India, its social and cultural fabric, ethos, values… in short, its heartbeat, is much, much bigger than a film. But in more ways than one, the Bollywood blockbuster and Shahrukh Khan/Deepika Padukone starrer Pathaan, which just crossed the phenomenal ₹1,000-crore mark at the box office, as I write this edit, comes within a striking distance of making a decisive statement on how India and Indians think, feel and act. And also, because this analogy fits in nicely with Rotary’s latest and most wonderful mantra DEI — Diversity, Equity, Inclusion.
We all know the brouhaha that erupted in the days preceding the film’s release on the big screen, and the cacophony of hate voices that exploded on social media urging people to boycott this movie. The primary reason the hate brigade or the ‘boycott gang,’ as these voices were aptly described, was attacking Pathaan was because the protagonist is a Muslim. All kinds of his statements from the past were dug out, twisted, misquoted, and torn out of context to argue that he was anti-national. Next, the film’s heroine, Deepika Padukone, who has in the past taken a bold and independent stand on some basic issues connected to freedom of thought and expression, was attacked for the colour of her bikini, and “exposing her body” during a song sequence in the film. While Khan was attacked by a popular Hindi journalist as a “cockroach with abs,” Padukone was abused in language too filthy to be reproduced here. Isn’t it infuriating to note, yet again, that it is always the woman for whom the most abusive and heinous treatment and language are reserved? And the magical Rotary credo to empower women gains even more focus vis-à-vis the special vulnerability of a woman because of her gender.
But in the midst of all this hate explosion, a most surprising, and absolutely delightful, thing happened. Almost all of India…. every region, nook and corner as it were, responded to this abominable hate campaign by just one action. Indians of all hues… religions, castes, class, speakers of different languages, thronged to the theatres to watch the movie. I know so many people who couldn’t care less about how a movie does at the box office, checking every day how much the film had collected. One tweet said it all: ‘Every day, I check Pathaan’s box office collection… as though the money is coming directly into my bank account!”
But it is not about the money. It is about people pouring out their love to say: Stop…. not in our name. It is about the vital essence of a country which is knit together so intricately, so beautifully, so delicately, by fine threads of a thousand vibrant colours to create a fabric which will not be destroyed so easily by hatemongers.
Also, two things helped. Through the whole storm, the mega star kept his mouth firmly shut, and had only one message at the Kolkata film festival — let’s remain positive. But at the same forum, the veteran and highly respected superstar of Indian cinema, saluted Kolkata “for your artistic temperament that embraces the essence of plurality and equality,” and urged both filmmakers and viewers to celebrate India’s “diversity”. Most important, a few days before the film’s release, at a BJP forum, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself urged his party leaders/ministers to refrain from commenting on films, and concentrate on the work they had been given — the task of development and nation building. Touché!