Bollywood controversy

Really, Ajay Devgn? Kamaal R Khan is your secret weapon?

The backstory to one of the most unsavoury rows in Hindi cinema in recent memory.

How do you solve a problem like Kamaal R Khan?

It is probably best to ignore the failed actor and troll-disguised-as-film-critic, whose statements, tweets and YouTube reviews feed the most outrageous conspiracy theories about the Hindi film industry. For his vast Twitter base (12.5 million at last count), Khan speaks to power by bashing the new releases every Friday. But for everybody else in the trade, the actor best known for the gargantuan flop Deshdrohi (2008) is a nuisance whose misogynistic statements about women and unverified insinuations about filmmakers are best disregarded. Yet, actor and filmmaker Ajay Devgn dragged one of Twitter’s most egregious entities into the limelight this week while claiming to expose his allegedly corrupt behaviour.

Devgn has a new movie out during Diwali, Shivaay, which is clashing with Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Devgn has released an audio file in which Khan claims that Johar has given him a Rs 25-lakh bribe to post tweets supporting Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.

The alleged conversation between Kumar Mangat and Kamaal R Khan.

The audio clip, clocking three minutes and 20 seconds, is of a telephone call made by Devgn's business partner Kumar Mangat to Khan. After cursory chatter, Mangat asks Khan why he is effusively praising Johar and abusing Shivaay on Twitter. Khan initially defends himself. “Have you adopted Karan Johar?” Mangat asks Khan. The reply: I have been paid Rs 25 lakh by Johar. Mangat says, I will pay you too. Khan responds that Devgn didn’t reply to his birthday wishes, and he will abide by the producer’s wishes in the future.

A private and unverified moment between two individuals has been blasted into the open under the guise of a sting operation that undermines Johar while claiming to expose Khan. Devgn’s press release that accompanies the audio clip is revealingly worded: “I have been a part of the Indian film industry for the past 25 years and have been associated with over 100 films. My father was a professional action director and I have an emotional connection with this industry. It therefore pains me to see that people like Kamaal R Khan are holding the film industry to ransom by spreading negativity about films to extort money from producers. It is very sad that people from our own industry are supporting such elements and spoiling the ethos of the film industry. I would strongly demand that this be thoroughly investigated by competent authorities to clarify if Karan Johar was indeed involved in this.”

A great deal is at stake for Devgn. His action thriller, which he has also directed and produced, is going head to head with Johar’s romantic drama. While the trailer of Shivaay made its mark, the accolades for the recently released teaser for Ae Dil Hai Mushkil included rare praise for Johar from an old detractor – Khan.

Khan has drawn blood with his barbs in the past, but his battle with Johar is perhaps the most vicious. At the time of the release of Bombay Velvet in May 2015, Khan unleashed a barrage of tweets criticising Johar and the movie’s director, Anurag Kashyap. Apart from being one of the movie’s producers, Johar played a key role in the period drama.

Khan alleged that Johar had offered him Rs 25 lakh to stop his campaign against Bombay Velvet. Khan’s tweets from a year ago have been helpfully included by Devgn’s publicists in another document that accompanies the press release.

The document is a study in offensive marketing strategy. Titled "KRK Tweets Against Karan Johar", it contains bullet points that trace Khan’s war against Johar. In April 2015, Khan tweeted that Johar had threatened him and asked him not to review Bombay Velvet. More tweets followed, in which Khan claimed that Johar had offered him hush money to give Bombay Velvet a four-star rating.

The message from Khan to his Twitter following at the time was clear: this is one critic whose words are so honest, fearsome and effective that even one of the most powerful men in Hindi cinema wants him to shut up.

The document notes that Khan initially seemed to have loved the trailer of Shivaay, but then “suddenly he started favoring Karan Johar and Ranbir Kapoor and started drifting away from his first statement / tweet about Shivaay”. On August 8, Khan started putting out negative tweets about Devgn while simultaneously posting fulsome praise about Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. This, according to Devgn, is proof that Khan has sold out. But rather than voicing concern over the lowered standards of supposedly independent critics, Devgn is actually trying to drag Johar’s name through the mud. The clash of two big-budget releases on the same date, especially during a lucrative season like Diwali, typically leads to fireworks and hand-wringing over the division of spoils, but this wrangle is more like arson.

Khan, no doubt chuffed about Devgn firing over his shoulder to make unsubstantiated insinuations against Johar, has assessed the situation perfectly in a tweet that sums up his self-aggrandising mission.

What if the allegations were true? It is indeed shocking that a producer would bribe a critic to be nice rather than nasty. But the film industry already uses far more insidious ways to influence the media – through advertising in exchange for news coverage, promises of appearances at film award shows and assurances of uninterrupted and exclusive interviews and photoshoots.

Khan adopts the position of being above these practices and the only lotus in the muck. By claiming to be removed from Mumbai (he lives mostly in Dubai) and far away from the “presstitutes” of Union Minister of State VK Singh’s imagination, Khan claims that only he tells it like it is. He has earned a massive fanbase by moviegoers who reward his pugnacity with retweets and favourable comments on his YouTube channel.

By taking aim through a loose cannon, Devgn has once against aligned himself against the A-listers of the Hindi movie business. In 2012, Devgn took on Yash Raj Films head Aditya Chopra over the clashing releases of his film Son of Sardaar and YRF’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Both films were being released on the same date – November 12, 2012 – and Devgn took serious offence to YRF’s policy of shutting out the competition well in advance. In a practice that will bother ethicists but will win the approval of hard-nosed entrepreneurs, YRF told exhibitors before the August 15 release of the Salman Khan-starrer Ek Tha Tiger that they could get the hands on the movie only if they also made a commitment to screen Jab Tak Hai Jaan a few months down the line.

YRF is not the only studio that imposes such conditions on exhibitors and distributors to ensure the maximum possible opening. This aggressive variation of advance booking is typically used by powerful producers who have a pipeline of potential moneyspinners. Devgn’s company, Ajay Devgn Films, filed a case against YRF with the Competition Commission of India in October 2012, accusing the studio of anti-competitive behaviour. The case against YRF was eventually dismissed.

The release of Jab Tak Hai Jaan was an emotional moment for Aditya Chopra. His father and the movie’s director, Yash Chopra, died from dengue on October 21, 2012. The evocatively named film became a swansong for one of Hindi cinema’s most towering personalities. Devgn’s assault was eventually seen as an act of disrespect rather than a rare attempt to settle a dispute between film families by going to court rather than the preferred backroom negotiations. Yash Raj Films responded with cold silence to Devgn’s allegations, and reacted only to the Competition Commission’s ruling through press releases.

In another instance, though, Khan’s sniping wasn't taken so lightly. Earlier this year, in response to Khan’s unsubstantiated remarks about Vikram Bhatt's personal life following his movie 1920 London, the filmmaker not only declared that he would sue Khan, but also launched an online petition to shut down Khan’s Twitter account.

The matter ended after Khan made an unconditional apology to Bhatt on July 2, and declared, “Today a new very serious type of critic has born.”

Silence is perhaps the only weapon against this attack on grammar and good taste, but Khan’s numerous groupies, many of whom are in the film trade, are not that easy to muzzle. These are people who are ready to believe the worst of the Hindi film industry, and their continued admiration for Khan’s virulence suggests that Devgn has chosen his secret weapon well.

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