The release of Shahrukh’s latest movie, My Name is Khan (MNIK) eclipsed all news for about a week. The biggest story in Saturday’s newspapers was without doubt its enthusiastic reception. The story was covered on the front page, various back pages and of course, the op-eds. The general tone was celebratory and unanimously supportive of SRK. The act of watching a movie was extrapolated to taking a stand for independence and free speech. And SRK’s refusal to apologize deemed heroic, the one act that would serve as a tipping point for restoring democracy in Mumbai against Shiv Sena’s regressive xenophobia and hooliganism. A la Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on the public bus sparked the civil rights movement.
The real story though is not about freedom of speech or democracy or Shiv Sena’s violent jingoism. At the heart of this episode is good business – and a little demo of the shape of things to come in an increasingly neo-liberal India.
SRK is a consummate businessman expanding his financial interests from film actor to producer to television, panoramic endorsements and now privatized sport. In 2008, Newsweek named as one of the 50 most powerful people in the world, one of the only two from India (Sonia Gandhi being the other). Despite this, time and again when asked of his political opinions his stock response has been that he wants only to “make people smile”. For an intelligent, informed individual with significant money and influence and an alleged believer and proponent of democracy to be so consistently and overtly apolitical has to be a calculated economic decision. In this light, his refusal to retract his IPL statement too has to be deemed a personal economic decision. And the consequences would only have been economic – the money lost due to its limited initial release in Mumbai (no one expected Sena’s theater vandalism to extend to the movie goers), akin to the losses incurred by traders/shopkeepers when a political party calls for a bandh against some government policy or inaction.
And yet our national news rallied behind SRK with multiple sympathetic interviews, clips and broadcast of his vaguely messianic tweets. Rajdeep Sardesai, editor of CNN-IBN exhorted every Mumbaiker to “go watch MNIK in the theatres, its a small, but important way of taking a stand” and Barkha Dutt (NDTV) earnestly claimed that “im [sic] standing up for a belief”. Mumbai government deployed over 21,000 policemen to guard theatres screening MNIK and preemptively arrested over 900 Shiv Sainiks. Nary a squeak from any of our news networks about this shocking display of state repression and targeting based on political affiliation.
For Shiv Sena, this was a calculated political move – the churlish actions of a regional political party with a fragmented support base after Raj Thackeray’s defection. Putting this party in its place requires not Mumbaikers flocking to the theatres to watch MNIK but media blackout. A party of this small size can’t rely only on its little official mouthpiece, “Saamna” and needs the media platform for survival. However, the lurching illogic of the Thackerays is good drama, which always translates to good TRPs.
And ratings was the primary interest, not freedom of speech or taking a collective stand against divisive/undemocratic intimidation. There have been numerous other instances of clamps on freedom of speech and nowhere near this kind of sustained coverage to drive public behavior. 94-year old Husain is in exile in Dubai. Taslima Nasrin was expelled from India in 2008. Deepa Mehta’s movies, Fire and Water both came under Sena and other Hindu right-wingers’ ire. While the above have the right to free speech in common with MNIK’s release, they lack easy marketability. And easy marketing is at the heart of this campaign: the effortless connection with India’s two loves, cricket and Bollywood, a media savvy celebrity, polarizing Pakistan, a comic book goon and the perception of participation by painless retweets and mere consumption. The Save Our Tiger campaign is another example of a high gloss initiative to distract the public. Yes, there are 1411 tigers left in India and urgent measures are required – but the real solution does not lie in citizen involvement as manifested by the campaign’s entreaty of “speak up, blog, sms – every little bit counts”. No, ’cause each is completely useless to curb poaching and/or manage sanctuaries. Neither is tiger conservation hampered by lack of funds since even the allocated funds have not been completely utilized by many sanctuaries. The only organization helped by the sms portion of the above entreaty is the sponsoring organition, Aircel (a mobile service operator).
The real fight for freedom of speech and democracy is the fight against our desperate poverty. Yet there is frighteningly little focus and interest in governance, the prioritization and allocation of the country’s resources for its people. And there are serious issues at stake. The Food Security Act (FSA) is on the anvil. What does the FSA say about India? There are people in our country who don’t even have enough food for basic sustenance. That their numbers are so large that the States and Center have spent months trying to figure out eligibility criteria and a sharing arrangement that they can afford. We also have the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which entitles each rural household hundred days of unskilled work at minimum wage. This Act is testimony to the fact that we’ve taken an entire people of our country and thrown them out of the economy. These two legislations go at the heart of democracy and what it means to live in a just and humane society; both are going through serious upheavals. However, what is the percentage of airtime and column space afforded to either? Even worse, why is there no national passion for them?
We need to reevaluate our national priorities. Arts and sports are the underpinnings of the country’s culture, and integral to national consciousness. We should rightly be passionate and proud of both. However, mere consumption cannot drive culture. And we cannot claim to be proud Indians, yet ignore Bharat.
On a related note: stellar piece by P. Sainath on the ABC (Advertising, Bollywood and Corp Power) of Indian Media