This Article is From Oct 21, 2016

As Karan Johar Shows, Bollywood Is No Place For Conviction

Is anyone in India more willing to be a target than the Hindi film business? More risk-averse, more supine, less likely to stand up for what's right? I'm not sure.

The furore over Pakistani actors and technicians has underlined once again exactly how far Bollywood is willing to go to placate the powers that be. Karan Johar's promise to not work with anyone from Pakistan in the future, so could people please do him the return favour of not vandalising the theatres in which Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is being shown, would be heart-rending if not so clearly manipulative. He claimed to be making his appeal so that "300 Indian people" in his crew did not face "any sort of turbulence". Right. His crew has been paid, gone home, and has probably worked on three projects since. It's his distributors he's worried about. If he wanted to tell the truth, he should have said: "But your deranged and violent hyper-nationalism might cost a bunch of rich people money!" It's still a valid complaint, mind you, but I suppose it wasn't real enough for Karan Johar. Still, this is Karan Johar, after all - we should be glad his apology tape wasn't even more fanciful, and perhaps three hours long.

First, let's make sure that one thing is clear: the government - the official organs of the government, that is - can't be blamed for this. The central government has said that it's not cancelling any visas for Pakistani actors or technicians; the local police in Mumbai have reportedly promised to keep movie theatres secure. Yes, of course, the Bharatiya Janata Party itself has helped to create this atmosphere, and of course no leader of the BJP has spoken out in favour of a multi-national film industry and of law and order, and granted it all fits neatly into the BJP's Uttar Pradesh campaign. But the bar has now been set so low that we'll take the fact that the government has not cancelled anybody's visa as a sign of how liberal it is, thanks very much. We don't care about any other signals it may have sent out to its bhakts. (No, we're Indians, we don't care about non-state actors.)

There are, of course, clear villains. There are the "news" television channels that ran a campaign against this particular movie. There is the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, last heard of placing rock bottom in the Maharashtra assembly elections. There are the distributors who made a big deal of the security threats, instead of hiring additional security or paying more in insurance.

Let's look at these last more carefully. I have some sympathy for the single-screen owners who've come out and said they won't distribute the film. They're economically more fragile than multiplexes. But that wasn't enough to get Karan Johar to deliver his awful apology. No, the final pressure would have come in from the big multiplex chains which are happily profitable, and getting more profitable - INOX, for example, quadrupled net profit last year. I may be a little biased by the fact that you have to pay 300 rupees for popcorn at these places, but at the very least, in return for this vast expansion of their market, a little fortitude is called for? Can they not at least step up their insurance costs, even if they don't want to hire security? If not, then let these price-gouging cowards please be rendered irrelevant by newer, ideally multinational chains. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was paid for by Rupert Murdoch's Star and Fox. Perhaps the Australian billionaire, when told he's losing money on it, will realise that he needs to invest in multiplexes too.

But particular contempt in this story should be reserved for anyone associated with Shivaay, the Ajay Devgn-starrer that is due to open opposite Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The fine people who made this movie sent out a mailer when the controversy was just beginning promising that their movie was completely hygienic, sanitised, and Pakistani-free. I suspect they needed to; while researching this column, I spent a horrified few minutes watching videos from Shivaay. While I can confirm that it looks completely, properly, solidly and purely Hindu - in fact, perhaps they overdid it, the poster "hurt religious sensibilities of Lord Shiva devotees" and a case was filed - it unfortunately also comes across as completely incomprehensible. No doubt viciously attacking and undermining your competition by participating in a campaign of violent threats and intimidation was their only option once they forgot to hire a script supervisor.

Let's make two things very clear: Bollywood is contemptible. It has been rolling over to the powers that be in Mumbai since before those powers renamed the city. And it now rolls over to the prevailing climate of opinion in the country, as represented by the government of the day in New Delhi and the loudest voices on television channels. They're the most narrowly focused sort of businessmen; they have nothing to do with quality or with art. You don't need me to tell you this - watch a Hindi movie, any Hindi movie. No quality, no art, but lots and lots of business. There is a reason why Bollywood is not taken seriously or given an iota of real respect in this country, the way the LA entertainment world is in the United States or film-makers are in Europe. It is because, in India, these people are bad at their jobs, put money above their integrity, and never stick up for what they believe in if it might cost them something to do so.

And finally, don't imagine for a moment that it's in any way patriotic to drive Pakistanis out of Bollywood and to turn the film industry into an assembly line for suitably Hindu-ised mythological or action thrillers. Let me explain: we are a large country with practically no levers of influence over our neighbours or the wider world. One of the few ways in which India does have influence is through its soft power - the approachable nature of Bollywood being one of those things. Turn Bollywood inwards, inject xenophobia in its veins, and we lose that power. Typically, our most strident patriots are the ones making us weaker.

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

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