art and politics

Karan Johar’s video plea reflects our current crisis – and is a warning of things to come

A deconstruction of the filmmaker’s statement asking protestors to allow his movie ’Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ to be screened without violence.

Karan Johar’s video statement on Tuesday pleading for his new movie to be allowed to run in theatres without disruption looks like a better lit version of the victim videos released by kidnappers and terrorists. As he reiterates his patriotism and beseeches protestors to allow Ae Di Hai Mushkil to be released without violence on October 28, Johar looks less like the master of ceremonies he often plays in TV shows and more like he is seconds away from an executioner's dagger.

The mood in the video, which runs one minute and 46 seconds, is appropriately funereal. Johar is dressed in a black t-shirt with white markings and seated against a deep grey background as he addresses his hyper-nationalist critics, many of whom are nested in the film industry. There are minimal hand and head movements. Johar’s tone is even but the despair is unmistakable.

To the demand that he stall the release of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil because it features Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in a few scenes, Johar points out that when he shooting the film between September and December in 2015, there was no sign of the hysteria that would wash over India months later, after a militant attack on an Army camp in Uri in September killed 19 soldiers.

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“The circumstances were completely different,” Johar notes. “There were efforts made by our government for peaceful relationships with the neighbouring country and I respected those endeavours then, those efforts then. And I respect the sentiment today.”

Having reiterated his loyalty to the nation, Johar cuts the final threads that connect us to the very brief (and very pleasurable) Fawad Khan era. “Going forward, I would like to say that of course I will not engage with talent from the neighboring country given the circumstance,” he promises.

The statement dispels lingering doubts that Pakistani actors or singers will be hired by Indian producers in the foreseeable future – or, possibly, ever. India discovered the bounty of Pakistani talent in scriptwriting, acting and singing through videotapes of television serials in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the internet brought Pakistani stars closer to India, and in 2014, the television channel Zindagi brought them into living rooms across the country. But Uri has resulted in an angry chorus demanding retribution: the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in Mumbai has threatened violence against theatre owners who show films featuring Pakistanis and the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association has issued a ban on Pakistani talent being employed in future productions.

Zindagi has dropped Pakistani serials from its programming, while the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India has issued a directive to its members in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa and Karnataka against screening films with actors from across the border.

The decision of the exhibitors' association directly affects Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, and Johar’s statement seems to be aimed at assuaging distributors and exhibitors that they will not be guilty of sedition if they screen his quadrangular romance.

“Today I’d like to clarify that the reason why I’ve remained silent is because of the deep sense of hurt and the deep sense of pain that I’ve felt that a few people would actually believe that I’m being anti-national,” Johar said, stating the obvious. “I need to say this… and I say this with strength that for me, my country comes first, nothing else matters to me but my country.”

It's all about loving your country

Any disruption of screenings of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which has been given a UA-rated certificate by the censor board, will only harm the 300-odd crew members who have worked on the film, Johar said. He “beseeched” his attackers to respect their “blood, sweat and tears”, even as he emphasised his respect for the Army. “I salute the Indian Army for everything they do to protect us in our environment. I respect them with all my heart, and I say that I condemn any form of terrorism, any form… and specially the terrorism that would affect my people in my country and me.”

Murmurs of the heart have inspired all of Johar’s films, and he seeks to broaden the understanding of love in his video statement: “We love and respect our country over and above anything else.”

Johar’s films are characterised by their unabashed celebration of wealth, beautiful people, attractive foreign locations, chart-topping songs, haute couture and occasional subversive digs at conservative values. With the video, the act of buying a movie ticket for Ae Di Hai Mushkil has become an expression of subversion and protest, like defying the diktats of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad to watch a documentary about Kashmir, Muzaffarnagar or Dalit killings.

The video provides an apt mirror to the Hindi film industry, whose celebrated secular fabric has been revealed to have gaping holes. There are many filmmakers, actors, singers and technicians in the film trade who suck up to power rather than stand up to it. There are others who rail against the Bharatiya Janata Party-led regime (but mostly on Twitter and Facebook). And there are still others like Johar who seek a live-and-let-live middle path.

All these filmmakers want to do is make movies and money, be featured on magazine covers, grace red carpets, and be the object of public adoration. But the increasingly divisive political atmosphere in the country makes distance from and indifference to social and political debates impossible. For Johar to sit in front of a camera and beg for tolerance and understanding is a new low. Some commentators might dismiss his effort as a craven compromise, made in the service of commerce. Others will regard the video with the same sadness they feel when they watch agitations by Muslim beef traders and striking students at the Film and Television Institute of India, whose acts of protest, major and minor, strengthen the spine of Indian democracy.

Journalists are already drawing up their lists of the most noteworthy films of 2016. This year, the candidates need to include Pahlaj Nihalani’s tacky thank-you notes to Narendra Modi and liberal-bashing videos by ultranationalists. To that ever-expanding roll of dishonor, let us add “Karan Johar breaks silence, speaks up on the Ae Dil Hai Mushkil controversy.” Save it on your desktop, for it is of this moment as well as a sign of things to come.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.