MOVIE actor Nasiruddin Shah was promoting his book at a function in Delhi when his brother in the front row rattled him with a simple question. Why was it that in his recent movie, the terrorists were all Muslim? Why does this happen in far too many Hindi movies? Shah, himself a Muslim, mumbled something to blame the script. Park the thought and consider Shahrukh Khan’s newly released movie Pathaan, a hugely successful venture moneywise. It’s the story of a Rambo-like Indian hero played by Shahrukh Khan and a Patricia Hearst-like gun-loving heroine from Pakistan played by Deepika Padukone, both former spies for their countries.
One has a lot of time for Padukone as she is a rare one who is unafraid to speak up for democracy. She didn’t hesitate once to stand with JNU students to defend the constitution. Hindutva leaders called the students ‘tukde tukde gang’, out to destroy India. Padukone was viciously trolled, but has stood her ground undaunted.
In the Pathaan story, the government has just withdrawn the special status Jammu & Kashmir enjoyed since 1948. It enrages a terminally ill, renegade general in Pakistan, who decides to destroy India with a biological weapon, which a turncoat Indian, a former spy, has developed for him. In the end, Sharukh kills the turncoat and Padukone shoots the general. How the hero and heroine join hands while working at cross-purposes comprises the detail of the film.
So where’s the problem? It’s this. The movie fuels jingoism that’s unhealthy for India. And not to see a link between nationalism on steroids and raging communalism, of which Naseeruddin Shah and Shahrukh Khan are both victims and opponents, is a folly.
So where’s the problem? It’s this. The movie fuels jingoism that’s unhealthy for India.
Remember also that Hindutva thrives on fomenting hatred of two entities in one breath: Indian Muslims and Pakistan. ‘Musalaman ke do sthaan, qabristan ya Pakistan’, goes the familiar Hindutva chant. (There are only two places for Muslims: the graveyard or Pakistan.) After the demolition of the Ayodhya mosque, the call rang out to capture Lahore. The late military dictator Pervez Musharraf is reviled in India as the author of the Kargil conflict. Modi channelled the ire to target Indian Muslims, calling them Mian Musharraf.
On another occasion, it was reported that he cooked up a story about Pakistan supporting a Muslim aide to Sonia Gandhi as Gujarat’s next chief minister. In this vein, Shahrukh Khan & co have cooked up a similarly loaded smallpox story. They seem unconcerned that it could recoil on an India they claim to defend. The notion of villainous Indians was a theme early Pakistani youngsters were raised on, giving them a high on India-specific nationalism. All governments use nationalism to pump collective adrenaline. Hollywood movies would project German soldiers as bumbling fools, and Britain created James Bond to portray the USSR as a cruel idea shored up by villainous rulers out to destroy the free world with nuclear weapons. We watched Rambo’s exploits in Afghanistan though that was before the off-screen embarrassment of US forces withdrawing from Kabul, surrendering the country to fanatics they were fighting for 20 years.
In none of these cases was the social fabric of the countries that were creating exaggerated heroes to fight exaggerated enemies itself threatened. India’s case is essentially different, reason why during border tensions with Pakistan, Congress governments took particular care to quell any negative impact on Indian Muslims. The legend of Company Quarter Master Havildar Abdul Hamid became useful to showcase the bravery of a Muslim soldier fighting Pakistan. Such house rules are anathema to today’s rulers. That’s the hard reality.
Pakistan has been the subject of bold themes in Indian movies, which intensively critiqued partition and cheered India’s democratic quest. The filmmakers took care to not tinker with the fragile social equilibrium, something Hindutva gains by subverting. Ritwik Ghatak’s partition trilogy, M.S. Sathyu’s Garm Hawa, Shyam Benegal’s Mammo were movies about the tragedy of migration that the partition brought.
Yash Chopra perhaps made the boldest film framed on the demand for communal partition. It was narrated through the evolution of a Muslim child who was raised as a Hindu youth only to become a Muslim-hating fanatic. Played by Shashi Kapoor in one of his most riveting roles, the young man conjured in the 1961 film was the prototype of today’s Hindutva bigot. Yash Chopra made another film involving Pakistan, a delicate cross-border love story called Veer Zara. It starred Shahrukh Khan. Ironically, Pathaan has been made by Yashraj films now run by the late Yash Chopra’s sons. Times have changed.
Looking away from Shahrukh Khan’s poor choice of film, there needs to be unqualified solidarity for him and those filmmakers, writers, artists and public intellectuals who have fallen foul of India’s menacing establishment.
It would help though to remember that attacks on the film industry are not new. Majrooh Sultanpuri wrote his popular songs for Mehboob Khan’s Andaz in prison, having been sent there by a Congress chief minister of Bombay for penning lines that depicted prime minister Nehru as an errand boy of the British Commonwealth. Brilliant actor Balraj Sahni was also locked up over a similar charge.
Later, the much-loved thespian Dilip Kumar’s house was raided to search for non-existent transmitters over allegations that the actor was in touch with Pakistan. Dilip Kumar was a Muslim as so many members of India’s film fraternity were and still are. There were rumours at the time of a looming war with Pakistan, which explained the raids. Sounds familiar?
According to Bunny Reuben, Kumar’s biographer, renowned director Bimal Roy’s house was also raided though Roy was a Bengali Hindu. During the 1975-77 emergency, playback singer Kishore Kumar was barred from state radio having refused to perform at a charity sponsored by the ruling party. Mr Modi has harnessed lethal street power to the mix, fortifying a more stridently communal state, as Shahrukh Khan possibly knows all too well.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2023
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