Dennis Hanlan and Souraj Dutta on how India’s film industry fell victim to political pressures and patriotism.
It used to be that only gangsters ran rackets in Bollywood. Now directors and producers, at least those who employ Pakistani talent, will have to deal with Raj Thackeray’s Maharastra Navniram Sena Party (MNS) as well.
In October 2016, MNS began threatening to disrupt the Mumbai premiere of director Karan Johar’s latest movie, Ae dil hai mushkil, because it featured Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in a supporting role. The film had already been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and was slated to open on 28 October in time for the Diwali holiday, a peak period for cinema attendance.
MNS claimed the threat was justified in light of the 18 September attack by Pakistani militants on a military barrack in Indian-administered Kashmir which resulted in the death of 18 soldiers. India retaliated with what it called ‘surgical strikes’ and relations between the two countries, which only a year ago had seemed to be on the mend, rapidly deteriorated. In addition to the threat against Johar’s film, MNS personally singled out Khan and fellow Pakistani actor Mahira Khan, co-star of Raees, an upcoming Shah Rukh Khan film, saying they should leave the country within 48 hours or face expulsion.
Days later, the Cinema Owners Exhibitors Association of India (COEAI), a trade group representing mostly single-screen theatres in four southern states, including Maharastra, announced a ban on films with Pakistani actors. COEAI president Nitin Datar said that the decision was not made under political pressure, but rather in response to “patriotic feelings and the national interest”. While noting that this might result in a financial loss for exhibitors, he suggested that the loss could be greater if theatres were damaged as a result of screening the films.
The Indian Motion Picture Producers Association quickly caved in to the threats to its bottom line and announced an immediate ban on the hiring of Pakistani actors and technicians. They did suggest, however, that films already completed, such as Ae dil hai mushkil, Raess, and Dear Zindagi, starring Pakistani actor and singer Ali Zafar, should be allowed unimpeded releases.
Johar’s first response to MNS and the COEAI was to release a video on his YouTube channel – since removed – in which he rather abjectly apologised for hiring Khan and asserted his patriotism. MNS remained unmoved, so on 22 October 2016, Johar and Producer’s Guild President Mukesh Bhatt met with the Chief Minister of Maharastra and Thackeray. Johar and Bhatt acceded to all of MNS’s demands. They agreed that the film would be preceded by an homage to the ‘martyrs’ of Uri, they reiterated their promise to no longer hire Pakistani nationals, and, most significantly, agreed to atone for the crime of hiring Khan by contributing Rs 5 crore (US$737,500) to an army welfare fund. They also promised that producers of completed or in-production films using Pakistani actors would make a similar contribution. MNS withdrew its threat, but the COEAI remained unrelenting, perhaps sensing some advantage. Datar said he was open to negotiating with Johar.
Not everyone in the military was pleased with this arrangement. Retired Air Force Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur retweeted Thackeray’s tweets about the pay-offs adding, “I served four decades in uniform – and never did I live on extorted money.” He also tweeted, “Is Raj Thackeray the government or a….?” With the three organisations pushing for bans, the actual government was able to sidestep the entire fray, insisting that it was business as usual with Pakistan and that Pakistani talent would still be granted visas.
While some of Bollywood’s biggest stars, like Shah Rukh Khan, ducked the issue entirely, others, like Salman Khan, spoke up against the attempted ban. Director/Producer Anurag Kashyap, who earlier in the year had led the fight against the CBFC’s censoring of his film Udta Punjab, was predictably acerbic. On 15 October he tweeted, “The rest of the world should learn from us… We solve all of our problems by blaming it on the movies and banning it…” Noting that Ae dil hai mushkil was in production when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Lahore to meet with his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, he suggested Modi should apologise for that trip.
Director Farhan Akhtar dubbed Johar’s pay-off a “terrible precedent”, adding that the film industry was an easy target and that if there was to be a ban, the government should enact a less discriminatory law forbidding all trade with Pakistan. Actor Abhay Deol echoed the same sentiment, saying that banning films and artists was “half-hearted” and “hypocritical”. Like Kashyap, he noted that Ae dil hai mushkil had its origins in a time when such exchanges were being encouraged.
On the other side of the border, the Pakistani Electronic Media Regulatory Authority announced on 18 October that beginning three days later any radio or television station continuing to broadcast Indian content would immediately lose its license. Ironically, given his role in the pay-off negotiations with Johar, Bhatt was also the producer of Awarapan (2007), the first Indian-Pakistani coproduction. It would seem that for now, anyway, the brief period of cinematic cultural diplomacy between these two nations has been put on hold.