Karan Johar's Abject Video is Just the Beginning of the Times Ahead

It is easy to criticise the filmmaker, but with barely any support from within the industry and the threat of violence, there was little else he could do

Ranbir Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai in Karan Johar's Ae Dil Hail Mushkil

Ranbir Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai in Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil

Watching the short video of an abject Karan Johar pleading – like an errant student pulling his own ears – that he will never again make mistake of using actors from a “neighbouring country” one cannot but help asking: who wrote the script and who directed it? Where is that flamboyant, confident and colourful Karan Johar we know so well and admire? Here is appears to be caught in one of those hostage situations, where the victim is made to admit that he is a spy, probably just before he is executed.

In a way, he is a hostage, not just to a small political party that openly threatens to ‘teach a lesson’ to all those who use Pakistanis in their films, but also to the growing belligerence in our polity which makes it almost impossible to tolerate a diversity of opinions. Yesterday it was the very word ‘intolerance’ that was a red rag, today it is ‘Pakistani actors’, tomorrow it could be something entirely different. Once the mob – some of it on the streets, others in television studios and on the social media, still others working smoothly behind the scenes – decide that straying from an agenda is unacceptable, nothing can save the naysayer.

Johar is an intelligent man, with a lot of common-sense and a creative mind, all of which show in his public statements and in his cinema. When the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena first ‘demanded’ that Pakistani actors in Bollywood be sent back in the aftermath of the attack on Uri  – they had all left India by then in any case – Johar, whose film Ae Dil Hai Muskhil had Fawad Khan in its cast, pointed out that a ban on Pakistani actors was no solution to terrorism. He was not just referring to his own film, he was also standing up for a principle.

Yet, within days, he capitulated and not just by issuing a press statement but in a video mea culpa of sorts, declaring that he would never use a Pakistani actor again. What changed?

One can only speculate what happened behind the scenes, but a few public developments could provide some context. On Monday, just three days before the opening of the 18th Jio MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Images) film festival, the organisers pulled out Jago Hua Savera (Awake, it’s Dawn) a 57-year-old Pakistani film from its line up. A curt press release said that the film had been dropped due to “the current situation.”

The same day, at a public event where he was interviewed, industrialist Mukesh Ambani said that for him, “the nation came first, not arts and culture.” Ambani’s company Jio is the main sponsor of the film festival. The film, made in 1959, is a fine example of India-Pakistan entente in the arts, even if it harks back to another time.

Just a few days before that, in the aftermath of the MNS warning to drive out Pakistani actors, The Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association, a body of filmmakers, also declared that these actors would not be allowed in Hindi films. The central government had not issued any such instruction, but unbidden, the film industry was already falling in line.

Actor Ajay Devgn, a self-proclaimed fan of prime minister Narendra Modi, pitched in by saying that he personally would not act with Pakistani actors. “We cannot isolate ourselves from the nation.”Devgn’s own film Shivaay is ready for release on October 28. And not surprisingly, his statement is being seen as a tactical ploy to prevent Johar’s film making it to the theatres.

Cinema owners in Mumbai declared they would not screen these movies. They expressed fears their establishments could be attacked by violent MNS activists.

Twelve MNS activists who barged into a cinema to threaten the staff were arrested and the state’s chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said that violent protests would not be allowed. The state government has not made any statement, one way or the other, on Pakistani actors in Bollywood. Nor has the Central government, though I & B Minister Venkiah Naidu has said that “there is an atmosphere of anger at Pakistan in India and people from all walks of life have to be mindful about it.” (He has also helpfully said that the media “should understand national interest.”) It is not difficult to read between the lines.

At the best of times the Mumbai film industry is divided into several ‘camps’ and rarely, if ever, takes a united stand on anything. Now it is getting polarized and publicly so. The ‘nationalists’ are taking a hard line, and most others are staying quiet, fully aware that remarks can be twisted and frenzied criticism from ‘trolls’ and politicians can be swift and ugly. On television shows, pro-government film personalities have been hitting out at those who argue otherwise. Bollywood is now a divided house, with barely a handful – Salman Khan, Anuraag Kashyap and Priyanka Chopra among them – standing up and being counted. Amitabh Bachchan, whose daughter in law Aishwarya Rai Bachchan stars in Johar’s film, has remained silent, though recent reports suggested that he had gifted a watch to Raj Thackeray’s son after receiving a cartoon sketch of him drawn by the MNS chief.

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that Karan Johar must have felt beleaguered, even scared. It is easy to criticize him for not taking a stand for free speech or even for the sorry tone of his video but with large sums of money at stake and the threat of violence in the air, he may have taken a call to make a public declaration. The matter will not necessarily end there, since the MNS claims it will continue protesting against the release of the film and cinema owners are chary of showing it.

Shahrukh Khan’s forthcoming film Raees has Pakistani actor Mahira Khan in it and is also a likely victim of the proposed ban by the cinema owners. In it he plays a criminal don in Gujarat. He is also said to have a cameo role in his friend Karan Johar’s film.

Johar’s wretched video statement is only going to encourage the forces of bigotry and hatred. Raj Thackeray, who is desperate to become politically relevant is undoubtedly happy that he got this level of attention, but the culpability of creating and nurturing this intolerance, all in the name of the ‘nation’, goes far beyond him. The film industry is a perennially soft target because of its high profile and its swift buckling in to any such pressure, but don’t be surprised if soon, reading Pakistani authors or being Facebook friends with Pakistanis or even writing about that country could be declared anti-national. Any of us could then be turned into Karan Johar.

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