One can argue that sabotaging the release of a Karan Johar film is a deeply humanitarian act. But, as we know, Raj Thackeray’s threats to Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which had employed Pakistanis, had a very different intent. After the patriot swore to vandalise theatres that screened the film, director Karan Johar, who does not have dandruff, appeared in blacks in a short film. He promised that he would never cast Pakistanis again. Some refined Indians were enraged by his act, which many of them termed a “capitulation”. But it is daft to be disappointed by Johar.
Successful people, like Johar, often cannot and do not stand up to thugs. They are wise. They have much to lose. It is much easier for losers or those with very limited success, especially those in solitary professions, like writing, to take bold positions, which they usually do to display their low-stakes courage.
No matter what artistes and journalists say, it is beyond their means to take on street thugs and their handlers. It is the job of the primary thug, who is a legitimate power in an orderly society. In fact, the primary thug decides what is legitimate. The entire civilised world is based on the simple understanding — the alpha thug, also known as the government, in return for a generally agreed-upon protection money, also known as taxes, would grant regular people considerable freedoms and guard them from all other secondary thugs.
Very often in the past, central and state governments in India have failed to perform just this. As a result they have ceded too much ground to even puny, petty freelancers. This has impoverished and diminished the prestige of the government and is a reason why Indians do not like to give it any protection money, a reluctance that further erodes order in the society.
In the past several decades, the Congress governments conceded ground to smaller thugs to sustain a notion of secularism, which was intellectually, philosophically and etymologically flawed. The secularism of the Congress was not complete absence of god from State, but that every god had a right to disrupt governance and society — some gods more than others, of course. As a result politicians, godmen and clerics could often challenge governments.
The BJP government, by appearing to negotiate with Thackeray, greatly diminished itself. When the Indian middle-class wished for a strongman to lead the nation, what they meant was that they wanted the government to assert its legitimacy and create order. It is amusing that the issue of nationalism should make the BJP, which rules both the Centre and Maharashtra, choose the path of timid placation instead of giving Thackeray the AAP treatment, which is the act of shoving an adversary into prison. It is possible that the BJP is not as scared of Thackeray as it is of the AAP.
The Ae Dil Hai Mushkil drama is very similar to what happened in late 2014 to Sony’s The Interview, a film in which two American journalists are assigned to kill the North Korean soft-toy dictator, Kim Jong-un. Days before the release, there was a cyber-attack on Sony. The US government said that the attack was conducted by North Korea in response to the impending release of the film. Sony, shaken by the attack, decided to junk the film. The corporation claimed that big theatre chains and other forms of distributors wished to have nothing to do with the film.
The American artistic community was disgusted. Sony had “capitulated”. They wished Sony would show more courage. The writer Paulo Coelho offered to purchase the rights to the film for unclear intent. Barack Obama, too, was disappointed. “I wish they had spoken to me first,” he said. Sony, by shelving the film, had shown a lack of confidence in the ability of the US government to protect it. Eventually, the corporation did release the film.
In both the instances, various sets of humans behaved in predictable ways. The business community was practical and willing to choose the humiliation of surrender. The central corruption of money is in its ability to denude humans of personality, convictions and moral spine. In both the cases, representatives of the government were wise enough to be embarrassed. They promised protection.
As silly as it is for the government to negotiate with small illegitimate thugs, is the propensity of the artistic community to negotiate with the government for its very legitimate freedoms. A freedom of expression that is granted by the government, smaller thugs and the society, is a freedom that is usually worthless. The real value of artistic freedom lies in the reluctance of an authority to grant it. The charm of a freedom is in its very ambiguity.
Indian artistes should now consider ways of working with Pakistani artistes because the threats from big and small cultural thugs, and the feeble stand of the government, have ensured that a mere association with Pakistanis has an intrinsic artistic value because the defiance of the underdog is, after all, a big part of art.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
The views expressed are personal