On Tuesday, The Times Of India published a column by Goa-based writer Vivek Menezes that narrates an incident about writer and disability activist Salil Chaturvedi. He writes:
Like almost every Indian, Chaturvedi loves going to the movies. Though Panaji's multiplex halls remain inaccessible to wheelchair users, helpful ushers carry him to a decent seat. But those fun visits seem over forever now. When the peaceful poet settled in to watch Rajnikanth's latest blockbuster, he was viciously assaulted from behind during the national anthem. The patriotic husband-and-wife duo standing – and ostentatiously singing – in the aisle above took offence that the spinal injury victim could not rise to his feet to parade similarly belligerent nationalism. So the man hit, and the woman shouted, "why can't he get up?!"
Chaturvedi is the son of a career military officer, but he's still not the kind to lash back with violence. Though extremely shaken – and physically hurt - by the unprovoked attack, he simply turned around after the anthem, and asked, "why don't you just relax? Why do you have to get into people's faces? You don't know the story here. You will never know". The bellicose couple again shouted at him about standing up during the anthem, then slowly realized their error. No doubt fearing a police case, they slunk out and left.
This is the India we live in now. An India where patriotism must be displayed at all costs, even if one is literally unable to do so. An India where your nationalism is, suddenly and inexplicably, everybody else's business. An India where retaliation for a cowardly and devastating terrorist attack in Uri, Jammu & Kashmir, is celebrated by a fast food outlet in the form of a discount code that maligns an entire country. As though each and every citizen of Pakistan—all 193,929,596 of them—were guilty of killing 18 Indian Army personnel and generally aiding and abetting terrorism. Because it's not like Pakistan suffers any terror attacks on home soil, ever.
This week, the India we live in now had two victories (well, for some) in a parallel cultural proxy war that is being fought—again, inexplicably—through the medium of cinema. On Monday, in response to a flimsy police complaint filed by one lone ranger, the organisers of the upcoming 18th Mumbai Film Festival decided to cancel the screening of the Pakistani neo-realist masterpiece Jago Hua Savera, a film based on a story by an Indian writer (Manik Bandhopadhyay) and featuring many Indians amongst cast and crew. A small loss for perhaps a handful of cinema geeks, who have missed the chance to watch an important work of South Asian cinema, but a loss nevertheless.
A day later, Bollywood filmmaker Karan Johar finally broke his silence over the raging issue that is his upcoming multi-starrer film, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, slated for release on October 28. Its crime? That it counts among its cast-members Pakistani actor Fawad Khan, who became one of the targets of a hate campaign launched by regular troublemakers Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) — a political outfit that first achieved prominence eight years ago by turning Indians against fellow Indians (a cause they seem to have conveniently forgotten about, by the way). While an association of single-screen theatres has advised its members to avoid screening the film, multiplex owners would have good reason to worry, given MNS' threats of vandalism should the film be screened with Khan's role intact.
In a video statement, in which Johar looks like a man backed up against a wall with a gun pointed at his face, the filmmaker has declared that, going forward, he will "not engage with talent from the neighbouring country given the circumstance". He then proceeds to reiterate, many times, his team's love for the country and implores everyone to not let the work of 300 Indians — the size of the crew that worked on the film, which also stars Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan — go to waste.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is simply collateral damage in a cacophonic, incoherent shouting match that is largely taking place on traditional and social media.
Let's all step back and look at this situation from a distance. On Christmas Eve last year, just 10 months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made headlines for a surprise visit to Lahore, wherein he met his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif for high tea and a hug. Three months later, Kapoor & Sons: Since 1921 — a film Johar co-produced — released to a warm reception from critics and audiences alike. Fawad Khan, playing a pivotal role, received particular praise for his sensitive, nuanced portrayal of a gay man.
This is bigger than just the working relationship between Johar and Khan. What has essentially happened here is that one of the most prominent mainstream filmmakers, belonging to the country's biggest film industry (and one of the largest in the world), has felt the need to cave in to bullying. From what? A fear psychosis created by a political party that has never actually won a major election. The possibility that there will be demonstrations and vandalism in theatres on account of his movie. The fear that many viewers, fired up by this pointless brand of Ultra-Nationalism By WhatsApp Forward, will boycott the film.
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is simply collateral damage in a cacophonic, incoherent shouting match that is largely taking place on traditional and social media. Trade, although said to be "abysmally low", hasn't stopped. The Ministry of External Affairs has made no move to revoke the visas of Pakistani artistes, or regular citizens for that matter. The government has said it has no plans to do that, and has recommended making the process a shade simpler. Hell, the government hasn't even revoked the Most Favoured Nation status granted to Pakistan in 1996 (which has not been reciprocated and can consequently be withdrawn quite easily).
As far as films are concerned, perhaps the most unfortunate fallout of Johar's statement is the fact that everyone else will be forced to follow suit now, as a precedent may have been set.
On a human level, I don't blame Johar for a second for what he's clearly been forced to do. After all, if he hadn't been forced to do it, one would expect that he'd have disavowed working with Pakistani artistes the moment trouble broke out. But he didn't, because it doesn't make any damn sense — for him, at the helm of a film that has an estimated Rs 70-80 crore riding on it, or for anybody else. Our fight against Pakistan is complex and layered, and options available to us are limited by history, territory, and geo-politics. No amount of tokenistic boycotts, either cultural or on the cricket field, have ever helped resolve the problem. All they have done is to deprive the common citizens of both countries—who really just want peace, some economic stability, and reliable infrastructure, dammit—of the pleasures of, say, India-Pakistan sporting encounters and the odd Ghulam Ali concert.
To hyper-nationalists, it feels like a very frivolous desire, to want to see a Pakistani actor on screen, or to listen to a Pakistani musician or watch Pakistani cricketers play. "SOLDIERS ARE DYING IN KASHMIR!" they scream, as a counter-argument to almost anything. "Why can't they take actors from India? What is the need to cast Pakistanis?" they ask, even as they celebrate Priyanka Chopra's ascent in Hollywood. They will listen to no rational discussions about how an ongoing cultural exchange promotes the idea of peace, in addition to humanising the other side. These are people who have forgotten that the very objective of war is peace and would perhaps rather be more comfortable thinking of Pakistan and its citizens as enemies.
As far as films are concerned, perhaps the most unfortunate fallout of Johar's statement is the fact that everyone else will be forced to follow suit now, as a precedent may have been set. As long as this climate of hatred and uncertainty persists, the likes of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Shafqat Amanat Ali, Ali Zafar, Mahira Khan will be targeted, with every producer who has enlisted their services under enormous pressure to take the path of least resistance, just like Johar.
Is this development trivial compared to the threat of terrorism and the lives of young Army jawans? Yes. But is this response helping them in any way? I highly doubt it. What it is doing, however, is adding to an already simmering climate of hate between the two countries — the kind of climate one would imagine preceding some form of armed conflict. Funny thing about war, though — it often results in the death of more than 18 soldiers.