Why should a completely legal economic activity need the permission of an extra-constitutional bully like the MNS? And why is the state continuing to look the other way?
In February 2010, Shiv Sena activists went on a rampage in Mumbai, defacing the posters of Shah Rukh Khan’s film My Name is Khan. They were demanding that the actor apologise for saying that Pakistani cricket players should be included in the Indian Premier League, in which he owns the Kolkata Knight Riders team.
Khan refused to apologise and faced the wrath of the Sainiks. But a combination of factors, including Congress chief minister Ashok Chavan’s strict orders to provide security to cinema houses and the preventive detention of 2000 Sena workers ensured that there was no trouble when the film released. Uddhav Thackeray was told in no uncertain terms that his security would be withdrawn. The Sena backed down.
On Sunday, Khan went to the home of Raj Thackeray, chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and “assured” him that the publicity campaign of his new film, Raees, would not include Mahira Khan, a Pakistani actress who stars opposite Khan. He also said he would not act with Pakistani actors in the future. Thackeray gracefully accepted. It was one more example of cravenness that the Hindi film industry is known for, but it also shows how much Mumbai – and India – have changed.
Khan may have calculated that he had little choice. After Karan Johar abjectly agreed to donate Rs 5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund as a ‘patriotism cess’ so that his film Ae Dil Hai Muskhil, starring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan, was “allowed” to be released, what option did Khan have? Especially since the Johar deal was brokered by Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. The message then was clear: Don’t bank on the government to provide any kind of security.
This time round, Khan cut out the middle man and went straight to Thackeray, giving him not just a photo-op with a star – something that netas of all hues love – but also a chance to get into the headlines at a time when the crucial civic elections in the city are just a few months away. Thackeray’s party is losing crucial members and corporators who, not confident of their chances on an MNS ticket, are deserting to join other parties.
From his early promise as a credible alternative to the Shiv Sena, after walking out of his uncle’s home in 2006, Thackeray has only flattered to deceive. In 2009, his party won 13 seats in the state assembly – five years later, it got only one seat. It has 27 councillors in the Mumbai Municipal Corporation, but most analysts concur that he will not repeat that performance.
For Fadnavis and his party, however, Thackeray holds value. Fed up of the Shiv Sena, which is an ally but remains highly critical of the BJP, Fadnavis is on the look out for an alternative to cut the Sena to size. Sharad Pawar’s NCP might be willing, but that will make a mockery of the BJP’s claims of being anti corruption. Boosting Thackeray could be part of that plan.
But Thackeray is not helping his own cause much. His organisation is weak and the only time the MNS gets into the news is when it uses violence – against taxi drivers or cinema owners – and goes after the film industry. Bollywood is an easy target, succumbing to the slightest pressure and showing almost no resistance or unity.
Johar’s quick capitulation has come and gone, without any attempt to strategise how to deal with such situations in the future. No one said a word about it, barring Naseeruddin Shah who called it ‘craven’. Shah is a plain-speaking outlier, hardly part of the inner Bollywood circuit populated by the likes of Johar and Khan – not surprisingly, his comment went unnoticed and when the time came, Khan set out to the Thackeray home.
The excuse that Bollywood advances is always the same – the stakes are too high and no cinema owner would like their property to be attacked by vandals. But behind this is the complete lack of faith in the state government. Fadnavis did not cover himself with glory the last time and his excuses were wishy washy in the extreme. Khan knew he had no choice but to go straight to the source.
But the industry also protests too much. Its stalwarts keep a line open to the Thackerays at all times. The Shiv Sena has toned down its rhetoric, but remains friends with the film industry. In October, Amitabh Bachchan gifted a watch to Thackeray’s nephew, after the MNS chief sent a sketch of the actor to him, which “thrilled Bachchan to bits.”
In these circumstances, while it is easy to point fingers at Khan, what else could he have done? But this doesn’t make it any less shameful; that a perfectly legitimate and legal activity in the country’s commercial capital has to be first approved by an extra-constitutional authority – a bully, really – and the government looks the other way is not just shocking in itself, but also sends out a message to others that in future no one would be safe.