Viewpoint: The perils of forcing Bollywood to drop Pakistan actors

Karan Johar Image copyright AFP
Image caption Johar's video statement has caused a lot of chatter on social media

Top Bollywood director Karan Johar promised 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.


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.

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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?

'Nation comes first'

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.

Polarised industry

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.

At the best of times the Mumbai film industry is divided into several "camps" and rarely, if ever, takes a united stand on anything.

Now it is getting polarised and publicly so.

The 'nationalists' are taking a hard line, and most others are staying quiet, fully aware that remarks can be twisted and frenzied criticism from 'trolls' and politicians can be swift and ugly.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Priyanka Chopra has criticised the ban on Pakistani actors working in Bollywood

On television shows, pro-government film personalities have been hitting out at those who argue otherwise. Bollywood is now a divided house, with barely a handful - Salman Khan, Anurag Kashyap and Priyanka Chopra among them - standing up to be counted.

Amitabh Bachchan, whose daughter in law Aishwarya Rai Bachchan stars in Johar's film, has remained silent, though recent reports suggested that he had gifted a watch to Raj Thackeray's son after receiving a cartoon sketch of him drawn by the MNS chief.

Soft target

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that Karan Johar must have felt beleaguered, even scared.

It is easy to criticise him for not taking a stand for free speech or even for the sorry tone of his video but with large sums of money at stake and the threat of violence in the air, he may have taken a call to make a public declaration.

The matter will not necessarily end there, since the MNS claims it will continue protesting against the release of the film and cinema owners are still wary of screening it.

Meanwhile Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan's forthcoming film Raees, has Pakistani actor Mahira Khan in it and is also a likely victim of the proposed ban by cinema owners. In it he plays a criminal don in Gujarat. He is also said to have a cameo role in his friend Karan Johar's film.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Shahrukh Khan's forthcoming film Raees features Pakistani actor Mahira Khan

Johar's video statement is only going to encourage the forces of bigotry and hatred.

Raj Thackeray, who is desperate to become politically relevant is undoubtedly happy that he got this level of attention, but the culpability of creating and nurturing this intolerance, all in the name of the "nation", goes far beyond him.

The film industry is a perennially soft target because of its high profile and its swift buckling in to any pressure, but don't be surprised if soon, reading Pakistani authors or being Facebook friends with Pakistanis or even writing about that country could be declared anti-national.

Any of us could then be turned into Karan Johar.

Sidharth Bhatia is a Founding Editor of The Wire