‘Phantom’ isn’t about Pakistan; it is about Saif Ali Khan and Indian Muslims facing their own demons
‘Phantom’ generated viral hate from Pakistan. But most people ignore the internal politics facing Indian Muslims and why this film, despite its subject matter, is not about Pakistan.
The trailer of ‘Phantom’ runs like a maze merging conspiracy theories with fairy dust; where Katrina Kaif’s eyeliner never smudges as she dashes through a bomb blast. Essentially, the film seems to represent modern cinema’s economics perfectly; sell whatever sells for as long as you can sell it. And nothing sells like controversy, not even sex. Of course, if you somehow manage to blend controversy with sex and add a dollop of tragedy to the mix, then you have the makings of a succulent B-town blockbuster (Afghan Jalebi anyone?)
But even before its release, the film generated a lot of social media hate from audiences in Pakistan who questioned its politics (to put it mildly). Naturally Saif Ali Khan’s loss of faith coincided with his film’s ban in Pakistan, because if there is one thing that corporate powerhouses understand it is numbers. Particularly when the same director (Kabir Khan) forked in nearly Rs. 6 million from Pakistani audiences just a few months ago with ‘Bajrangi Bhaijan’ . Pop-culture from both countries has always mimicked the uneasy suspicion with which their security agencies and even elected governments, to an extent, deal with each other. Do you remember when Atif-mania crossed the border? Forget for a minute the heavy record deals and the cheering crowds, and turn your mind’s eye towards an unhappy singer Abhijeet calling young Mr. Aslam out in the most narcissistic rant in the history of live television. Or more recently, when Mahira Khan’s ‘Bin Roye’ was banned in Maharashtra for, well, being a Pakistani film. Being trolled by infamous Kamal R. Khan was perhaps just the cherry atop Mahira’s cake. Don’t get me wrong; banning the film was a mistake. Audiences should be allowed to accept or reject cinema based on its content, not who it offends. And granted that Hafiz Saeed hasn’t exactly been convicted yet, and his NGOs are charitable giants, still given his notoriety the courts and government should exercise tact where he is concerned.
But headlines the world over toke the discourse onto a grimmer plain. Brimming with the grave tragedy of Bollywood’s elite, they tout, “a Pakistani terrorist got a Bollywood film banned for showing him in a bad light.” They pit Pakistan, a rising behemoth, against India, the world’s glittering oasis of democracy and freedom. That is the sentiment, now for some facts.
The fact is that while India faces many internal disputes that have claimed countless lives, it can’t blame Pakistan for them.
The fact is that in the area articulately dubbed India’s Red Corridor, armed troops have been locked in a battle with indigenous Adivasis for decades. For popular media, the conflict is one of the few remnants of the Cold War, where democratic avengers fight Maoist guerrillas. But given that ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called it India’s “greatest internal security threat…” few journalists actually take time out to speak to tribal people. Those that do, like acclaimed writer Arundhati Roy, describe a desperate situation where arguably the poorest people in the world face of against corporate powerhouses trying to wipe them out and access rich mineral reserves. Some reports suggest that since Narendra Modi’s accession to office, the clash has worsened .
The fact is that millions of ‘untouchable’ Indians continue to bear the brunt of a caste system that extends into all walks of life, where they are humiliated, violated and expected to exist as second-rate citizens.
The fact is that even in Kashmir, which has been a bone for both countries to fight over since 1947, it is politics and policy that have escalated the situation. India’s proudly held title of the world’s largest functioning democracy is seriously challenged when the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act , giving military forces the right to act “on suspicion” has lead to the disappearances of countless Kashmiris, only to be replaced by mass graves.
But these are the nation’s “uncomfortable truths” to use Saif’s words, what about Khan himself? Surely, as someone who saw the carnage and frenzy of the Mumbai bombings, his views on Hafiz Saeed’s alleged involvement can hardly be apolitical. Interestingly though, he had never heard that notorious name until Kabir Khan presented him with the script for ‘Phantom’. So the phantasms must lie elsewhere, and they do. Fun fact, did you know that Saif Ali Khan’s paternal uncle Isfandiyar Ali Khan Pataudi was a contender for the post of ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) chiefin 2012?
Probably not. Why would it matter to Pakistanis if a would-be high level security official happens to be related to a Bollywood superstar? But flip that script, and in India the fact that a beloved Little Nawab is related to the possible commander of a hostile neighbour’s intelligence agency is not as easily shrugged off.
No, this film isn’t about “India’s 9/11” rather, this is an attempt by an Indian Muslim to assert his patriotism, nationalism and innate Indian-ness.
And really I’m just paraphrasing. In an interview with India Today , Khan’s ambitions couldn’t be clearer. Regarding his Pakistani kin he said, “Everything said and done, I think I would still choose my country over any relative… It (Phantom) is an unbiased film. Most of the people involved in making the film are Indian Muslims. Our position is very clear, we are Indians first.”
Would any of this clarification be needed if an Ajay Devgun were the lead of say a Yash Raj production? I’ll let you answer that question for yourself.
It is difficult to analyse Muslims in India without inviting the wrath of Bollywood’s most powerful, but to say that they have had a difficult time of late would not be a miss.
The fact is that the man allegedly answerable for the death of more than a thousand Muslims presently boasts the title of democratically elected Prime Minister. That people can be raped, beaten and burnt to death, and Narendra Modi can dismiss it as a “reaction” to an “action”, grieving for the massacred masses as a passenger does when his car runs over a puppy . And that so many years later, he can still avoid any an attempt at public apology. It would be foolish to argue that Modi’s accession to power has not affected Indian Muslims, even more naïve to ignore that ghosts of ethnic clashes still resonate on India’s streets.
Less than a month ago Yaqub Memon was hanged for being, as the Supreme Court called him, a “driving spirit” behind one of India’s deadliest attacks. He did not directly participate in the 1993 bombings, the court held, but he had aided the conspiracy. Fair enough, one would argue, why shouldn’t a convict be punished for his crimes? In fact isn’t due judicial process in dealing with acts of terror what most of us, Indian or Pakistani, have been calling for?
Except that the same legal framework has maintained an eerie silence over the December 1992 and January 1993 riots, which some argue were causal to the bombings. More than 900 people, a majority of them Muslims, were killed in the aftermath of Babri Masjid’s demolition, but perpetrators for that tragedy continue to avoid inquests and public grief. Unsurprisingly, when the ringleader according to a judicial commission was Bal Thackeray, founder of the ultra-Hindu Shiv Sena and longtime ally of Narendra Modi’s BJP. According to the commission, Thackeray orchestrated the riots, “like a veteran general …commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organized attacks against Muslims…” yet he remains unpunished.
Perhaps they were inspired by ghosts of the victims, perhaps they were disgusted by a strange dichotomy where the mastermind behind 93’s bombings hung in the gallows while the mastermind behind ethnic rioting was honored by a state funeral, but ten thousand Muslims waited silently as Memon’s corpse was carried out. Senior BJP leaders branded them “potential terrorists”.
Digging up skeletons isn’t pretty, but when systemic injustice and violence constantly follows a faction of society delving into the past is akin to soul searching. Earlier this year, a court ruling found a police unit not guilty of rounding up and executing 42 Muslim men in 1987 . It took twenty-eight years for effected families to learn that the kidnappers and murderers of their husbands, brothers and sons were innocent in the eyes of the law. The pogrom was an isolated incident from a past that most Indians would like to forget. But how do you encourage modern Indian Muslims to try their hands at solace when their sons are still being targeted? In April 2015, five young men, all of them Muslim, were shot and killed by police as they were being transported to court. They had been arrested years earlier for alleged terrorist activities, evidence for which has been challenged. The police claimed that there had been a confrontation, but this maybe an attempt to conceal facts. A father of one of the victims explained, “I feel the government was interested in the encounter, while the police was eagerly waiting for an opportunity to kill my son …with such hatred in the officials, how can I expect any justice for my son’s murder?” Between 2007 and 2012, approximately 12000 people had been killed in police custody, and according to The Bombay High Court custodial killing mainly involves Muslims or Dalits.
Of course in a thriving capitalist economy being a superstar of noble lineage ensures that Saif Ali Khan avoids these biases. But that doesn’t entail that he is oblivious to the “all terrorists are Muslims” rhetoric. After all, following the Mumbai attacks Shah Rukh Khan, arguably the most powerful Muslim in Bollywood, went as far as to say that he was “scared” of saying anything for fear of whom he may offend.
‘Phantom’ has launched a viral debate, and most have resorted to the old ‘us versus them’ argument. The film received flak from big Pakistani names that borders lunacy at times. Faisal Qureshi’s video response for example was seen as offensive, almost a self-parody. And merely tweeting in support of the film might have escalated actress Mawra Hocane to the most hated celebrity in the country. Trust me, even as I press publish on this post, I await the angry tirade of hate from both ends of the border.
But most critiques and responses overlook that this film despite its subject matter isn’t about Pakistan. It is about Indian Muslims ‘doing more’ to counter terrorism. And the potent problem is that while it has always been convenient for both countries to blame elements across the border, key issues are almost always systemic, political and ultimately internal. India cannot blame Pakistan anymore than Pakistan can blame India.
But for phantoms that remind us to look in the mirror, perhaps now is not the time to show their faces.
UshaKK - Co founder and editor at Dissent Conclave
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