Waving the bloody shirt to make political points is an old trick
Can you imagine a top-of-the-line Hollywood film's release being threatened in Los Angeles by a minor political party just because its star said something in support of a foreign sports team? Not only that, imagine the story becoming the top story on the national TV networks. Sounds bizarre? Not in India. Bizarre is normal in India.
The continuing protests by Mumbai's Shiv Sena against the Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan once again underlines the uneasy presence of lumpen elements in Indian politics and their tendency to use "icons" or national figures to project their politics of hatred and violence. Shiv Sena has declared war on "My Name is Khan," which opened Friday in Mumbai, starring the eponymous Shah Rukh, aiming to hurt the economic interests of the top Hindi film actor and teach him a lesson. Posters of the film have been torn down and cinema halls have been vandalized by Sena goons. Given the Sena's history of violence, some exhibitors were so intimidated that they refused to open the advance booking for the film—despite heavy security arrangements and assurances by the state government that law and order in the city will be maintained at all costs.
Mind you, Shiv Sena has a history of violence and its supreme leader, Balasaheb Thackeray, has never been put behind bars despite speeches inciting communal violence time and again since the 1960s. The Thackerays consider Mumbai their personal fiefdom. Their far-right regional political party has waged many battles, first against the South Indians, then against the North Indians and the minority community—all in the name of an ideology that Maharashtra belongs only to the Marathi community.
Apparently, Shiv Sena is not against the film or the actor per se in the current controversy. They are against remarks Khan made a few weeks ago favoring Pakistan's cricket team. The movie star, who also owns a private cricket team that participates in Indian Premier League matches, expressed his displeasure against the boycotting of Pakistani players by all IPL teams in a recent auction. (The teams said they did so for security reasons). Many commentators spoke against the undignified way in which the Pakistani players were excluded. But Shiv Sena hung on to the words of the superstar. Bad luck that he had his highly-anticipated film hitting the theatres two weeks later.
The Sena, which was losing ground to its breakaway faction, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, decided to fully milk this opportunity—it had controversy written all over it: Cricket, Pakistan, a Hindi film starring a superstar involving a Hindu-Muslim love angle set in the backdrop of global terrorism. Shiv Sena was doing a Bombay—the Mani Ratnam film on Hindu-Muslim romance set in the backdrop of anti-Muslim riots in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid's demolition.
Everybody loves a controversy
The way the controversy has spiraled into a national issue raises many questions. And I have problems with all the major actors of the controversy.
First, Shah Rukh Khan. I am with him—he has every right to express his opinion in a country like India that prides herself on her democratic credentials. But my problem with Khan is that after expressing his opinion and after refusing to apologize for saying what he said, why develop feet of clay? There are alleged reports that he wants to meet Thackeray senior but the meeting has been spoiled by a ruling government minister. I hope it is not the case that the controversy was allowed to steamroll to generate unprecedented media coverage for the film and now that the publicity has peaked, it is time to call off the show. Khan should call Thackaray's bluff.
Second, Shiv Sena and its company. Mr. Thackeray, why only target Khan? Other celebrities and commentators have said similar things and have rightly got away with it. Is it because Khan is a Muslim that his remarks in favor of the Pakistani cricketers make his patriotism suspect? If latter is the case, then sorry, Thackeray, it is a cliché. The new and resurgent India rejects this kind of fallacious thinking—especially when organizations like the Times Group are trying to bring India and Pakistan culturally closer through their Aman ki Aasha (Hope for Peace) project. Will you then burn the copies of the Times of India too? No matter what you say, your brand of nationalism is so narrow that it should not be allowed to get out of the headquarters of your party. No wonder your party has been rejected by people but stooping to old tactics like attacking film and cricket stars would not win you new votes.
Third, the media. The media especially likes controversies and if it involves films and film stars, even better. The same old same old panel discussion is foisted on the tired viewers. The party spokespersons start blaming each other and all ghosts from the past are brought to life—1984 (anti-Sikh massacre), 1992 (anti-Muslim riots), 2002 (the Gujarat pogrom), 2008 (Mumbai terror attacks) and so on. TV hosts, anchors, please note. Ban the speakers from raking up the past—everyone has skeletons in their closet but two wrongs do not make a right. Talk about today, talk about now. Don't let politicians hide behind the wrongs of the past.
Last but not the least, the viewers. Don't get too much riled up by the controversy. This too shall pass. Support good cinema and free speech. And next time you go to vote, remember to teach those political parties a lesson that seek power through dividing people.
Zafar Anjum (www.zafaranjum.com) is a Singapore-based writer and journalist. These are his personal views.