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Nearly all controversies Hindi films battled were related to politics. Often the fracas was created inadvertently, at times intentionally. In either case, the film gained instant appeal and a good opening

Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese once said: “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” This has proved to be true in a more literal sense than what he must have meant, in the Indian context. Over the decades, films, especially Hindi films, have had to battle controversies of the kind that were out of the frame as well as those inside. Often the fracas got created inadvertently, at times intentionally. In either case, the film in question gained instant appeal and a good opening at the box office; the filmmaker and those associated with the film, too, received their due moments of glory in the media.

Nearly all of these controversies have had to do with politics. Filmmakers and actors (with notable exceptions like Prakash Jha) love to say that they don’t understand politics and wish to have nothing to do with it, and that they are creative people who believe in freedom of expression. The new generation, especially, is very touchy about the matter. And yet, whether out of design or by accident, they impinge upon politics.

Of course, there is also a growing tribe of intolerant people and organisations that sees conspiracy in every second film to hurt its sensitivities. This has certainly encroached upon the space that filmmakers need to make the kind of films they want, within the parameters laid down by law. But somewhere within the spectrum — at one end of which are producers, directors, and actors, who believe that crass shock and outrage is equivalent to freedom of expression, and at the other end are the mobs that are ready with sticks and stones to smash screens and manhandle dissenters — are those filmmakers who are true to their art and sensitive to public opinion as well.

The basic question which arises is this: What is that red line which filmmakers must not cross? On the face of it, there is a simple answer. Once a film is certified by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), it’s fit to be watched by whichever section of the audience the certification is mandated for. That’s the law. But can films, which have perhaps the widest reach than any visual medium in the country, be rigid enough to stick to just this criterion, ignoring public sentiments of the moment? Karan Johar’s recently released film, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, makes for a good case study.

The release was timed weeks after the attack by Pakistan-based militants at an Army camp in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir. The film featured a Pakistani actor. The outrage against Pakistan was nationwide. Pakistani actors working in India had in the past condemned terror attacks that had happened in various parts of the world, but had neither done that in Uri’s case nor had they expressed the profound grief over the loss of lives which they did in the case of, say the attacks in Paris or Brussels. Various appeals to these actors to at least condemn the strike failed to elicit any response.

Sensing an opportunity, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) announced that it would not allow Johar’s film to release in Maharashtra, and certainly not in Mumbai. The MNS also threatened to teach a lesson to filmmakers who continued to work with Pakistani actors. Regardless of the means Thackeray had decided to employ, his anger was shared by millions of people across the country — even by those who generally abhorred his politics. Johar made things worse by making statements which seemed to ridicule the idea of collective outrage against the Uri attack.

However, realising that his bluster would sink his film on the release day itself in case it did not see the light of day in Mumbai, he, along with a delegation of filmmakers, reached out to the MNS supremo. The now-famous meeting was held between Thackeray and the delegation in the presence of Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who played the ‘mediator’. The MNS relented after Johar agreed to not work with Pakistani artistes till India-Pakistan ties normalised, issued a strong statement assuring the people of his patriotism, and said the sacrifice of our soldiers was any day more valuable than the business interests of his film. To top it up, he announced a sum of Rs5 crore to the defence welfare fund out of the film’s earnings.

What does one make of this deal? Did Johar succumb to pressure? Or did he merely act from his heart which had always been in the right place but seemed somewhat displaced in the eyes of his opponents? Whatever, it was a case of politics and cinema getting mixed. But Johar has little reason to complain at the end of the day; his film has done good business, though discerning viewers returned disappointed from the theatres.

If Ae Dil Hai Mushkil ran into trouble because it had a Pakistani actor at the wrong time,Parzania kicked up a controversy because it was based on the 2002 violence in Gujarat. It didn’t run into censor trouble because the rulers of the time, in 2007, were the Congress and its allies, and they loved the depiction as it suited their political interests. The plot of the film is based on a real story — that of a person whose 10-year-old son went missing during the communal riots. Whatever its other merits, the film certainly appeared to have the agenda of projecting one side of a story that deserved a balanced approach. It was duly banned in Gujarat, which was ruled by a BJP Government.

There have been other films with political stories that ran into trouble, if not with the censors, then with sections of the politicians and the audience. Black Friday andSarkar are two such examples. To the credit of the filmmakers, in both cases, they were balanced and objective in their narration. The outcry against them was politically motivated. However, the more recent Udta Punjab was a hash job and with the apparent intention to cash in on the drugs menace in Punjab. It virtually tarnished all of the State with the broad brush of taint. The film eventually failed to create a mark at the box office. And yet, until the controversy lasted, the film basked in undeserved glory.

Perhaps the most celebrated case of a film running into trouble is that of the classicAandhi by Gulzar. This was a political film of 1975. The film’s female protagonist, played by Suchitra Sen, had a look inspired by Indira Gandhi. She walks out on her husband to pursue a career in politics. Many in the ruling political establishment then — already in awe of Indira, or if they were not, they were certainly terrified of her (remember it was the Emergency era) — found the contents of the film deeply offensive. Anything that seems to be a repudiation of the supreme leader of the time was offensive and distasteful. Aandhi ran into censor trouble, and when it was released, it didn’t get a full release until the time of the Emergency. In fact, it was released and quickly banned once Emergency was declared. It was only when the Indira-led Congress was routed in 1977 and the Janata Party assumed power that Gulzar’s masterpiece reached audiences across the country.

Critics of the incumbent Government at the Centre would like people to believe that the stand-off between films and politics is the Modi Government’s hallmark because it is a ‘fascist’ and an ‘intolerant’ regime. In the forefront of such criticism is the Congress. And yet, this very party has been the worst offender of intolerance and silencer of freedom of expression of the Hindi film industry.

Aandhi is not the only instance. Take the case of Kissa Kursi Ka. This film by Amrit Nahata suffered a fate worse than that of Gulzar. It was India’s first political spoof and a satire on Indira Gandhi and her powerful son Sanjay Gandhi. One fine day, all its prints were confiscated and the film was banned (the Emergency was still on). It had dialogues such as: “Sir, give this man the licence to manufacture small cars because he learnt it in his mother’s womb.” It is said that the prints were made a bonfire of, or shredded to pieces. Nobody knows for sure.

But politics alone does not lead to a confrontation between politicians and filmmakers; bold social issues too have raised the hackles of self-appointed moral guardians of society, who are in turn courted by politicians.Fire was ready for release in 1996 but ran into censor trouble. It was among the first mainstream films to depict homosexual relations; Aligarh being a more recent case dealing with a similar subject too faced tremendous controversies. Fundamentalist organisations took umbrage over the subject, the film was withdrawn from theatres and released only two years later — with no cuts. In a similar vein, Water, set in the late thirties and dealing with the plight of widows in Hindu society, faced a hostile reception when it was being shot in Varanasi, and during its release. It took two years for filmmaker Deepa Mehta to finally release it in 2007.

If politicians are adept at harassing filmmakers since they are soft targets, they also do not hesitate to fall back on films to promote their vested cause. There is the hilarious story, perhaps apocryphal, of the Government ordering Doordarshan to screen the film, Bobby, in March 1975, just before the Emergency was imposed, in a bid to wean away people from a rally to be addressed by Jayaprakash Narayan in Delhi. JP, as he was popularly known, had by then stepped up his attack on Indira Gandhi and her regime and had begun to draw massive crowds.

And there is more. Legendary singer Kishore Kumar was put on the banned list of All India Radio and Doordarshan merely because he refused to perform at a Congress event in Mumbai during the Emergency. The story is that the then Information and Broadcasting Minister Vidya Charan Shukla ordered the ban, which was lifted only on the intervention of another legendary singer, Mohammad Rafi. Quite possibly, Kishore Kumar was not revolted so much by the ideology of suppression of freedom of expression as he was by the prospect of not being paid for the performance!

Despite the challenges, Hindi films have begun to get bolder and more real. This is welcome. They are no longer about gushy romance alone, and there is no longer the propaganda of relationships being in black and white — the clearly defined contours of the hero and the villain have given space to more realistic grey shades. And yet at times, one wonders whether the constant assault on filmmakers (the genuine ones, that is, and not the instant publicity seekers) will lead the film industry to believe in DW Griffith’s words: “The public itself will not have it (reality). What it wants is a gun and a girl.”

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