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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