A video over the upcoming film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has been released — but it is far from entertaining. It features director-producer Karan Johar, taut with tension, attempting to explain casting Pakistani star Fawad Khan, then pleading for the film to be released, even as the MNS threatens violence against theatres screening the film. In the video, Johar states how his “country comes first”, how he “salutes the Indian army” and how he’s always expressed “patriotism” through his work. Johar “beseeches” observers to know that his film involves the “blood, sweat and tears” of over 300 Indians and was shot during happier India-Pakistan times. Going forward, he says, he will certainly not engage talent from “the neighbouring country, given the circumstance”.
Karan Johar’s video is a sobering moment for India. Recent years have seen growing attempts by non-state actors — political groups, caste organisations, religious bodies — to browbeat filmmakers into shaping or breaking their creative works. In 2008, director Ashutosh Gowariker faced protests over his movie Jodhaa-Akbar, by groups in Rajasthan angry that the film showed a Hindu princess marrying a Mughal ruler. In 2013, Kamal Haasan was hounded over his film Vishwaroopam, the filmmaker so appalled by the bullying — and losses — he faced, he threatened to leave India. The same year, Sanjay Leela Bhansali faced protests over his movie’s title, which certain religious groups found offensive, forcing a mouthily renamed Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela instead.
But amidst both predictable and arbitrary demands, the consistent feature in these bullying scenes is the absence of the state, or its weak-kneed response. Even as filmmakers face groups threatening to vandalise property and hurt people if their demands aren’t met, the state mostly remains conspicuous by its silence. This silence — from Devendra Fadnavis’s government — is deafening now. In a diverse society like India, there will always be underemployed groups rushing in to attack creative expression. This is exactly where the state must firmly step in — and it is vital that the state of Maharashtra, which has seen an inglorious history of recent cave-ins, from dropping Rohinton Mistry’s novel from the syllabus in Mumbai University to letting strife over rationalists like Narendra Dabholkar grow under its watch until the latter’s murder, now speaks unambiguously for freedom. The more the state recedes — or lends tacit approval to goons — the less good governance it can claim. At the same time, powerful voices like Karan Johar’s mustn’t quiver either. His video bows before the same bullies filmmakers must stand upto. How a filmmaker works is creative, free choice, which must be defended consistently. Otherwise, no matter how many blockbusters Bollywood makes, it cannot have a happy ending.