Kintsugi is the fine Japanese art of repairing ― and strengthening ― broken, fragile ceramic with finely powdered and lacquered gold. The reference to its imperfect beauty comes quite early on in the latest Shahrukh Khan blockbuster, Pathaan. Along with the Bollywood demigod’s samurai warrior-esque look that lends both strength and vulnerability to his patriotic heroism, Kintsugi is a metaphor for our fractured times. Times in which Shahrukh himself has been a target, repeatedly caught in the crosshairs of growing anti-Muslim hate that derives legitimacy from a muscular right wing BJP led government.
Pathaan has already earned over Rs 500 crore. And videos of audiences ‘jhoomo-ing’ to its song ‘Jhoomega Pathaan’, or clapping to the beat of ‘Besharam Rang’ with Deepika Padukone ― the glam Mata Hari in an orange bikini ― are circulating across social media. Alongside are reports of right wing Bajrang Dal activists trying to disrupt screenings in different parts of the country. Given the film’s obvious success, isn’t it a good time to ask ourselves just how much we want our minds to be governed by the politics of an anti-Muslim, anti-minority narrative that trends hashtags like #BoycottBollywood when Muslim heroes are in the lead, or trolls leading female actors for the colour of their swimsuits?
How are they linked? Both religious minorities and women who show individual agency and independence of thought and action (Padukone stood in silent support of anti-CAA protesters at JNU in the winter of 2019), often run afoul of the toxic masculinity on display in our illiberal socio-political environment today. It is an environment driven by populist rhetoric, majoritarian sentiment and authoritarian governance. Look no further than the banning of the first episode of the BBC documentary which looks back at the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he was chief minister in 2002 during the Gujarat riots, and the second, which highlights present-day systematic anti-minority, anti-Muslim policies and statements under the current dispensation, as an example of this world view.
An advisor to the information and broadcasting ministry tweeted about the ban being imposed under the government’s “emergency powers”. One wonders if the irony was simply lost on the advisor ― himself a former journalist who once railed against authoritarian press censorship during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975. But today, the slightest idea that counters those of the current crop of populists is, by default, illegitimate.
The political theorist Jan Werner Muller argues that the anti-pluralism which underscores the right wing’s opposition to the BBC documentary, or to Bollywood’s Khans, is perhaps the most dangerous and defining element of populism ― far more dangerous than the anti-elitism of populist politics that challenged establishmentarian corruption and brought them to power.
Muller argues that far right populists who derive public support and legitimacy from a history of Opposition politics, have come to power through a collaboration with mainstream, conservative right wing parties contending that they alone represent the public’s true interests. It is political, cultural and moral appropriation all at once.
On social media ― that venomous pit of hate and abuse ― support for the government’s ban on the screening or sharing of the BBC documentary is widespread, even though by banning it and calling it anti-Indian propaganda reflecting a “colonial mindset”, the government has shown its hand. The victims of the Gujarat riots are real, the victims of the Delhi riots are real, and the sense of fear and persecution amongst Indian Muslims ― from cattle traders to academics, from Kashmir to Kerala ― is real. By dismissing those concerns out of hand, the BJP government does itself no favours globally, where the BBC documentary is being viewed and circulated widely. By not censuring those spewing hate against Shahrukh Khan or Salman Khan or Aamir Khan or Saif Ali Khan ― some of Bollywood’s and India’s biggest brand ambassadors ― the Indian government does itself no favours. It is this sort of mainstreaming of right wing politics that has allowed India’s populists to legitimise their Hindutva identity-based, tribalist, exclusionary politics in an overwhelmingly young electorate now primed to hate, with impunity.
Tropes of Indian Muslims as the ‘other’ ― not real Indians at best, and anti-national, unpatriotic, even terrorists at worst – continue to circulate without relief. Despite its evident success, hate-filled memes like the one with images of the two Khans in one of the scenes of the film likened with those of two Islamic extremists in Udaipur who beheaded a Hindu tailor for his support of former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma last year, circulate freely.
Old liberal democratic assumptions that populists are by definition the Opposition and therefore cannot govern; or that once in power, they would have to perforce relinquish old Opposition stances and moderate their politics to be more inclusive, are no longer applicable. The current BJP-led NDA government is a glaring example of the failure of these assumptions. Right wing populist politics in India has sustained itself by feeding the public a diet of majority persecution, cultural and economic ― due to policies that the BJP claims have “privileged” minorities in the past.
Against this canvas, even if we now collectively decide that celebrating Shahrukh’s success at the box office is after all a good look for India, the fragile pot of India’s multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society is cracked, and in desperate need of Kintsugi, to revive the depth of its beauty, resilience and strength.
Maya Mirchandani heads media studies at Ashoka University and is senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation.
This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.