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This morning, when a friend of mine sent me a text message screaming, “SUPPORT MNIK!”, I sent her a gory description of what happens to minks in the process of going from animal to fur coat. Which led to her writing back, “Get with the program.” So I’m probably the only person in Mumbai who is more or less in the dark about this whole Shah Rukh Khan controversy but that’s obviously not going to stop me from having an opinion on this matter.

I’m told the Shiv Sena got its loincloth in a twist (they’re traditional; it’s either the loincloth or VIP Frenchie for them) when Shah Rukh Khan said he wasn’t against hiring Pakistani cricketers in one of those cricket jamborees. Anything with the mention of Pakistan tends to be touchy and the next thing you knew, Narendra Modi’s Gujarat was looking like the Land of the Free for the Mumbai-based SRK fan since it looked like the nearest show of MNIK for a Mumbaikar was going to be in the neighbouring state. Except by the end of it all, everyone was happy. Shiv Sena had been able to shout its favourite anti-Pakistan slogans. The Mumbai Police, for once, got a pat on its back for standing guard in front of multiplexes as people filed in. Karan Johar probably made a killing as MNIK opened to packed houses. Once upon a time, Shah Rukh Khan and Karan Johar had people running to the theatres because of the movies they made; now they have to appeal to people’s political correctness in order to have a good opening weekend.

A few weeks ago, I was watching a show called “One on One“. It was made up of a set of 10-minute plays and the last one was called “Instant Behosh.” The story was of a terrorist who was meant to be one of the 26/11 chaps but he mistook CST to be Churchgate Station. While his colleagues were killing people, he was chomping on a vada pao. The said terrorist’s aim in life was to be the winning dancer on one of the Indian dance competition shows. The monologue is peppered with politically incorrect jokes like the one in which the terrorist, who lisps to add to his cuteness quotient, says the only respectable profession in Pakistan is terrorism. The coiffed and couture-cluttered crowd that attended the show guffawed gustily and there were rolling rounds of applause for each Pakistan-sucks joke. A couple of days later when the MNIK nonsense flared up, I bet that same people were clucking and saying what a bad guy Bal Thackeray is. So what if they had clapped thunderously in support of every anti-Pakistan crack in “Instant Behosh”? It’s the theatre, the English theatre in particular. People watching it MUST be liberal.

Unsurprisingly, despite all the brouhaha, MNIK opened today and apparently to packed houses. There’s been more chatter about MNIK in the news than about Shahid Azmi being killed last night. It was probably seen by every Shah Rukh Khan fan and every liberal-minded Indian citizen who believed it was their moral responsibility to watch MNIK. Word in the alleyways is, however, that Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan had an understanding with the right-wingers. The dudes in saffron kick up a fuss, win over some more people to the fascist cause and look like champions to their existing supporters. The dudes in Ralph Lauren and Armani get awesome publicity and look like they are heroes to their fan base. Everyone goes to bed happy on Friday night. Something similar happened with Karan Johar’s last film, Wake Up Sid, as well. The MNS kicked up a fuss about the movie using Bombay instead of Mumbai in some dialogues. Instead of using his considerable muscle to give Raj Thackeray the middle finger salute, Karan Johar put up an apology for using Bombay in every theatre that was screening the movie. Once again, some publicity and much happiness on both sides. With MNIK, the movie’s budget was bigger and the publicity campaign went on for longer (perhaps because initial screenings had audiences willing to pay money in order to be let out of the auditorium discreetly). So the mud-flinging and arm-flailing went on for longer.  Today, when the movie opened, it gave Bollywood chaps a chance to look heroic in real life by “joining ranks” and going to see a movie (you’d think they do this regularly considering their profession). There were microphones in front of Kabir Bedi, who didn’t get a ticket because it was house full, and photographs of Shah Rukh Khan were bathed in milk (it’s Mahashivratri today). Shah Rukh Khan, along with co-star Kajol and director Karan Johar, was safely out of harm’s way in Berlin for a festival screening.

If the rumour is true then there’s a lot that’s disturbing about this. First of all, some of us are dumb enough to fall for the publicity stunt repeatedly. Secondly, some people are bastardly enough to come up with such a stunt. But along with being bastards, they’re also short-sighted. Because it’s not a heartening thought that people are looking for a fight, whether it’s against Pakistan or anything else that comes before them. During “Instant Behosh”, people fought for India by cheering on an inept terrorist who made Pakistan look like the homeland of violence and foolishness. Today, some have fought their battle by buying a ticket for MNIK, which is great because at least the intent seems positive. However, if at any point a crowd turns violent, I doubt if any of the people who have been giving press statements are going to be able to say anything to calm anyone down; not even if it reaches millions through their Twitter accounts. Not even if they say it in English and with a lisp.

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6 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Hi Anon,

    For once I don’t quite agree. I can choose to laugh at crude Pakistani jokes. Yet, I wouldn’t take away someone else’s right to defend the country. And I certainly would not threaten them with violence and loss of income. That is my quibble with Shiv Sena. They are free to express their hatred, disgust, ridicule for Pakistan, as long as I am free to defend the country.

    Whether it is a publicity stunt – I don’t know. Even though I am only following the controversy from afar, I was sure that such a rumour would be floating about. It would be too tempting a theory for a skeptic to miss out on. But on balance, I tend to think not.

    Johar and Shah Rukh Khan have always minted millions with their films without resorting to pretend controversies. So is there any reason to believe that they would suddenly start now? Khan and Johar may have acted arrogant, vain and silly in the past but I can’t remember any instances of sneaky dishonesty by them. Nor can I see them put theatre-owners to risk for their own personal gain.

    On the other hand, Shiv Sena has never needed any reason to take offense and start dictating what Mumbaikars should or should not do.

    Of course, you may choose to disagree.

  2. I completely agree that the Shiv Sena has latched upon the flimsiest reasons to start acting in their thug-like way and I do think SRK’s comment about hiring Pakistani players is perfectly sensible. But I think Mumbai is well-versed with what could happen if the Shiv Sena really did want to do anything to even ONE theatre showing the film. We all remember them closing down exhibitions, stoning media offices, attacking cinemas etc. etc.. As it turned out, with MNIK, there was nothing. If this is a sign that the roaring tiger is suffering the fate of the real tiger, I’m delighted (though not about the real dying tiger. Have you seen the new “Save the Tiger” campaign? Heartbreakingly cute). But I’m more than a little cynical about the fact that there was not a single show of the movie that saw even any attempts at trouble. If you’ll tell me that this was courtesy the Mumbai police or that Thackeray and his cadres saw the rushing support for SRK and so backed down from doing anything, I’m not convinced.

    As for the jokes, last year, there was an Australian stand-up comic Jonathan Atherton who came to perform. I remember some people getting quite snarly because his act just continuously made fun of things he saw in India. I didn’t find Atherton offensive because I think he was pointing out things we all giggle about (misspelt ads, auto rides, state of roads etc. etc.) anyway. The difference in “Instant Behosh” was that unwittingly there was a polarity being set up: India, good; Pakistan, stupid and delusional. I think if it had been written in Hindi or Marathi, it may have been considered rather rabble-rousing.

  3. Was there significant damage done, as Sainiks have wreaked in the past? I’d argue that these are too small to be part of an organised agenda (obviously, I can’t prove this) but it’s an example of what I was trying to say in the last paragraph of my rant. Inflame people and you run the risk of them or cadres taking the law into their own hands because they feel they are morally obliged to do so. In case of Shiv Sena cadres, this is what they’re predisposed to anyway. Once upon a time, Bal Thackeray probably had enough clout to make them stop too. Now when neither he nor his successors have any such command over the party, it’s very scary.

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