Saturday, November 12, 2016


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An A-Z guide to why and how the director rewrote, re-edited and re-dubbed his film to pre-empt further anti-Pakistan ire from right-wing extremists

By Anna MM Vetticad

I finally re-watched Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM) to rid myself of doubts that have nagged me since I saw it on October 28. (Spoilers ahead)

I watched it particularly for that scene in which Anushka Sharma’s character Alizeh Khan stands on the terrace of what is supposedly a house in Lucknow, speaking on the phone to Ranbir Kapoor’s Ayan Sanger in London. Ayan is reluctant to attend her wedding. I do not have a visa, he says. On first viewing the film, I recall hesitating momentarily over that dialogue. It seemed strange coming from a British-born Indian, a British passport holder to boot, who could surely easily manage a visa to India. I shrugged it off though as possibly just a mindless excuse from a man unwilling to witness his beloved marrying someone else. On the second viewing, however, as I watched ADHM with microscopic scrutiny born of baggage I will explain shortly, I confirmed for myself that Ayan’s remark was not made lightly.

Read Alizeh’s lips, please. The city to which she invites Ayan for her wedding is Karachi, though Sharma’s voice dubbing over those lips says “Lucknow”. Now it makes sense – one constant through years of India-Pakistan tension has been that for people of both nationalities, getting a visa to the other is no cakewalk, thus perhaps prompting a doubt in the mind of even a British passport-holding Indian.

Unless you have been holidaying on Mars in recent weeks, you would know why producer-director Karan Johar might have felt driven to make such a crucial change in ADHM. Following the September 2016 terror attacks on the Army in Uri in Jammu & Kashmir, when Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) demanded a Bollywood boycott of Pakistan, it pointedly targeted ADHM for featuring Pakistani heart-throb Fawad Khan. Imagine the heat Johar would have faced if this violence-prone party had additionally discovered that five characters in his story were Pakistanis.

In the run-up to ADHM’s release, MNS asked why Fawad’s character could not simply be eliminated since it was a cameo anyway. Clearly people with zero understanding of cinema have no clue that every word, every look, every situation adds meaning to a film.

When you are in a theatre, some moments wash over you, impacting the subconscious and influencing your overall experience of a film even when you are unable to explain the exact reasons for your reactions. In my case, ADHM left me with a gnawing feeling of incompleteness. My disconnect with it was mostly instinctive. If I intend to review a film, I usually avoid pre-release promotional material and news reports as far as is reasonably possible, so I was unaware of any media speculation about ADHM on this front. While watching it though, sundry dialogues, Alizeh and Saba’s language and styling made me wonder if they had originally been written as Pakistanis. I remember noticing that Saba’s nationality is unspecified. All we know is she’s a Vienna-based Urdu poet who looks South Asian. Considering that Ayan makes a fuss about them both being British passport holders, it was odd that their country of origin did not come up. Or did it? And were those lines chopped?

I have since seen unconfirmed Internet murmurs about how Johar reworked ADHM. After rewatching the film and contacting multiple impeccable sources in Bollywood, here is what I can confirm: first, Alizeh’s marriage was in Karachi, not Lucknow (or Lahore as some websites have surmised); second, Alizeh, her boyfriend Faisal, her ex-boyfriend Ali (Fawad), Saba (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) and her ex-husband (Shah Rukh Khan) were all conceived as Pakistanis; third, contrary to reports, Johar did not reduce Fawad’s role in the film post-Uri, but he did rewrite, re-dub and re-edit ADHM to scissor out every reference to Pakistan and Pakistanis in the story.

The director has flatly denied all this in an interview I just recorded with him, but an obsessive viewer’s eyes and instincts do not lie.

Note for instance Ayan and Saba’s introductory meeting. He is heading to London from Alizeh’s ‘Lucknow’ wedding, so it is implied that they are at Lucknow airport. Baah! Chaudhary Charan Singh International Airport is a humble, decidedly unpolished affair. Clearly that glitzy lounge in ADHM was originally meant to be in Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport.

Note too Ayan’s girlfriend Lisa’s first encounter with Alizeh and Faisal. The camera is on her back when she tells them that since they are Khans, she practised to say (cut to her face) “Salaam waleikum”. Were we not shown a front shot when she uttered the opening words of that sentence because her lip movements could not be camouflaged by dubbing “both of you are Khans” over the actual line “both of you are Pakistanis”?

This is not trivia or nitpicking. Point is, the spirit and intent of ADHM were drastically altered to pre-empt extremist wrath. An Indian befriending a Pakistani in the capital city of a former colonial power is an idea steeped in potentially beautiful sub-text that is now lost forever. A story of unrequited love involving these warring neighbours takes on far deeper meaning than ADHM has now.

For a cinephile, it is heartbreaking that a filmmaker was so terrorised by pre-release controversies that he changed key elements in his story to avoid further irking fundamentalists. How did we, as a nation, get here?

(This article was first published in The Hindu Businessline’s BLink on November 12, 2016.)

Link to column published in The Hindu Businessline:

Related Link: Anna M.M. Vetticad’s review of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

Related Article by Anna M.M. Vetticad: Crying Beef Over Ae Dil Hai Mushkil: Let’s Expose the Fake Patriotism, Please

Previous instalment of Film Fatale: Hey, Right-Wingers, Leave the Arts Alone

Karan Johar pic courtesy:

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