In the battle for a tolerant India and freedom of expression, rarely have films attracted so much attention and become topics of polarising debate as Shah Rukh Khan’s Pathaan and the banned BBC docuseries, India: The Modi Question. In both cases the result has been just the opposite of what was intended. In the case of Pathaan, the frenzy of the Hindutva brigade’s boycott campaign has not only backfired badly but the much-awaited spy thriller, after opening to a massive audience response, has turned out to be a mega box-office blockbuster. In 12 days, Pathaan has crossed Rs 800-crore mark at the worldwide box office and is still going strong.
In the case of the BBC documentary, which deals with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political rise to become the chief minister of Gujarat and with the 2002 Gujarat riots — one of the worst outbreaks of communal violence — over which Modi has faced charges of inaction or complicity, the Centre’s decision to ban the screening of the contentious documentary and block its links on social media under emergency laws has had the unintended effect of raising more awareness about the film. Thus, the ban increased greater interest in the docuseries, with more and more people wanting to watch it.
In the forefront of those wanting to watch the docuseries have been students who gained access to it through screenings and shares on smartphones. Political parties, including the Congress and CPM, have also arranged screenings in many places. In some universities, students’ unions have tried to screen it, but university authorities have tried to scuttle the screenings by various means. The ban has resulted in students, rights activists and citizens questioning the government’s decision to infringe on their democratic right to watch the film. The legality of the ban has also been questioned and challenged in the Supreme Court.
Given the film’s controversial subject, it is not difficult to understand the motive behind the ban. While the government should not arbitrarily block media content just because it is critical of the regime, its justification for using the emergency powers under IT rules to block access to the docuseries stands in question when seen in the continuum of coverage of the riots and the aftermath. The events that led to the horrific communal violence, the dreadful crimes, the failure of the regime to act in time to control communal violence and lack of recourse to law-and-order steps, have all been covered, recorded and commented upon in the Indian media and therefore are in the public domain.
Seen from this perspective, the BBC documentary is just another media investigation into what happened in Gujarat in 2002 and its aftermath, which had a huge impact on the polity and politics in Gujarat and the rest of India. So, when Home Minister Amit Shah claimed during the Gujarat Assembly election campaign that the rioters were “taught a lesson in 2002 after which they refrained from indulging in violence”, it is pertinent to ask whether it was just election rhetoric or did it amount to admission of complicity in the riots? If Modi comes in for criticism in the film which is based on a UK government report, interviews and investigations, in the fairness of things his supporters also get the opportunity to defend him and counter the criticism.
It is obvious that the documentary has been banned because it does not show Modi in good light and therefore other reasons have been cited to validate the decision. One of the reasons is that it is an “attempt to sow divisions among communities and undermine the sovereignty and integrity of India”. This is a lame excuse and a false alarm. Another reason is that it is an “attempt to cast aspersions on the authority and credibility of the Supreme Court”. True, Mr Modi was cleared of all charges in the Gujarat riots case for want of irrefutable evidence, but it does not mean that the media cannot revisit or investigate the entire episode again. Banning something inconvenient and finding reasons to validate it does not mean that the questions about Gujarat 2002 will go away. Moreover, criticism of the prime minister is not criticism of the country.
Coming back to Pathaan, before its release the film’s title had reportedly riled up hard-line Hindutva groups. Then its song, Besharam Rang, stirred up a controversy as well, for showing Deepika Padukone in an saffron-coloured bikini. Right-wing groups accused Shah Rukh Khan of insulting Hindus, as the saffron colour is associated with their religion. In recent years, boycott of films has become a regular occurrence. A section of the Hindutva right, often blessed by BJP politicians, finds some grievance against a star or film, making filmmakers nervous about tackling any subject that the Hindutva right might dislike. Khan is not the only one to be targeted, but he has been a regular target of Hindutva groups for obvious reasons.
As a stereotype-defying star-actor, he angers the right-wing because he is not apologetic about his identity as a proud Muslim Indian in Hindu-majority India. In polarised times, not only does he embody secularism and speaks against religious and sectarian bigotry, his star appeal cuts across religions, regions and socio-economic classes. He represents liberal India and aspirational Indians of the post-liberalisation era who aspire to succeed in life. His enormous popularity, which defies categorisation and labelling, is an antithesis of hate and religious profiling. All this makes Khan an easy target of the right-wing.
Over the last two weeks, we have seen that the boycott calls have made no difference to the film’s unprecedent success. What the Pathaan episode tells us is that boycott threats are bully tactics aimed at getting attention and headlines. It was wrong to boycott the film, which was cleared by the Censor Board. Likewise, it was wrong to ban the BBC documentary, because the government did not have a convincing reason to do so.
The writer is a senior independent Mumbai-based journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule
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