By Santosh Desai
May 2, 2016
What makes an event news? This somewhat unoriginal question came into sharp focus last week for me on my first trip to Pakistan. One of the co-speakers at a marketing conference I was speaking at in Karachi happened to be Kabir Khan, the director of films like Ek Tha Tiger, Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Phantom. As has been reported here, the director was heckled by a dozen or so protestors and threatened with a shoe as he was leaving the country. The trouble had started the evening before, with a local channel stirring things up by pointing to Khan’s film Phantom which it alleged was anti-Pakistan. Media on both sides picked up on this incident and it became another media ‘event’, an item to be consumed as part of a larger narrative of mistrust and hostility.
Given the background of India-Pakistan relations, any event of this kind could legitimately be considered news; after all, if random utterances of those on the lunatic fringe can be reported faithfully, why not an attack on a Bollywood director? It helped that there was video footage of the incident and that a shoe, that menacing staple of mob violence, was also involved.
And yet, this incident and the attention it has received is completely at odds with the reception that Khan received in Pakistan. The larger truth about Khan’s visit was that he was inundated with admiration and affection; as a co-speaker one didn’t get to meet him, because he was always ten-feet deep in adulation. In an hour-long question answer session with a Pakistani director, Khan was articulate, honest and insightful as he addressed a broad range of issues. He was asked about his film Phantom, not in anger but in disappointment (Why go back to the old stereotype about Pakistan after doing Bajrangi), and his reply, that it was important to understand that a small group of people on both sides should not be confused with the nation at large was greeted with enthusiastic applause by an adoring audience.
As a spectator to this tableau, it is clear that what eventually became news was not in the least bit representative of what actually transpired. And yet, the truth is that a trip by a Bollywood director as well as the reception is received would not have been deemed particularly newsworthy by itself. Kabir Khan’s trip became news because of someone waving a shoe at him. The warmth of the hosts and the genuineness and abundance of the good feeling generated throughout the trip were by themselves not worthy of being documented. The attack was, because it added another chapter of the on-going saga of reciprocal hatred. The enemy revealed himself yet again, even if the show of hostility was an aberration, a spectacle enacted for effect.
But there is another larger story that should interest us. The really significant aspect of the whole matter is not the individual who made the film, but the film that connected with so many. The popular Pakistani reaction to Bajrangi Bhaijaan speaks of something deep and real, something that should by all accounts be considered extremely newsworthy. That a film of this kind ostensibly about an Indian superhero could strike such a deep chord, and evoke such spontaneous reactions is a subject worth examining more closely. Bajrangi Bhaijaan was a highly successful film in India, but in Pakistan it seemed to have been much more. Its message of humanity struck a real chord- it signalled that the interest in finding a common connection rooted in the present was a mutual one. Bajrangi Bhaijaan showed than an Indian film could acknowledge the humanity of the other side, even as it told a heroic tale of an Indian helping a Pakistani child. While Salman Khan was the main hero in the film, so was virtually everyone else, for almost every character radiated a warm sense of humanness.
Elsewhere in Karachi too, India is present in many different ways. The live music in restaurants effortlessly weaves in and out of Bollywood, including in a restaurant that goes under the name Pakistani. The power of Bollywood cannot be underestimated; films and the stars are a common currency of conversation, and they populate the local consciousness quite effortlessly, sometimes in quirky ways. A young lady spoke to me about her trip to Mumbai and the delight she experienced upon spotting location made familiar by films. The high point of her trip was going to a Mandir so that she could ring the bells loudly as she had seen so many times on screen! The largest brand of ‘lawn’- that Pakistani innovation of unstitched Shalwar-Quameez fabric that has become all the rage is called Khaadi, and its ads are everywhere. Indian entertainment channels are available on cable, and the IPL is covered live, accompanied by a set of Pakistani commentators who do the pre-match mumbles.
And yet, as the Pakistani reporter played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the film says, hate is much more marketable than love. It would seem that news struggles to find a way out of the past and to escape a narrative that it has helped construct. Things that run counter to the dominant narrative are not considered newsworthy or are reported without due emphasis, even if they are significant in scale. Things that support the dominant narrative, even if they are minor, become big news for they validate, rather than challenge our existing understanding. This is true regardless of ideology; this is the reason why right wing attacks on freedom always get more play than left-wing violations- the dominant narrative has been set, and anything that disturbs this gets shrugged off.
The irony about news is that it implicitly discriminates against the new. The old cements itself as it did last week in Karachi where twelve people out to get covered on television won and hundreds who cheered for peace and understanding got lost in the din of the headlines.