True protestors arrive early to protest. True protestors are well prepared. I met one such man on the evening of November 2, who had arrived more than half an hour early at Mohammed Rafi Chowk, in Bandra West, a Mumbai suburb, to protest against a dialogue in Karan Johar’s latest release, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which, according to him and many others, insults the singer.
Standing in front of a restaurant, whose yellow board had ‘pure veg’ written on it, the man, a real estate broker, asked me, “Have you seen a non-veg video of Karan Johar?” I hadn’t. So he made his cellphone meet my ear. It was a small video clip from a comedy show, hosted by the collective All India Bakchod, where Johar, along with Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor, was singing a silly song full of profanities. The broker looked scandalised and then continued on to make conversation with two other protestors – all in their mid-fifties – about Johar’s video, his sexuality and the controversy surrounding his latest film.
The unfortunate association between controversies and Bollywood
Controversies – silly, frivolous and inane – have indeed been familiar to Bollywood films and filmmakers. In fact, no one has been spared the wrath of India’s offence factory. In November 2000, a few Vedic scholars in Varanasi got offended by a scene in Mohabbatein, where Amitabh Bachchan is reciting the Gayatri Mantra wearing shoes. In January 2009, armed guards were deployed outside theatres in Patna, as protesters threatened to burn effigies of Slumdog Millonaire’s director, Danny Boyle, because the word “dogs” was offensive to slum dwellers. Less than a month later, in February 2009, Shahrukh Khan renamed his film, originally titled “Billu Barber”, to Billu because an association of hairdressers and salon owners found the word “barber” offensive. In December 2014, a Delhi-based filmmaker filed a complaint against the PK‘s lead actor, Aamir Khan, for calling a cop in the film, “thulla”. And in June 2015, a social activist from Uttar Pradesh slapped a legal notice against Kabir Khan and Salman Khan, saying the title of the movie Bajrangi Bhaijaan hurt the sentiments of Hindus. How? Bajrangi is the name of a Hindu god and bhaijaan is used by Muslims to refer to an elder brother.
This unfortunate list of bullied actors and directors is rather long. Every few months, at the time of a big film’s release, it seems a group of people wake up from their stupor to take offence. But who are they, really – the ones who are so fundamentally insecure about whatever it is that they claim to love – that a movie’s name, dialogue or plot turns their devotion to agitation?
During the protest, I saw at least 30 such people, standing in front of more than half a dozen photographers ready to get their pictures clicked. Most of them were carrying placards affixed to small wooden sticks, declaring: ‘Aye Dil Hai Mushkil: A film by default. Karan Johar you correct your fault’. Another read, ‘Mr. Karan Johar, requesting deletion of derogatory line about Bharat ke ratna, Mohd. Rafi sahab from the movie Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.’ There was some awkward attempt at poetry too which clearly needed a rewrite: ‘Mohammed Rafi bharat ki shaan hain, aaj bhi laakhon gallon ki aan hain‘ (Mohammed Rafi makes India proud; even today he’s the reputation of millions of voices).
The protestors’ moment in the setting sun
Quite quickly, the protest became about the protesters. They were getting their pictures taken. They were talking to the cameras. They were finally having their moment in the quickly setting sun. One by one, the protest’s main organisers expressed their discontent, and their voices, like echoes, began repeating themselves: that Rafi was India’s national treasure, he didn’t just sing weepy songs (“his voice infused honey in pain”); the film’s title, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, was taken from a popular Rafi song (“Karan Johar copied it”); a memorandum would be sent to the filmmaker to delete the objectionable dialogue from the film (“Karan Joker should accept his mistake and apologise”); if he didn’t, then, on behalf of Rafi’s family members and with their permission, a criminal and civil defamation case, of Rs 100 crore, would be filed against him (“he should be taught a lesson”). When the photographers switched off their lights and cameras, they were asked to switch them on again, as the protest’s two main figures, S. Balakrishnan, a former Times of India journalist and Binu Nair, the founder of Rafi Foundation Trust, hadn’t spoken yet. When Balakrishnan and Nair finally spoke, they failed to add anything new.
Soft intimidation, through frivolous lawsuits and protests, has always followed big Bollywood films. But what made this protest remarkable were the recent events clouding Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s release. To be fair, this protest was fairly quiet and peaceful, although at one point a protester did wonder, “Bade diwane hain Rafi saab ke, main bata dun, aisa na ho ki koi chhuri maar ke chala jaaye” (Rafi sir has many admirers; I hope this doesn’t result in a murder). It’s quite evident from the recent events — from the Cinema Owners Association of India boycotting the film to Johar releasing an apology video to the filmmaker being asked to pay Rs 5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund – that extortion and intimidation are becoming a normalised part of the business. Although many present at the protest did say that their motives were apolitical (“we won’t comment on the issue of Pakistani artistes; art shouldn’t have boundaries”), it seems unlikely that the culture of protests against films –for reasons either political or personal – is going to end soon. As if the whims of the Central Board of Film Certification aren’t absurd enough to keep filmmakers feeling permanently insecure and fighting for their most basic rights, now we also have coercion by political parties and individuals to help with the process of hammering nails into the coffin of artistic expression and freedom.
Ordinary life is mundane and listless. And to make it tolerable and livable, you need to invent a cause, a sense of purpose. The protestors at the Mohammed Rafi Chowk emitted this sentiment even if they didn’t express it. The Rafi dialogue in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and the outrage accompanying it had offered them power and validation; and presumably instilled in them what they always wanted to believe: That their lives mattered; that they, too, could contribute to a worthwhile cause. Several of them looked eager to associate themselves with the protest, talk about their lives; they became all the more interested when they found out that I was a journalist. The protestors had come from places as far as Thane, Mira Road and Andheri. They handed me their visiting cards; the owner of an orchestra group, who had earlier spoken to the reporters for a few minutes, wrote his name, website, e-mail address and profession in my notebook; a housewife recited a devotional couplet written by her in memory of Rafi. “I’ll send this to you on mobile,” she said, smiling. “The family members of Rafi sahab have heard it, and they really like it.”
By seven in the evening, nearly all protesters had dispersed. And all that remained on Mohammed Rafi Chowk was the noise and confusion of daily life.