Monday, June 26, 2017

… AND THE GAMES THE THACKERAYS PLAY

Sparing Hindi Medium, Raees and Dear Zindagi, attacking Ae Dil Hai Mushkil for featuring a Pakistani star – how Mumbai’s first family of cultural policing cherrypicks their controversies

By Anna MM Vetticad

(A version of this article was published in The Hindu Businessline’s BLink on June 17, 2017.)


It is Bollywood’s sleeper hit of the year, having quietly completed five weeks in theatres and grossed Rs 68 crore-plus at domestic turnstiles so far, in the midst of the high-decibel hype generated by the marketing teams of more high-profile films. Hindi Medium starring Irrfan Khan and Pakistani artiste Saba Qamar appears to have found its popular appeal with a combination of comedy, charismatic leads and, above all, a theme that has resonated with the masses.

Wait…

What was that again, you ask?

She’s Pakistani, yet the Mumbai-based nationalist crowd has not been up in arms, as they were last winter over Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil starring her compatriot Fawad Khan?

What happened to all that rhetoric about “honouring our soldiers dying at the border” by boycotting talent from the other side, following the Uri terror strike?

These are questions the film industry and mediapersons discussed in whispers around the time Hindi Medium arrived on the big screen, but avoided raising in public for fear of giving ideas to violence-prone social and political organisations or bruising their egos to the point of driving them to action despite their disinterest. Such groups tend to strike films in the immediate pre-release period, because that is when producers are most vulnerable and most prone to succumb to unreasonable demands. That is also when a controversy is prone to attract headlines, which is any violent protesting group’s primary goal. Now that Hindi Medium is nearing the end of its theatrical run, having been swept out of most theatres by Hurricane Salman’s Tubelight, it is safe for us to have this prickly discussion.

Between October 2016 and May 2017, at least four Hindi films starring Pakistanis have come to Indian theatres, but extremists have obstructed only one: Ae Dil Hai Mushkil released on October 28, 2016. Raj Thackeray and his party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), with the tacit support of the present establishment at the Centre and the state, harangued Johar to such an extent over Fawad, that the panicked producer-director issued an abject apology and went so far as to rewrite, re-edit and re-dub his film at the last minute to change a crucial aspect of his storyline: that Ae Dil was originally an India-Pakistan love story, albeit set in London, in which Anushka Sharma, Fawad Khan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan and Fawad’s fellow countryman Imran Abbas were all playing Pakistani Muslim characters.

(For details of the alterations made to the film, please read my column titled “How KJo reworked Ae Dil Hai Mushkil”, published on November 12, 2016).

Johar also did nothing to quell rumours that he had donated Rs 5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund, as “penance” stipulated by Raj for the transgression of casting Fawad in Ae Dil. Contrary to news reports claiming that the Army rejected this payment, sources in the film industry and defence establishment tell me that Johar made no such payment in the first place, therefore there was no question of rejection by the Army. However, Johar’s silence on the false stories being circulated in the media helped Raj to further strut his fake bravado.

Just weeks after Ae Dil, Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi starring Alia Bhatt and Shah Rukh came out on November 26, 2016. Dear Zindagi starred the Pakistani actor-singer Ali Zafar in a crucial supporting role, yet did not elicit a whimper of protest from Raj Thackeray and his goons or his estranged cousin Uddhav Thackeray and the Shiv Sena, who together form Mumbai’s first family of cultural policing.

India-Pakistan relations had not miraculously normalised in the four weeks between the two, so to understand the difference in extremist responses to Ae Dil and Dear Zindagi, it is important to travel back in time to October 2, 2009. It was the morning of the release of Johar’s production Wake Up Sid starring Ranbir Kapoor and Konkona Sen Sharma. On discovering that characters in the film were referring to “Mumbai” as “Bombay”, MNS threatened to block it. Hearing reports of vandalism on Day 1 at theatres screening Wake Up Sid in the state, Johar rushed to Raj’s home to seek forgiveness, thus gifting him and the relatively new MNS an important political victory in a fracas clearly cleverly created by the party to gain some mileage just days before the Maharashtra Assembly elections.

Since Johar had keeled over so quickly, he was marked out as an easy target for any state leader wishing to stress his regionalist or nationalist credentials. And so, shortly afterwards, Cousin Uddhav decided to use him to score a point in a game of one-upmanship with Cousin Raj. The SRK-starrer My Name Is Khan (MNIK), directed by Johar and co-produced by him with Shah Rukh’s Red Chillies Entertainment, was scheduled for an early 2010 release. Uddhav decreed that Shiv Sena would not allow MNIK in theatres unless Shah Rukh expressed regret for remarks made a short while earlier about the need to include Pakistani players in the IPL.

Shah Rukh, not Johar – big mistake.

Bullies usually avoid attacking unknown quantities, opting instead for tried-and-tested victims. Where Johar may possibly have complied to save his film, Shah Rukh refused. MNIK was released despite hitches, it went on to become one of the year’s biggest hits, and Cousin Uddhav ended up with egg on his face. Scorecard: Raj – 1, Uddhav – 0.

Now fast forward to 2016, and you may see why Raj was confident that grandstanding over Johar’s film would pay off whereas targeting Dear Zindagi (a Shah Rukh-starrer and a co-production between Johar, Shinde and the star’s home banner) could be risky. What if he or Uddhav had demanded contrition for the casting of Dear Zindagi and been asked to take a hike? What if… There is nothing a bully fears more than losing face.

Besides, both Thackerays understand news cycles and would have known that sustaining the ruckus for another four weeks after Ae Dil’s release would have been near impossible. However sensational a headline may be, the media tends to move on, and organisations like the two Senas are nothing without the spotlight on their aggressions.

This is not to say that Shah Rukh is unbendable. The political atmosphere in 2017 is poles apart  from 2009-10 when Maharashtra’s Congress chief minister Ashok Chavan had expressed disappointment over the Wake Up Sid imbroglio. “Johar should have approached the police or the government instead of going to any individual or party for sorting out his grievances,” Chavan had been quoted in the press as saying back then. The left-of-centre Congress was in power at the Centre and in the state, and though the party has not always been consistent in its opposition to fundamentalism, Shah Rukh may have taken a stand on MNIK with a reasonable expectation that both governments had his back. As it happens, his instincts were right. It turned out that Chavan was not spewing empty words earlier about Wake Up Sid and did indeed provide My Name Is Khan with security and moral support.

India in 2017 is a different country, the far right-wing BJP is in power at the Centre, and a BJP-Shiv Sena combine rules Maharashtra. Not surprisingly then, in the run-up to this January’s release of his home production Raees in which he played the titular lead, Shah Rukh held a pre-emptive meeting with Raj. The actor’s team projected it as a courtesy call unrelated to Raees, no doubt to assuage the disappointment of Shah Rukh’s constituency of liberals. MNS, on the other hand, tomtommed their claim that the star had met Raj to assure him that Pakistani actress Mahira Khan – Raees’ heroine – would not be coming to India to promote the film.

However saddened a liberal may feel by Shah Rukh’s decision to legitimise Raj as an extra-Constitutional authority with punitive powers, it must be acknowledged that the star managed his dignity far better than Johar did in the wake of the Wake Up Sid and Ae Dil episodes. Besides, the sound and fury that MNS typically generates over such issues was missing in the case of Raees, making it clear that Raj felt the need to tread on eggshells around SRK.

News of their rendezvous and the MNS chief’s reduced chest-thumping reminded me of a scene from the film Fan last year in which Shah Rukh’s character Aryan Khanna is warned by his manager about a particular obsessive fan. She says: “Ek baar sorry bol do na. Sanki hai voh.” (Just say sorry once. He’s whimsical / unpredictable / a madcap.) Aryan shoots back: “Acchha, aur main kya hoon?” (I see, and what am I?) Raj Thackeray knows that when a star has proved himself to be “sanki in these matters, a hoodlum would do well to handle him with care.

That then is a deconstruction of the games the Thackerays play: they are so transparent, that they would be laughable if they were not dangerous, and they are entirely reliant on a potent mix of a gullible public, pliable public figures, overt or covert support from the establishment of the time and – sadly – journalists who do not ask the right questions.

This brings us to the silence of both Senas on Hindi Medium. It is not as inexplicable as you might think.

A spokesperson for the production company T-Series confirms that during the Ae Dil episode they had informed Raj that they finished shooting Hindi Medium long before the Uri attacks and promised not to use Qamar for the promotions. The ego massage he got from that communication notwithstanding, Raj would in any case have known that raising the same issue within just eight months would yield diminishing returns in the media – remember he left a gap of eight years between Wake Up Sid and Ae Dil. Besides, Saba Qamar is not as familiar a face in India as Fawad. To target her film when she and her nationality are not widely known among audiences would not have been as politically rewarding as targeting Ae Dil had been.

Likewise, controversy over a small Irrfan-starrer would probably get less media space than a massy KJo production or a Shah Rukh-starrer. Even back in 2009-10, Raj’s clash with Johar over Wake Up Sid was a whisper in comparison with Uddhav’s run-in with SRK over My Name Is Khan, a factor not just of the alacrity with which Johar succumbed in the first case while Shah Rukh did not in the second, but also of MNIK’s scale, the magnitude of SRK’s stardom and the blockbuster track record of the SRK-Kajol-Johar hero-heroine-director combination.

In any case, Hindi Medium’s marketing campaign was cleverly designed by T-Series to emphasise its theme rather than its cast. That theme – language and class snobbery – is a pet cause of the Sangh Parivar at large and the present Central government whose spokespersons routinely demean opponents proficient in English by labelling them the “Lutyens elite”. The ruling BJP is therefore unlikely to have backed an assault on Hindi Medium, since it could have ended up being a self-goal.

Like the late Bal Thackeray before them, Raj and Uddhav cherrypick their controversies with great thought. Keeping all the above factors in mind, sparing Hindi Medium would have been a no-brainer for them.

Link to the version of this column published in The Hindu Businessline:


Previous instalment of Film Fatale: “A Lament for Banglawood”

  
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