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Everybody Loves a Good Controversy

The ongoing protests by Mumbai's Shiva Sena against the Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan and his film “My Name is Khan” once again underlines the uneasy presence of lumpen elements in Indian politics and their tendency to use “icons” or national figures to project their politics of hatred and violence

Zafar Anjum

Can you imagine a topline Hollywood film's release being threatened in Los Angeles by a minor political party just because its star said something in support of a foreign sports team and the comment was not taken favorably by the head honcho of that party? Not only that, imagine the story becoming the top story on the national TV networks. Sounds bizarre? Not in India. Bizarre is normal in India.

The ongoing protests by Mumbai's Shiva Sena against the Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan (aka SRK) once again underlines the uneasy presence of lumpen elements in Indian politics and their tendency to use “icons” or national figures to project their politics of hatred and violence.

The SRK starrer-“My Name is Khan” (MNIK) is releasing in India tomorrow (Friday, 12 Feb) and Shiva Sena has declared a war on the filmaiming to hurt the economic interests of the top Hindi film actor and teach him a lesson. Posters of the film were torn and cinema halls were vandalized by Sena activists. Given the Sena's history of violence, some exhibitors were so scared that they refused to open the advance booking for the filmdespite heavy security arrangements and assurances by the state government that law and order in the city will be maintained at all costs.

Mind you, the Shiv Sena has a history of violence and its supremo Balasaheb Thackeray has never been put behind bars despite his hateful speeches having incited communal violence time and again since the 1960s.

The Thackerays consider Mumbai their personal fiefdom. Their far-right regional political party has waged many battles, first against the South Indians, then against the North Indians and the minority communityall in the name of an ideology that Maharashtra belongs to the Marathi community.

Apparently, the Shiva Sena is not against the film or the actor per se in the current controversy. They are against SRK's remarks made a few weeks ago favouring the Pakistan's cricket team. SRK, who also owns a private cricket team that participates in the Indian Premier League matches, expressed his displeasure against the boycotting of Pakistani players by all IPL teams (the teams said they did so for security reasons). When this happened, many commentators spoke against the undignified way in which the Pakistani players were kept out. But the Shiva Sena hung on to the words of the superstar. Bad luck that he had his highly-anticipated film MNIK hitting the theatres in two weeks.

The Sena, which was losing ground to its breakaway faction, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), decided to fully milk this opportunityit had controversy written all over it: Cricket, Pakistan, a Hindi film starring a superstar involving a Hindu-Muslim love angle set in the backdrop of global terrorism. Shiva Sena was doing a Bombaythe Mani Ratnam film on Hindu-Muslim romance set in the backdrop of anti-Muslim riots in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid's demolition.

Everybody loves a controversy
The way the controversy has spiraled into a national issue raises many questions. And I have problems with all the major actors of the controversy.

First, Shah Rukh Khan. I am with him because he has every right to express his opinion in a country like India that prides herself on her democratic credentials. But my problem with SRK is that after expressing his opinion and after refusing to apologize for saying what he said, why develop feet of clay? There are alleged reports that SRK wants to meet Thackeray senior but the meeting has been spoiled by a ruling government minister. I hope it is not the case that the controversy was allowed to steamroll to generate unprecedented media coverage for MNIK and now that the publicity has peaked, it is time to call off the show. SRK should stick to his stand and call the bluff of the toothless tiger.

Second, Shiva Sena and its company. Mr. Thackeray, why only target SRK? Other celebrities and commentators have said similar things and have rightly got away with it. Is it because SRK is a Muslim that his remarks in favour of Pakistani cricket team make his patriotism suspect? If latter is the case, then sorry Mr. Thackeray, it is a cliché. The new and resurgent India rejects this kind of fallacious thinking especially when organisations like the Times Group are trying to bring India and Pakistan culturally closer through their Aman ki Aasha (Hope for Peace) project. Will you then burn the copies of Times of India too? No matter what you say, your brand of nationalism is so narrow that it should not be allowed to get out of the headquarters of your party. No wonder your party has been rejected by people but stooping to old tactics like attacking film and cricket stars will not win you new votes.

Third, the media. The TRP-hungry media especially likes controversies and if it involves films and film stars, even better. The same old panel discussion is foisted on the tired viewers. The party spokespersons start blaming each other and all ghosts from the past are brought to life1984 (anti-Sikh massacre), 1992 (anti-Muslim riots), 2002 (the Gujarat pogrom), 2008 (Mumbai terror attacks) and so on. TV hosts, anchors, please note. Ban the speakers from raking up the past. Everyone has skeletons in their closet but two wrongs do not make a right. Talk about today, talk about now. Don't let politicians hide behind the wrongs of the past.

Last but not the least, the viewers. Don't get too riled up by the controversy. This too shall pass. Support good cinema and free speech. And next time you go to vote, remember to teach those political parties a lesson that seek power through dividing people.

Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based writer and journalist.


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