Had Sir Charles Boycott been alive today, he may have empathized with Karan Johar. Wanting to get his lands harvested amidst protests from tenant farmers in 19th Century Ireland, Sir Charles resorted to hiring 50 workers from outside the county to do the work. The catch was that they had to work under protection of a 1000 strong force and the resultant cost was several times the profit from the harvest. Faced with a similar situation of being prevented from ‘harvesting’ the fruits of the labours put into his film, Johar has tried to do whatever it takes to reap his crop. But at what cost?
A victim of circumstances rather than design, Johar was unfortunate enough to have cast a Pakistani actor in his film at a time when relations between the two countries appeared to be on an upswing. To his utter bad luck, a series of attacks by Pakistan backed terrorists and punitive reprisal by India led to the ties turning belligerent by the time the movie was due for release. Popular sentiment against anything to do with our estranged neighbour engendered a spontaneous social media campaign against the movie. To make matters worse, the Pakistani actor in the eye of the storm refused to condemn acts of terrorism in his host country, preferring to flee back home, leaving Johar holding the proverbial baby and facing the flak.
It didn’t take long for people with interests – vested and otherwise – to jump into the fray. Fringe political elements rushed in to grab the driving seat in the bus of public sentiment, asserting their nationalism by threatening dire consequences if the movie was allowed to be released. Theatre owners, afraid of being at the receiving end of vandalism, decided not to screen the film. While they professed popular sentiment and their own sense of nationalism as being their motive, it’s obvious that the prospect of financial losses due to the film doing badly at the box office combined with possible damage to their property was an equally compelling reason. People in the film industry were divided, depending on what they themselves had at stake. Several in the same boat as Johar – having invested in forthcoming movies with Pakistani talent – came out strongly in his support. Some others took the opportunity to settle old scores, basking in his discomfort. A section of the intelligentsia attempted to link the chain of events with the narrative they have been carefully constructing and nurturing ever since the present government came to power – that of growing intolerance in the country. In doing so, they misrepresented a spontaneous popular boycott as a ban, implying the authorities were responsible for it. Central and state governments, possibly in a bid to counter this narrative, assured their commitment to allowing the release and providing adequate protection to the theatres screening the film.
The eventual outcome of this churning has been a negotiated settlement under which Johar has been assured of a peaceful release of the film provided he agrees to certain conditions laid down by the party opposing the release. Notable among these is payment of Rs 5 crore towards the Armed Forces Martyrs Fund by Karan Johar, and by all other producers releasing movies featuring Pakistani artists. In his single-minded effort to harvest his crop, just like Capt Boycott, Johar is heedless to the cost. But the Armed forces themselves are not amused at being made a party in this unsavoury deal. The payment, instead of a voluntary contribution by the producer to a noble cause, is rightfully being viewed as a ransom being extracted with a gun at his head. That this is being done in the name of martyred soldiers is offensive to their sensibilities, and senior veterans have urged the army not to accept the payment. The defence minister echoed the sentiment, and the chief minister who was supposed to have ‘brokered’ the deal has distanced himself from it. Popular sentiment isn’t likely to be assuaged under these circumstances either. Preventing the release of the movie wasn’t the common netizens’ agenda in the first place, and they may stick to their original intent of not loosening their wallets to watch the movie. So, it remains to be seen if Johar himself manages to break Capt Boycott’s jinxed precedence and actually profit from the troubled harvest. Forging a truce with Raj Thakre may assuage fears of theatre owners, but it won’t convince those boycotting his movie to spend money to see it. And of the movie bombs, he won’t even have the cold comfort that Capt Boycott did, of being immortalized in language by having a unique form of protest being named after him.