Intolerance and Section 377: Karan Johar's click-bait lines are perfectly timed for his upcoming biography

Sreemoy Talukdar

Jan 23, 2016 14:26:33 IST

One isn't sure whether Karan Johar was testing the waters by throwing a click-bait line and watching the response. Maybe he is silently compiling the reactions for a sequel — My Name Is Khan And I Am Not Intolerant.
That would certainly make sense.
Or maybe he thought a literary event — that stays clear of controversial figures such as Salman Rushdie and focuses on the Dinanath Batras instead — was the best forum to drop a few pearls of wisdom to prove his "secular" credentials. One cannot accuse KJo of double standards. He has always raised his voice against the oppressed and those discriminated against by the Kafkaesque Indian system. And he has always stood by his peers.
Whether Salman Khan or gun-toting Sanjay Dutt, Johar has always tweeted his support for unfairly targeted and tortured souls.

When Dutt was jailed for five years by the Supreme Court in connection with 1993 Mumbai blasts, Johar took to Twitter:

So it is only natural that Bollywood's star director, in solidarity with his heroes Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, will now take over the mantle of "Preacher of Tolerance" at a time when the Khans seem to be suffering from a disconcerting lack of confidence. One has even done a spectacular somersault and admitted that he was wrong. No doubt browbeaten into falling in line by

File photo of Karan Johar. AFP

File photo of Karan Johar. AFP

India's famously intolerant public.

Speaking at the Jaipur LitFest on his upcoming biography An Unsuitable Boy, Johar said: "I feel bound on every level, be it what I put out on the celluloid or what I say in print. I feel like there is always some kind of a legal notice awaiting me everywhere I go." Johar said he didn't want to fight the "governance" by speaking out on intolerance.

"Look what happened as a result of anyone who said anything on it. I make movies, I'm fighting megalomaniac movie stars every day. Do I need to fight the governance?

"We're fighting the censor with every film. You write anything, you can't say anything. How are we democratic then?

"Freedom of expression is the biggest joke in the world... Democracy is the second biggest joke I think."

If he was talking about the inherent, generic problems in democracy, the perils of unfettered freedom of expression, one cannot disagree with him. In itself and viewed without context, Johar is right.

We do have a state that is strong in laws and weak in implementation. The power structure can easily be subverted by the rich and the mighty. The individual — an artist, a cartoonist, a filmmaker or an author is forever at a disadvantage vis-à-vis interest groups who exploit the state's weakness by calling for bans — whether on beef, books, cartoons or anything that the group finds offensive.

Our society is inherently racist, misogynistic and forever on the brink of getting offended.

But the problem lies in Johar's airing his views only now and attempting to spin his comments around a mischievous, counterfeit narrative that India has become all these things ever since BJP and Narendra Modi came to power on 16 May, 2014: A narrative that has time-and-again been shown to be devoid of merit, and unsupported by data. It relies on a politically-motivated perception and is a law unto itself, cherry-picking convenient cases to self-justify.

Johar is guilty of double deception.

For one, he belongs to that privileged class for whom state protection is never too far away. The state and its arm — the police — will always intervene on his behalf leaving him free to do pretty much anything he wants. By making it personal, KJo is guilty of misappropriating and trivialising a very real problem faced by people denied his privileges. Two, Johar's flippant observations are cynically aimed at feeding the narrative of minority persecution. Like the people of his ilk, he will never highlight instances that do not fit the narrative like Raza Academy's fatwa against Oscar-winning music director AR Rahman for working in film on Prophet Muhammad.

The likes of Johar will remain silent on jihadists from Kerala’s Popular Front of India chopping off the hands of Professor TJ Joseph.

Johar will show his solidarity with a Sunjay Dutt, but never for Shirin Dalvi, editor of the Mumbai edition of Urdu daily Avadhnama, who has multiple cases filed against her for reproducing the controversial cover of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. It is possible that the star director, busy with his daily schedule in a protective, conceited tower of ivory may not even be aware of these cases. That does not mitigate his hypocrisy.

The truth is, if anything, the Modi government has been exemplary in its tolerance of dissent. There has been an explosion of free speech in India and the prime minister himself has been called the vilest of terms. He has been called fascist, accused of being complicit in the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri; he has been called a coward, liar and a psychopath. Each of these have gained wide publicity in the media. The prime minister has done the right thing by ignoring these attacks. So to now claim that there has been a crackdown on freedom of expression under Modi's watch is a spectacular, fantastic lie.

Johar, in his too clever by half comments, also tried to portray himself as some sort of a victim in the other minority persecution — the one against India's LGBT community.

Talking about section 377 of the Indian penal code, which criminalises same sex relationships, Johar said "It's a hurdle we need to combat."

"You can change the way the governance works, but how do you change the sensibility of the average man in the house? It doesn't matter what bill you pass and what dharna you do until the DNA or the mental fabric (of society) changes," he said.

Short of making Dostana, which lightly touched upon the subject of homosexuality, the director isn't known to have ever lent his voice for the plight of India's sexual minorities. It is a long and arduous battle and things didn't get any better for the community when Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s bid to introduce a private member’s bill to decriminalise gay sex was rejected in Lok Sabha last December.

The issue, however, requires a sustained campaign — definitely more than a vanilla ice cream comment at a LitFest, and one that is perfectly timed to fuel fan interest in the upcoming biography about Johar's own sexual orientation. The Bollywood director seems confused in his battle to suddenly present himself as the champion of tolerance and a victim of societal persecution against sexual minorities. His comments smack of opportunism and convenience.

Whatever Johar's motive though, his facetious attempt at raking up a clichéd, pretentious, phony debate has not added anything except turning on the olfactory nerves of India's "secular" parties who scout the nooks and crannies of this vast democracy 24x7, sniffing for a whiff of the right kind of intolerance. And they have wasted no time. Slipping on a pair of haute Karan Johar gloves, they have jumped into the ring and landed a few more punches on their favourite targets — the BJP and Narendra Modi.

Johar said he always looks to remain in the news.

On Friday, he showed just how to do it.

Updated Date: Jan 23, 2016 14:27:06 IST