To cite an example from a ghastly Bollywood film — Ghajini — we are living in times of ‘short-term memory loss’. The ban on Pakistani artistes from working in Bollywood films in the wake of terrorist attacks on Indian soldiers in Uri by Indian Motion Pictures’ Producers Association (IMPPA) is already three months old.
It saw some immediate casualties as the hysteria led by national media threatened to sweep the country. Karan Johar was blackmailed into paying money at the insistence of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (a breakaway B team of Shiv Sena led by Raj Thackeray) and in giving a promise not to employ any artiste from Pakistan in future. It enabled the release of his upcoming movie Ye Dil Hai Mushkil which also had Fawad Khan, the hugely popular Pakistani star in a brief role.
Swords were drawn from both sides of pro-ban and anti-ban even within the film fraternity. While people like Karan Johar, Anurag Kashyap, Salman Khan defended the freedom to cast any actor from any country, including those from Pakistan, there were others who simply gave the clarion call of ‘nation first, art later’.
People like Anupam Kher, Nana Patekar, the current Censor Board chief, Pahlaj Nihalani, were prominent among these. But, of course, this was not happening within the film world alone. Arnab Goswami, the then chief hysterical anchor of Times Now led the mob on screen which trolled Om Puri both offline and online, on camera and off camera, simply because the latter refused to buy the newly minted rhetoric of ‘soldiers are dying on the border’.
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Om Puri stated something which was obvious, that while ‘soldiers dying at the border’ was a sad thing, a soldier had chosen that as a professional choice, no one had forced him or her to do so. The problem is that in times of blind rhetoric, reason always takes a back seat and hence his utterly shameful targeting, being called a Pakistani stooge, etc. It broke him badly and we have lost him now forever, one of the greatest actors of Indian cinema of all time.
And even in death he wasn’t left alone, many were publicly rejoicing over Twitter. Nobody is indispensable at the altar of ‘Hindu Rashtra’, definitely not someone who had twice played the role of a Pakistani in his reel life.
Very interestingly, within three months of the same, this ‘ban the Paki artist’ hysteria has died its natural death; rather, lest it be termed premature, has been put into a suspended animation, to be revived for another suitable time. December saw the release of Dear Zindagi, featuring Pakistani singer-actor Ali Zafar and not a finger was raised and the movie went on to do pretty big business. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil itself became one of the top grossers of the 2016.
January is the month when Shahrukh Khan starrer Raees gets released which also features another Pakistani star, Mahira Khan. So far not much seems to be happening on the ‘national sentiment index’ even as promos of the movie have hit all the right buttons. In the meanwhile, the songs of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Atif Aslam, and Ali Zafar continue to be played on all the radio and tv music channels in India.
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The point is clear. As the sociologist Paul R. Brass said in another context countering the ‘theory of spontaneity’ in communal riots that they were all staged and organised in this country, similarly, the current national hysteria is being staged and organised with the state being an active party to it.
And since the lid has to be always kept on the boil, you need to keep juggling the themes: today it is ‘soldier dying’, tomorrow, ‘beef eating’, the day after is the time for ‘economic nationalism’ and hence ‘demonetisation’, and parallel to it the euphoria over ‘national anthem’.
And with elections just announced in Uttar Pradesh, the old bag of anti-Muslim rhetoric has seen another trajectory with the comments from Sakshi Maharaj, a BJP MP, underlining the threat of those ‘who marry four wives and produce 40 kids’, something the reigning Prime Minister of this country had successfully used a few years ago.
But it’s not that the blame can be laid simply at the doors of organised media and organised trolls. As a society, we have become consumers of instant actions and instant reactions. Our emotional storm has to be confined within the proverbial ‘teacup’ so that we keep moving from one teacup to another. Yet, the larger discourse of a religion-induced, controlled hyper nationalism needs to manage all this. The ‘role of Pakistani artistes’ is only one ingredient in this masala.
Also, you cannot forever live without something you have got used to. Hence the Pakistani artists had to make a comeback; rather, they never went away.
Pakistan never left India culturally even when it left India politically in quest of a national identity. Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum among legions of artists continued to be heard in small nooks and crannies of this country. And I am not even talking of the artists from an earlier generation. As a school-going boy, I remember listening to Mehdi Hasan wide-eyed in a small town like Patna at 4am in the morning on the occasion of Durga Puja cultural festivities. Late 1980s were also the years when television and video cassettes made Dhoop Kinare, Ankahi and Tanhaiyaan and their star cast household names with families divided over Sana Murad and Zoya Ali Khan.
This set a trend which got a new lease of life through channel Zindagi, featuring Pakistani serials until recently before the latest ban hysteria took charge. Not coincidentally, Zindagi is the channel owned by Subhash Chandra, an open supporter of BJP and Modi and its sister channel, Zee News, is known for its crude pro-BJP propaganda.
The purpose of this brief recount is not to state the obvious, the reigning popularity of Pakistan as a thriving, dynamic cultural product in India, but to underline the fact that why do ‘soft powers’ are always seen as ‘hard threats’.
Each exchange and cultural product coming from Pakistan ‘humanises’ that country; each romantic serial and the language of tehzeeb renders the ‘othering’ of the ‘enemy’ impossible. If the ‘other’ becomes revealed as your own ‘self’, an exposition of your own desires and fantasies, a display of your own fears and insecurities, politics has to intervene. And in times of hyper nationalism, this has got to be the first target.
As I write these words today, the hysteria of soldier dying has taken an ironic, inward turn showing the ‘nationalists’ a mirror, with a soldier posting a video showcasing the poor quality of ration they are subjected to consume even when their senior officers continue to live a life of luxury. And Meryl Streep speaking at the Golden Globe Awards is another country!