Why did Karan Johar Surrender to the Right Wing?

He’s one of the most powerful men in Bollywood, but you wouldn’t guess from his video apology

ByDeepanjana Pal
Why did Karan Johar Surrender to the Right Wing?
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Raise your hands if you knew in September, when Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) first threatened Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM), that eventually, director Karan Johar would tender an apology to clear the way for the film’s Diwali release? In the age of cynicism, it’s impossible to take anything we see on the media at face value. News – particularly online and on television – is like a desi version of The Truman Show, only without a Truman Burbank. Everyone’s playing a part, everyone knows where the camera is positioned, everyone knows someone’s watching.

On the face of it, the controversy over Pakistani actor Fawad Khan’s presence in ADHM has followed a predictable path. Soon after the terrorist attack in Uri, channels like Times Now began questioning whether Pakistanis should be allowed to work in the Indian film industry. While they frothed at the mouth and made liberal use of Khan’s face in their visuals, the actor quietly made his way back to Pakistan. His name was removed from promotional material (take a look at the film’s trailer and teaser on YouTube – there’s no longer any mention of Khan in the descriptions). Johar maintained his silence as did both the State and Centre.  

When the Cinema Owners Exhibitors Association of India (COEAI) — made up mostly of single-screen owners — announced that it would not screen ADHM, it was still considered part of the publicity act. There were snide murmurs questioning if this was the latest chapter in the catfight between Johar and Ajay Devgn, whose new film Shivaay releases on the same day as ADHM. Devgn’s publicity machine had first accused Johar of paying reviewers and then classily sent out an email with the subject “Shivaay has No Pakistani Actress” soon after the first MNS threats. Unrelated to conspiracy theories surrounding Devgn, the fact was that single-screen owners were the most vulnerable to MNS going on a rampage. After all, they don’t have the kind of security and protective layers that multiplexes do. No matter how successful a film is at the box office, if there’s damage to property because of protestors, that has to be paid for out of pocket.

Bollywood’s enfant terrible Anurag Kashyap joined the fray with a series of tweets that questioned why Narendra Modi was not expected to apologise for his visit to Pakistan, which coincided with the shooting of ADHM. The obvious answer to that question was that the Centre had not banned Pakistani actors or suspended relations with Pakistan. It was just maintaining a not-so-diplomatic silence while others in India made these demands, redefined ‘patriotism’ and declared the likes of Johar “anti-national”. Whether this means the government is dismissing MNS or giving the rabid leave to attack Johar depends on how supportive you are of the present administration.

However, Kashyap is absolutely on point when he writes, “I refuse to live in the fear created by blind fanatics that you cannot have a conversation with your PM or question him.” In fact, he probably stands a better chance of getting a reply on Twitter than most journalists in touch with the Prime Minister’s Office.

On Monday, after ADHM’s producers met the Mumbai Police to request security for theatres, the head of MNS’s film wing, Amey Khopkar, said, “If any multiplex operator dares to screen the film, they (operators) should remember that multiplexes are decorated with expensive glass sheets.” That must have reassured everyone.

Two days later, Johar released his video apology.

There was a time when interest was stoked in a film by suggesting its lead pair was a real-life couple. Now, instead of rumours, films rely on raising hackles. What else can they do? The culture pages have been systematically dropped by Indian newspapers, which means there’s little space to talk about the craft of filmmaking or writing. Cultural journalism now means puff pieces in the supplements and if you want to get in the main paper (or the prime sections of a website or news channel’s programming), controversy is the standard way to score that prime spot. It worked well for Goliyon ki Rasleela: Ram-Leela. Shah Rukh Khan had done it before the release of Dilwale. Why else was Om Puri suddenly on news channels, right after the release of his Pakistani ‘debut’, Actor in Law and before the release of that seminal film, Yeh Hai Lollipop?

Under the circumstances, when ADHM landed in the quicksand of nationalism, in its own warped way, the whole fiasco made sense.  

Because let’s face it, no one should take MNS seriously anymore. This is a political party that lost all its seats in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly elections of 2014, and now boasts of a grand total of one out of 288 seats in the state’s Vidhan Sabha. In the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), MNS has 27 corporators (out of 227) and in its 2012 elections, 63 MNS candidates performed so badly that they lost their security deposit.

In short, if Mumbai was Sadhana’s face, MNS would be the infamous fringe – much-discussed, floppy and cosmetic.

What could this little speck of desperation, masquerading as a political party, do except bluster against Johar, one of the most influential people in Bollywood?  

Yet, listen to Johar in his video apology. He’s painfully careful, cautious and speaking in English – which means he’s not reaching out to the Hindi-speaking “masses”. He’s hoping to be heard by the Anglophones who have traditionally been considered either neutral or apolitical. He doesn’t utter the word “Pakistan” — it’s “the neighbouring country” (as though India has only one neighbour. Good thing there’s little chance of actors from Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh getting miffed that Johar has accorded such primacy to Pakistan).

In the video, Johar doesn’t just apologise. He buckles completely. “Of course I will not engage with talent from the neighbouring country, given the circumstances,” says Johar. Why does this sentiment merit an “of course”? What is logical about that statement? Is every Pakistani a terrorist and therefore to be excommunicated? Are we at war with our neighbour? Why does it take an ‘apology’ as abject as this for Mumbai police to sit up and say that it will offer security to all theatres that screen ADHM?

Johar’s surrender isn’t in isolation. Earlier this week, the Mumbai Film Festival announced that it would drop the Pakistani classic, Jago Hua Savera, from its lineup after there were protests from a Right-wing group called Sangharsh. This is unheard of — the festival space is supposed to be an oasis where, rather than country and ideology, craft and creativity are privileged. If there’s something ‘wrong’ in a film, then it’s discussed and debated; not dropped.

Ironically, part of the problem is how much more professional Bollywood and Mumbai’s film industry has become. There are big players backed by bigger companies. Mukesh Ambani’s newest baby, Reliance Jio is the Mumbai Film Festival’s primary sponsor. The money from corporate sponsors like Reliance is going into bringing in high-profile guests like Cary Fukunaga, Jia Zhangke and Miguel Gomes, and films that have won acclaim internationally. ADHM is distributed by Fox Star Studios, a joint venture between two firms owned by Rupert Murdoch (20th Century Fox and STAR). The balance sheets aren’t just reflecting the state’s present projects, but laying the ground for the future. The corporations’ focus is on being able to continue doing business in India. For that, if a certain ideological line has to be towed, so be it evidently.

The word “culture” carries within it the idea of growth. Looking at the way we’re reacting in present-day India, it’s worth considering just what is growing in the environment we’re creating. Self-censorship, anxiety, fear, surrender — this is what we seem to be encouraging. Those who have worked on the Mumbai Film Festival and ADHM will ask what alternative they have. Risk earning a black mark that will foreshadow their every move in the near future and the ire of elements that the State seems unwilling or unable to control? Why bother?

It’s tempting to expect resistance from the creative set, from heavyweights like Johar. However, let’s not forget the generation of Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh Khan are the first Muslim heroes to not need a Hindu stage name. Bollywood’s liberalism has always been behind closed doors — in the private lives of a few, in nuances inserted in stories and lyrics. By and large, the industry maintained a distance from mainstream politics until relatively recently, when stars like the Bachchan family were roped in to campaign for political parties. When it comes to handling politics, Bollywood is ungainly and so, it’s choosing to focus on the fact that it’s a business and ignoring how the industry has entered a downward spiral now that it’s become more prolific, professional and profit-oriented. Films earn less on an average, blockbusters are harder to score and there’s more fear than freedom of expression.

Particularly with the virtual lynching by conservative trolls — let’s face it, the Right has way more vicious an internet army than what passes for Left in this country — that’s become part and parcel of public life today, it’s tempting to draw parallels with how Hollywood dealt with McCarthyism in 1950s’ America. All those who were suspected of harbouring Communist sympathies were targeted and blacklisted. People in both the media and the film industry gave up names of colleagues they suspected of being Communists. It’s starkly similar to the situation that we’re cultivating in India. Instead of Communists, it’s Muslims and “anti-nationals” who are on the conservative radar.

There’s something telling about the fact that the infamous House of Un-American Affairs Committee – the HUAC interviewed people to determine their ideological leanings – particularly targeted writers in Hollywood. Their fear was that Communism was being subtly disseminated through the film’s storytelling. In India, on the other hand, we appear to be satisfied with attacking the mouthpieces — the actor. Let’s hope there’s a Bollywood Ten that will be able to use this shallowness to nurture a contemporary Indian culture that is worth championing and isn’t characterized by surrender.

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