There remain and will always remain, on both sides of the India-Pakistan border, peace-loving citizens who will reach out to each other and say: “I friend you for life”. And the movie supports this message.
Karan Johar is caught between a rock and a hard place. The Hindu right forces led by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) have forced him to pay Rs 5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund as ‘penance’ for casting a Pakistani actor in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM), while the liberals are castigating him for capitulating to the belligerent and unreasonable demands of the MNS. A dangerous precedent has been set. But is Johar alone responsible for the situation? In the lead up to the five-crore extortion masquerading as patriotism, the Motion Pictures Producers Association (IMPAA) announced that they would not allow Pakistani actors and technicians to work in India. Fearing for their safety, a number of Pakistani professionals left the country. The only person to protest against the ban was Rahul Aggarwal, son of IMPAA president T.P. Aggarwal, who then resigned from the body and expressed his dissent in a Facebook post.
Following in the dubious footsteps of IMPAA, the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India (COEAI) declared that their members would not screen movies that feature Pakistani actors or other professionals. The COEAI represents over 400 single-screen cinemas in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa. Their decision was clearly designed to affect ADHM, which stars Pakistani actor Fawad Khan. Except for a few outspoken people, of whom Shabana Azmi has been the most fearless, the entire industry has chosen to remain silent, opening their mouths only to placate the pseudo-nationalists. Vivek (Hate Story) Agnihotri, for example, said, “I think Pak actors instigated such a response by not showing any sympathy for victims of terror.”
The Bombay film industry’s capitulation to Hindu right groups has more than a 20-year history. In 1993, the BJP and the Shiv Sena launched an assault on Bombay cinema by disrupting the screening of films, banning stars of Pakistani origin and boycotting ‘anti-national’ stars like Dilip Kumar, A.K. Hangal and Azmi because they had attended Pakistan day celebrations. They also alleged that Bombay cinema was disrespectful to the Hindu religion. BJP spokesman Ramdas Nayak told Filmfare (July 1993): “A rape scene takes place in a temple and smuggled goods are stashed away under holy idols. If a smuggler is a foolish character he is inevitably a Hindu and if he is a charitable character he is either a Muslim or a Christian. We will not allow such things anymore.” The face-off resulted in a treaty between the BJP and the Film Makers Combine (FMC) which sought to curb the “deterioration of cinema culture” by prohibiting “insult to the Hindu faith”, the “promotion of anti-national elements” and predictably, “body exposure”. The BJP-Shiv Sena’s attack on Bombay cinema had taken many liberals by surprise. Wasn’t Bombay cinema the repository of conservative Hindu right values? Evidently not. It would appear that the Sangh Parivar was quicker to sense the subversive potential of popular culture. Is it possible that something similar happened with ADHM? What if the outrage against the casting of Khan was just a red herring? What if the Sangh Parivar had figured out, sooner than others, what the film was really about?
ADHM is about a rich scion Ayan Sanger (Ranbir Kapoor) who falls in love with the sparkling and feisty Alizeh Khan (Anushka Sharma). Alizeh cannot reciprocate in exactly the same way but insists that she loves him all the same. When Alizeh marries the love of her life Ali (Fawad Khan), Ayan gets involved with Saba Khan (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) an Urdu poetesses divorced from her artist husband who educates Ayan about the pleasures of one-sided love. Towards the end of the film, the thin plot contrives to reunite Ayan and Alizeh who are now single again and together they assert the power and strength of friendship. Alizeh had always regretted the lack of a Bollywood-style ‘airport scene’ in her life when her lover would arrive to stop her from leaving. In the climax of the film, it is Ayan, her “bestestest” friend, who fulfils that desire. The film ends with the two friends holding hands and taking a vow of loyalty. “I friend you for life,” says Ayan while Alizeh repeats the same. Perhaps no Bombay film in recent years has placed so much dramatic intensity in the love that is called friendship.
Alizeh tells Ayan that love is about “junoon” (passion or obsession) while friendship is about “sukoon” (peace and comfort). Notwithstanding the seeming binary of such a formulation, the intimacy of the two protagonists plays out over the terrain where love and friendship collide. “When lovers break up, they leave each other,” says Alizeh, “and I never want us to leave”. In its exploration of this landscape of ambivalent emotions, ADHM returns us to the two films that inaugurated this preoccupation: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Karan Johar, 1998) and Dil Toh Pagal Hai (Yash Chopra, 1999). More importantly, it returns us to Bombay cinema’s longstanding preoccupation with friendship as a form of romantic love. It was the queer subculture that first started reading into the overlap of friendship and (homo)eroticism in films like Anand (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1971), Namak Haraam (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1973), Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975) and the unsuspectingly camp Main Khiladi Tu Anari (Sameer Malkan, 1994), to name just a few.
However, what makes ADHM truly transgressive is the discovery or realisation that originally Alizeh (along with Saba and Ali) were supposed to be Pakistanis. The story goes that when, in the aftermath of the Uri attack, the anti-Pakistan rhetoric began soaring, the filmmakers thought it wiser (or at least safer) to turn Lahore into Lucknow thereby turning the Pakistani protagonists into Indian Muslims. But this act of self-censorship is not likely to delude many. There is a breadcrumb trail of clues waiting to be picked up by the astute Bollywood enthusiast. So, there is no getting away from what this film is really about. ADHM is a two-and-a-half hour long pursuit of Indo-Pak friendship. With dark clouds of war gathering over our heads, what would it have meant for the film to end with an Indian and Pakistani taking a vow of everlasting friendship? Even five crores would not have sufficed for such a transgression.
Yet, despite the switching of nationalities, the protagonist (and we know in our minds who they are) make that commitment. Today, political expediency is using the rhetoric of war to dispel all possibilities of exploring a rapprochement between the two countries. But this moment can only be short-lived because there is always more to be gained through friendship than with enmity. The Sangh Parivar, who can barely get along with their own country people, is unlikely to extend such a hand of friendship to Pakistan. But there remain and will always remain, on both sides of the border, peace-loving citizens who will reach out to each other and say: “I friend you for life”.
Shohini Ghosh is Sajjad Zaheer professor at the AJK Mass Communications Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.