Before militants attacked an Army camp in Uri last month, the October 28 release Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was being regarded as a multiplex-friendly movie, while Shivaay – which is also slated to be released on the same day – was seen as being better suited to the single screens.
The Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India appears to have forced this perception to become reality. The association, which represents 450-odd single screen establishments in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Goa, announced on Friday that it has directed its members to not screen movies featuring Pakistani, singers or musicians. The immediate casualty of the decision is Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which stars Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Pakistani star Fawad Khan.
“It is not a ban – we have suspended the release of all such films,” COEAI president Nitin Datar told Scroll.in. “We have taken this decision keeping public sentiment in mind. The public is angry, and we have only respected their feelings. We have not taken this decision under any political pressure.”
Karan Johar's Dharma Productions, which has made Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, has not officially responded to the controversy.
The exhibitors' association is framing its decision as a response to the September 18 Uri attack that left 19 soldiers dead. In the aftermath, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena party – which has its headquarters in Mumbai, the nerve centre of the Hindi film industry – has repeatedly asked for Pakistani actors to leave the country. Over the past few days, the party has reiterated its decision to oppose Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.
So it wasn't surprising that Amey Khopkar, the head of the party’s film wing, Chitrapat Kamgar Sena, expressed support for the stance adopted by the exhibitors' association.
The move comes weeks after the Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association banned Pakistani actors and technicians from working in India. IMPPA later clarified that the ban was applicable to future projects and not completed films such as Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Raees, which has Pakistani actress Mahira Khan as the heroine. The president of IMPAA, TP Aggarwal, reiterated this position on Friday.
Datar said that nationalist sentiment was more important than commerce. “So many films with Pakistani actors and singers in them are being reshot,” he said, suggesting that Ae Dil Hai Mushkil should take the same expensive route. “What is more important, patriotism or making money?”
The diktat against Pakistani artists will hold even if state governments assure cinema owners of protection against attacks, said Sharad Doshi, a member of the exhibitors' association who was present at Friday’s meeting. The association has previously highlighted the problems faced by owners of single-screen theatres, such as high taxes and falling footfalls. "We have to start somewhere to support our country, our nation and our soldiers," said Doshi. "Let them reshoot the film [Ae Dil Hai Mushkil] and substitute the stars.”
No government can assure protection against violence, he added. “We don’t have the machinery to stop attacks,” Doshi said. “You cannot prevent 100 people from buying tickets and entering the cinemas and creating a ruckus. And if the public sees policemen standing out a cinema, they won’t enter it anyway.”
Much is at stake for both Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Shivaay. The films are being released during Diwali, an extremely lucrative period for the industry. Ajay Devgn, the director and producer of Shivaay, had announced the release date before Johar’s Dharma Productions, and his anger at having to share his business with Johar resulted in an ugly public spat involving allegations of corruption.
Both films will appeal to different, if overlapping, sections of the audience. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is a romance, while Shivaay is an action thriller in the mould of the Liam Neeson starrer Taken. Until the Uri attack, the industry feeling was that both films could co-exist happily . The trade logic was that Shivaay would be programmed more heavily in single screens, while Ae Di Hai Mushkil would dominate multiplex screens. The decision by the exhibitors' association will force this division into place at least in the cities in which the organisation holds sway.
The directive comes a week after exhibitors in Delhi pointed out that they would incur heavy losses if they had to drop Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. The movie’s trailer has proven popular, and its songs have been chart-toppers. “It’s a Karan Johar film – isn’t the investment in the movie that of an Indian?” a theatre owner told the Times of India newspaper. “We will show the film in our cinemas across all territories unless there is a blanket ban on the film or the government decides to stop screening of all such films. Unless we find ourselves in such an impossible situation, the films will be screened.”
The statement of the exhibitors' association is carefully worded, since only the courts and the Central Board of Film Certification can ban films, pointed out Akshaye Rathi, a prominent distributor and exhibitor in Maharashtra. “The association has made this decision to protect its members,” Rathi said. “At a personal level, I am all for not working with Pakistani artists from now on, but do not punish Indian filmmakers and studios who made these films at a time when ties between India and Pakistan were cordial. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was made when there were talks going on between the countries, so it is wrong now to punish the filmmakers for it. Don’t work with Pakistani artists any more, and don’t issue them visas, but why punish Indians?”
The row that ensued after the announcements of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and IMPAA diktats will only get uglier. Very few industry representatives are willing to speak out against the bans for fear of being seen as unpatriotic. Those who have, including Salman Khan and Mahesh Bhatt, have been pilloried for their remarks. Others, such as Devgn and Akshay Kumar, have taken care to declare their political leanings and publicly declare their support for the strike on Pakistan.
The only IMPPA member to speak out against the ban was the president’s son. Producer Rahul Aggarwal resigned from IMPPA and put out a Facebook post that criticised the decision. Rahul Aggarwal is still talking to his father, he told Scroll.in, but they have both declined requests to appear on television shows together.
Aggarwal remains opposed to the ban, and said that his position seems to have persuaded IMPPA to at least clarify that its decision does not apply to completed projects such as Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Raees. “It is a small step, but it is something,” he told Scroll.in. “Forget Pakistani artists for a moment, their numbers are truly insignificant. Think of the Indians whose blood and sweat have gone into these movies. They too are members of the same film industry.”
Aggarwal also warned that bans and directives will only fuel communal politics. “Look at what has happened to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who could not appear in a Ramlila production in his home town,” Aggarwal said. “Do we really need all this at this point?”