotted” or “banned” ADHM since “that is undemocratic... We only advise the members.” The truth is a mixed bag. COEAI’s executive committee resolution of 14 October was cleverly worded to be a face saver in case it was disregarded by members: “Keeping in mind the patriotic feeling and in the national interest of our country, we the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India request all our member exhibitors to refrain from screening movies which have any involvement of any Pakistani Artists Technicians etc.” (sic)
However, in interviews, Datar opted for a spot of grandstanding and word play.
To The Times of India (14 October): “Till the relation between India and Pakistan becomes normal, no films with Pakistani actors can be released.” (sic)
To NDTV on the same day: “We have not banned the films. We have said that we have suspend the release. That picture can be released in future. Let the things get normalised.” (sic)
To Sonup Sahadevan of The Indian Express on 17 October: “There is no ban. We have only suspended the release of films where Pakistani artists or technicians are connected. Our decision is that we will not screen or release the movies in our cinemas.”
“Request” … “no film can be released” … “we will not screen or release” — Datar fails to see the contradictions in these utterances. When contacted for this article, he was on the defensive about his association’s flip-flops of the past fortnight. “But we had not boycotted,” he insists. “Ultimately we told them (COEAI members) it is their choice whether to screen the film or not because (police) protection and everything was given, so we said that as protection is also there, if you wish to you can screen the film.” He would not say if a circular to this effect was issued as a follow-up to the 14 October resolution or he is referring to informal conversations with individual members, but the mention of “protection” indicates that the initial move against ADHM was indeed prompted by fear of MNS, not “patriotic feeling” and “national interest”.
Datar is now so incensed by questions that in the same conversation he refuses to disclose the name/s of theatre/s he owns and whether he has himself released ADHM. His embarrassment could perhaps be explained by this note by editor Komal Nahta in the trade magazine Film Information’s 22 October issue: “The whispers doing the rounds of exhibition circles are that cinemas of many of the (COEAI) office-bearers are closed since years and hence the office-bearers have nothing to lose (if ADHM is not released).”
After persistent queries, Datar confirms on SMS many hours later that he owns Uday Cinema in the Mumbai suburb Ghatkopar. It is currently closed to make way for a multiplex-mall. There are few things more hypocritical than flag-waving by those with no stakes in a high-stakes battle.
As Datar & Co. try to extricate themselves from their awkwardness, actor-producer-director Ajay Devgn too finds himself in a bind. In an interview to CNN News18’s Bhupendra Chaubey on 7 October, Devgn — whose directorial venture Shivaay was released on 28 October with ADHM — went along with what the anchor described again and again as Johar’s (and others’) refusal to take a stand against working with Pakistanis because it would hurt his commercial interests. Since Devgn has been explaining to his critics that he was not slamming Johar and other industry colleagues there, let us focus instead on another part of the discussion.
When asked pointedly, “So is Ajay Devgn saying that irrespective of whatever the financial cum commercial consequences you are not going to (a) promote your film in Pakistan, you are acceptable with the idea of your film being banned in Pakistan because most Indian films are being banned in Pakistan, and you are not going to share screen space, any kind of artistic screen space, with any Pakistani artist if the situation remains same?” Devgn replied in the affirmative.
“Not at the moment,” he said. “I’m very clear only because if you go to think, who are you? You’re an Indian first. Okay? Now, people in Pakistan, they have all come together… as you said, that they have banned films. It doesn’t really matter to me my film doesn’t release there.”
It merits a mention that the superstar’s post-Uri “you’re an Indian first” stance against promoting Shivaay in Pakistan is at odds with what media archives from 2006 reveal. Back then, Devgn had no such qualms about participating in the Karachi Film Festival to promote Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara — in which he played the eponymous lead — just five months after the 11 July train bombings in Mumbai. Like Uri 2016, Mumbai 2006 too was linked to Pakistan by the Indian government, intelligence agencies and news reports. In a short span of 11 minutes, seven bombs went off on Mumbai trains that July, killing 209 people and injuring 700.
Perhaps Devgn will explain himself to cynics and well-wishers, and we will learn that his notion of nationalism has changed in the decade since Omkara. After all, people do change their minds, their ideologies and their politics. Perhaps his was shaped back then by the ruling Congress which had not asked its satellites to bully the film industry into boycotting Pakistan at the time. Perhaps it is a coincidence that his new stand comes when Shivaay is pitted against a film starring a Pakistani. Perhaps it is a coincidence too that his current stand against Pakistani artistes has the tacit support of the present ruling party, of which he has been a long-time acolyte.
Perhaps. Sadly, it seems most likely though that Devgn — the quiet worker bee of Bollywood — was simply crying beef over nationalism and ADHM’s casting in the interests of Shivaay.