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Sunday, January 30, 2011

When two attention seeking professions clash for publicity

Aamir Khan has become proactive of late and has taken up the Narmada Bachao Andolan's, NBA, cause - thus taking away the limelight from Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar. It's great that the actor, who makes obscene amounts of money for the one film he does per year, has decided to speak up for the rights of people who stand to be harmed, in the name of progress and the country's development.

His previous movie 'Rang De Basanti', about a bunch of youngsters who take on a corrupt system and become martyrs to a cause was a resounding hit. This movie got the defence department's clearance as well as on Maneka Gandhi's insistence, some scenes where animals were used, were edited out. The buzz generated about the movie was enough to pique people's interest and it went on to become a success. It helped that the plot-line was fresh and not your average triangular melodrama, that Karan Johar specialises in.

Now, he's in the news for lending support to a good cause but the timing is perfect too. His new film 'Fanaa' has been released and this time, it's got him playing a terrorist, who has the time to sing songs to Kajol, in her comeback role. The result is that the BJP has banned the movie from being screened in Gujarat. That hasn't stopped some of the actor's fans from travelling over to Mumbai to see Fanaa.

Why are the political parties catering to the lowest common denominator? And if you don't support these bans, then why don't you come out and say so? President, UPCC of the Congress party, Salman Khurshid explains to CNBC-TV18. "The Prime Minister has said that there is no question of accepting what the National Students Union of India, NSUOI, of Gujarat may be saying, but if they are saying something, we will have to listen to them and find out why they are saying it."

But he adds, "The government has a right to ban especially if something comes from a community saying that this is challenging our fundamental belief. The government believes that this is something they should intervene in."

But if the minority community in question has not asked for a ban in a particular state, is it still alright for the state government to arbitrarily decide what's good or bad for people. This is what the Punjab state government has done. It has banned the Da Vinci Code there.

Khurshid says, "There is a difference between what happened in Gujarat and what has happened here. It is a decision taken after having considered what is the right thing to do and what is the wrong thing to do. Finally, it is the will of the leadership at the centre that will prevail and we should wait for that."

All the same, BJP youth morcha has pressurized cinema hall owners not to show Fanaa in Gujarat and are now now even threatening to seek a ban by cable operators and video libraries. Is this the correct step to take in a democracy?

BJP's former Narmada Development minister, Jaynarayan Vyas says, "It is too much to assign everything to the BJP yuva morcha. In the first instance, this is the decision taken by the video libraries association and they do not make decisions under pressure from anybody. It was wrong for both the political parties that they lend their name to this movement. This is not politicisation of the movement, it's anger that is being expressed by the people of Gujarat."

Apparently, Aamir Khan's comments on the NBA has come at a very critical juncture, just when the case was about to come up with the Supreme Court. So Vyas feels, that the people of Gujarat are frustrated at Khan because he has chosen to take sides. But that's just the point, isn't an actor entitled to his opinion about national issues? So, what has driven the BJP yuva morcha into such a frenzy and the national spokesperson Prakash Javdekar to ask for an apology?

Vyas explains that, it's not necessary that just because Aamir Khan is a celebrity, everything he says must be respected and that he can get away with anything that he is says. He says, "Have you or any of these gentleman who are so much up in arms for Aamir Khan, seen the plight of the people - ladies walking 10-12 kms in the summer heat for getting one-day's water supply. Have they seen the plight of the children, waiting in the sun for four hours to just get one bucket full of water?"

Nonetheless, democracy thrives on debate and dissent, so why is the BJP stifling it? Vyas explains, "I fully endorse your view that the democracy thrives on the differences of opinion. Let us understand, why we are so much over-focused on this fundamental right to freedom of expression. Why don't you want to consider the way Aamir Khan preferred to express himself, the time he selected for his expression and the forum he selected to do it?"

"In fact, he selected a path of activism. When you are becoming an activist and going and sitting on a dharna for a day with the NBA, you are taking the path of andolan (protest). Then you are paid back in the same manner."

There is another dimension to this argument that everyone is skirting but which may be uppermost in their minds is that, Aamir Khan could be targeted because he's Muslim. There is the case of Arundhati Roy who has made her opinions known, for much longer, about the NBA rehabilitation issue, but her books and articles are not banned and I can’t see the Gujarat government raising the same hue and cry. Is that because she's not a Muslim?

Editor of Outlook, Vinod Mehta says, "I do not want to comment on this aspect but I suppose you could argue it like that. So many people have criticized Narendra Modi, do they get banned? I would not be surprised if people draw this conclusion, that Aamir Khan is also been targeted not because of what he said about NBA, but he also added something after that - he criticized Narendra Modi's role during the riots. I see a combination of the two factors. And the last thing that I want to say is that, this campaign against Aamir Khan is not a campaign of the yuva morcha in Gujarat, it's Narendra Modi's campaign."

Even movie director, Mahesh Bhatt echoes this viewpoint and says, "First of all the government of Gujarat should not be confused with the people of Gujarat. The people of Gujarat consist a diverse number of people, with all kinds of attitudes and mindsets. So the government of Gujarat does not entirely represent for me, the people of Gujarat."

But Mahesh Bhatt is one of the few from the film industry, whose known to express his views fearlessly and articulately. The rest of Aamir Khan's colleagues and friends have kept silent, unless it means showing up for a photo opportunity. Why is this the case?

Bhatt refutes this and explains, "The fact is that the movie industry has rallied behind Aamir from day one, but unfortunately, the media chose to use his solitary force as a more attractive product to market. The truth is that, everyone as far I know, has pledged support in action. I have personally toiled with the idea of filing a public interest litigation, PIL, against the government, because that is something which will stop them in their tracks."

He also feels that the situation is being badly handled. He feels that instead of banning his movies, people in the know about these issues, should "convert Aamir Khan to your point of view instead of banning him. You have an opportunity here. Educate the people about your point of view. This is not how you go about conducting your affairs. You cannot gang up against somebody, who is perhaps ill-informed or not educated enough. This is a great opportunity for you to step in and use your might to inform them about the reality."

Written for moneycontrol in 2006 but still makes for a good read.

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