The perils of forcing Bollywood to drop Pakistan actors

(BBC) Top Bollywood director Karan Johar promised to not to work with Pakistani actors in the future after a right-wing group threatened to attack cinemas screening his latest movie starring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan. Sidharth Bhatia on why his statement could end up encouraging the forces of bigotry.

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 that script and who directed it?

Where is the flamboyant, confident and colourful Karan Johar we know so well and admire? Here he 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.


Karan Johar
Karan Johar

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 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, which shows in his public statements and in his cinema.

Image copyright AFP Image caption Johar’s film, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, stars Pakistani actor Fawad Khan Image caption Jago Hua Savera (Awake, it’s Dawn) a Pakistani film was pulled out of film festival in Mumbai

When the regional Maharashtra Navnirman Sena party first ‘demanded’ that Pakistani actors in Bollywood be sent back in the aftermath of last month’s militant attack on Uri – the actors had all left India by then in any case – Johar, whose film Ae Dil Hai Muskhil (Difficulties of the heart) 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. 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”.

Mr 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.

Image copyright AFP Image caption Bollywood makes hundreds of Hindi language films every year Image copyright AFP Image caption The films are also popular in Pakistan, although major cinemas now have banned Indian films

The federal 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,” he said.

Devgn’s own film Shivaay is ready for release on 28 October. And not surprisingly, his statement is being seen by many as a tactical ploy to prevent Johar’s film from making it to the theatres.

Cinema owners in Mumbai declared they would not screen the film after expressing fears that their establishments could be attacked by violent MNS activists.

Now, twelve MNS activists who barged into a cinema to threaten the staff have been arrested and the state’s chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has said that violent protests will 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 federal Information Minister Venkaiah 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.

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