Freedom of speech in India has always been a tricky issue. The law gives this right to everyone, but books, plays, movies and other forms of expression have been banned or censored. Popular figures are not spared either. If someone makes a statement which is borderline controversial, he can rest assured there’ll be a backlash - even if it is the Badshah of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan.
The last two weeks have been turbulent for the superstar. Khan, who also owns Indian Premier League cricket team Kolkata Knight Riders, commented on the isolation of Pakistani cricketers in the IPL. He said Pakistani players should play in the tournament.
Right-wing political party Shiv Sena was soon up in arms. Party leader Bal Thackeray blasted Khan, calling him a traitor. Through his party newspaper Saamna, he mockingly said Khan should appoint captured Mumbai attacks suspect Ajmal Ali Kasab as captain of Kolkata Knight Riders.
Demonstrations were held outside Khan’s home and effigies of him were burnt. Fellow superstar Amir Khan, who had supported his counterpart, also came under fire. Shiv Sena then announced they would not allow Khan's latest film, My Name is Khan (MNIK), to be screened in Mumbai unless he tendered an apology.
Khan refused. “I don’t see what the issue is”, he said at a press conference in London last week. “Am I supposed to retract I’m an Indian but I don’t want anyone to come to my country? Do I say what my freedom fighter father said was wrong and what kids study is wrong?”
Sport and creative arts are ideally devoid of territorial boundaries. In spite of tensions between India and Pakistan, there has been an influx of Pakistani talent into India and the countries have strong sporting ties. Cricket in India is considered a religion, and to have politics mar such ties in unacceptable. With many parties refusing to go on the record about the seclusion of Pakistani cricketers, Khan’s public statement is both bold and commendable.
The name calling and potshots at Khan’s patriotism are below the belt. Another ultra right-wing organisation has questioned Khan’s Muslim religion. Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia said: “He will continue to support Pakistan at the cost of our own national interests.”
Khan has ruled Indian films for the last two decades, has had an uncontroversial family life and is looked up to by millions, both inside and outside India. He is a youth icon and to malign him in this fashion for speaking his mind may prove to be harmful to Shiv Sena’s image.
What is perhaps most objectionable is Shiv Sena’s threat to the film. The brunt of one man’s actions, despite being the lead actor, should not be borne by the remaining 200-odd crew of the movie. Shah Rukh has apologised to the whole staff of MNIK. “So much is at stake. Because of what I say and believe, their (MNIK staff’s) work is going to be affected and I have no idea how to change that.” The repercussions of politics are being felt by the film, and this is being seen as largely unfair.
But Bal Thackeray does have a point. It has been more than a year since the Mumbai attacks and the perpetrators remain largely at liberty in Pakistan. Cutting cultural ties can apply all the pressure needed to bring swifter action. Cricket is a prestigious and rich sport for both nations, hence it makes front page headlines. Banning Pakistani players is a powerful and perhaps effective way to display unhappiness with Pakistan’s authorities.
It is also unwise to dismiss Shiv Sena’s long-standing anti-immigration campaign as obsolete. Where does India draw the line? A city like Mumbai has seen people from all over the country come to make a living. Khan himself is one. With cutthroat competition in the jobs market, and a fight for other amenities, the locals need a representative party. In advocating national unity, one can’t forget local people. Shiv Sena has been doing just that; its manifesto is all about catering to the local indigenous Marathi population.
The initial Shiv Sena versus Shah Rukh Khan dispute has quickly risen in profile. Shah Rukh has found mass support among actors, politicians and the masses. Many ‘Support Shah Rukh Khan’ groups have appeared on social networking sites. News channel CNN IBN is running a Mumbai For All campaign. India’s ruling Congress party has criticised Shiv Sena’s stand. Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chauvan has spoken in Shah Rukh’s favour, declaring he would watch My Name is Khan with his family and provide adequate security to cinemas.
Shiv Sena have backtracked on their initial decision to stop the movie. The editorial in their newspaper sarcastically comments: “Let Congresswallahs rule us ... Let Pakistani cricketers come and play anywhere in this country, let Australians continue with their attacks on Indians, let Pakistan continue with terror attacks like 26/11.”
The issue has turned into a carnival with everyone jumping in to add their soundbite. Shah Rukh, who is sick of the affair, appears to be emerging victorious, with MNIK garnering more publicity than before. But the once powerful Shiv Sena, with the tiger as its symbol, has kept going despite numerous problems and fragmentation. Freedom of speech shall continue to be exercised but with caution, and the tiger will still roar but with its claws slowly clipped out.
UPDATE: Yet another U-turn
While those few who have seen My Name is Khan are raving about it, the citizens of Mumbai are still unsure whether they will be able to watch Shah Rukh Khan’s latest when it releases tomorrow. Shiv Sena have backflipped again - having first backtracked on a previous threat to stop the film showing, they’ve now gone all out to ban MNIK in Mumbai.
Nine cinemas that had opened advance bookings were shocked when Shiv Sainiks attacked and vandalised their property. As a result, Wednesday morning saw more than 60 out of 70 Mumbai cinemas shut advance booking, despite state assurances of protection. Over 1600 party workers have been detained and 59 others arrested and charged with vandlalism.
Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray blamed the sudden change of decision on Chief Minister Ashok Chauvan, who the previous day had urged Mumbai citizens to watch the movie. He said: “We wanted to resolve the issue amicably. However, the Chief Minister has exacerbated the crisis and in his attempt to please his New Delhi bosses, he has thought it wise to deploy hundreds of policemen at Mumbai's cinema halls. Why is the government provoking the Sena?”
However with police commissioner D Sivanandhan cancelling leave for all 42,000 policemen, cinema owners reopened advance bookings by 4pm yesterday. Vishal Kapur, CEO of Fun Republic cinemas, said: “Senior officers have assured full support and we have opened the advance bookings as of now. We have been constantly monitoring the situation to assure the safety of people.” The first three rows of the cinema hall will be reserved for the police and closed circuit cameras with night vision will be set up.
Sena has been demanding an apology from Khan about his recent comments supporting Pakistani cricketers playing in the Indian Premier League. There is a good chance that Sena’s aggressive methods to ensure a bad film opening may cost them. The public are enraged, and may go to watch the movie in large numbers either as a protest against Sena or just for the curiosity factor.
One can understand Khan, who is at the centre of the controversy, wanting to get away from it all. At his London visit last week, the press was requested to not ask about the matter. He even cancelled interviews on the last day due to ill health. But if there is a time to show courage for Khan, it is now by being in Mumbai. He is currently in Abu Dhabi for the premiere there.
The buzz is certainly high enough for filmgoers to watch the movie at some point. But the film’s release tomorrow will determine whether cinema bowed down to political pressure or not.
UPDATE 2: Shah Rukh - 2 words Shut up!
Just hours before the film's scheduled release, Mumbai's multiplex owners are still debating whether they wil show My Name Is Khan after receiving fresh threats via phone calls. They have been in a meeting which will decide the fate of the movie.
Big Fun, G7 multiplexes and other big names are all part of the meeting. News channels are reporting that they are looking for a settlement between far-right party Shiv Sena and film star Shah Rukh Khan.
Sena have threatened to block Mumbai cinemas from screening the film after Khan called for Pakistani cricketers to feature in the Indian Premier League.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chauvan said in a press conference that was in the theatre owners' hands whether or not to release the movie. He said: “From my side, there is ample security. I am not promoting this film. We believe in law and order and if people are threatened in such a fashion, it is not good for the state. I am sad that the police is used for such purposes instead of combatting terrorists and naxalites for which they are trained.”
Khan, who is currently in Berlin for the film premiere, has appealed through Twitter for peace in the city. He says he is also hurt that his comments have been misconstrued by Shiv Sena leaders Bal and Uddhav Thackeray. He tweeted: “I may not have the same ideologies as the sena but on the question of me being a patriot, I don’t think there should be any confusion.”
He also dismissed claims that the row is a publicity stunt. He tweeted: "I want to enjoy my film everywhere. I want to enjoy it within myself and to sickos who think this is for publicity..2 words Shut up!"
With Khan refusing to apologise for his comments, the matter remains in stalemate
UPDATE 3: Shah Rukh makes it into Mumbai theatres - just
Utter confusion greeted Mumbai this morning. Citizens did not know if their local cinema would screen My Name is Khan on its first day. Out of 63 cinemas slated to screen the movie, 13 finally ran it to packed houses.
The meeting between MNIK producers Dharma Productions, distributors Fox Star International and cinema owners ended at about midnight last night with Fox announcing the release would go ahead as planned. But this was not enough for cinema owners, who preferred to play the waiting game. While the morning shows were cancelled, cinemas did run the early afternoon shows as planned.
Many leaders chose to attend screenings in the hope of raising public confidence. Chief Minister Ashok Chauvan and other state ministers attended the 12.40pm show at a South Mumbai theatre. Suburban cinemas did face some demonstrations, but these were quickly contained by the police. Maharashtra state saw protests in various cities, with Pune and Aurangabad cinemas choosing not to release the film at all. The rest of India, especially Chandigarh and Kolkatta, gave the film a tremendous response.
Twitter has played a big role in this row, with the man in the middle of the controversy choosing this medium to applaud his fans for their courage. Shah Rukh Khan tweeted: “I realise today ... I am just a film hero ... u all in the theatres r the real deal. god feel so loved & humbled. hats off to all heroes.” Other Bollywood A-listers like Hrithik Roshan, Lara Dutta and Riteish Deshmukh alse extended their support via tweets. In fact, MNIK is currently trending on Twitter's Worldwide list.
The matter has turned into a prestige issue for Shiv Sena and the Congress government. Although round one did go to the Sena for showing their clout in cinema halls, round two has gone to Shah Rukh. News channels have been interviewing Mumbai citizens throughout the day who are speaking in support of Khan. The man himself is currently in Berlin, where tickets for the premiere were sold out in minutes for up to €1,000.
The issue is no longer just about the movie. It is about whether one political party can hold India’s financial capital to ransom, whatever their cause. Whether they will succeed or not depends on how My Name is Khan fares in its opening week.
UPDATE 4: How Mumbai sided with Shah Rukh over Sena
The My Name is Khan saga has finally subsided after a tense week. Widespread criticism from politicians, the media and the public has resulted in Shiv Sena halting their aggressive attempts to stop the film screening in Mumbai. What started as a Bollywood superstar-cum-cricket team owner’s public opinion turned into a political battle to screen a movie advocating peace and love.
MNIK did not need much publicity. With two of Bollywood’s biggest superstars, Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, starring in a film by A-list director Karan Johar, it had already generated plenty of hype. It was the first big release of 2010 and was slated for release on Shivratri, a religious holiday. All these factors were enough to guarantee a massive opening.
But until Friday morning, no one was sure whether it would open in Mumbai, home of Bollywood and one of the world’s biggest markets for films.
But with the Chief Minister Ashok Chauvan and state ministers watching the film, by Friday evening everyone had made their way to the theatres. Two thousand Shiv Sena party members had been arrested. By Saturday evening, media was abuzz on how the brave citizens of Mumbai had defied the Sena threats to watch MNIK.
A large part of the credit goes to the security arrangements. In spite of the brickbats from political rivals, all movie halls were fortresses and any violence was curtailed quickly. If the police ever got it right, it was now. And this encouraged the ordinary citizen to step out and watch his favourite movie. Friday morning saw 13 out of the 63 cinema halls screen the movie. By Saturday, the number had increased to 49.
Does the Sena have second thoughts? No. Sena head Bal Thackeray continues taking potshots through his editorial mouthpiece, criticising Chauvan as Shah Rukh Khan’s bodyguard.
He wrote: “Chauvan arrested thousands of Shiv Sainiks and beat them up till they bled and put them in jail. In the end there was no place remaining in jail. For one Khan, how weak and helpless the Chief Minister has become.” He congratulated his party on successfully stopping the screening.
Whether there was a clear ‘winner’ or not, there are certain things that were proved by this issue:
- gone are the days when one political party could hold a city to ransom. India, with its ideals of democracy and multi-party politics, has drastically reduced the influence of a single party
- the fact that a political party is threatening a city and causing damage to property is enough to irk the citizens
- more than Sena’s comments, the aggression with which they pursued them led to their downfall
- security measures in the city, which always tend to be criticised, were more instrumental in boosting public confidence than the word of any leader
- the screening would not have gone ahead without the mass movement on social networking sites, citizens forums and media outlets
- Khan, with his determination to not apologise but offer to sort out his differences with Thackeray, showed courage and maturity which led millions to rally behind him
- the media did go a bit overboard with its talk of the Mumbai ‘spirit’ and its scrutiny of each of Khan’s tweets
- but the fact is that Mumbai, which did not bow down to floods or terrorist attacks, will not bow down to a political party facing an ideological crisis either
Since the Sena has not yet given a statement, the row is not officially over.
But MNIK has grossed £3.45 million worldwide so far and people are continuing to watch the movie in India.