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  July 3, 2001  

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Indian movie stirs passions of intolerance
By Raju Bist

MUMBAI - The timing could not have been worse. Even as preparations continue in New Delhi for the historic meeting in mid-July between Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, a big-budget Hindi movie threatens to further strain relations between the two hostile neighbors.

Gadar - Ek Prem Katha (Revolution - A Love Story) was released on June 15 across India. There was a lot of pre-release hype surrounding the movie as the future of a number of film personalities was riding on its success.

Leading man Sunny Deol, the Bruce Willis of Indian cinema, was looking for a big hit to revive his flagging career. So was director Anil Sharma, who hitherto had dabbled only with B-grade productions. Heroine Amisha Patel, scion of a leading business family, had to prove that her first film - last year's biggest hit, Kaho Na Pyar Hai (Say You Love Me) - was no flash in the pan.

Gadar went on to make news, but for the wrong reasons. On June 20, 400 activists led by a local Muslim leader, Arif Masood, stormed the Lily theatre, which was screeningGadar in the central city of Bhopal. They ransacked the cinema hall - located in the old part of the city, which is predominantly populated by Muslims - and burned two motorscooters. The mob was protesting the manner in which the film's Hindu-Muslim love story is portrayed. Gadar is the fourth film in recent times where a Muslim girl is shown marrying a non-Muslim. (Zubeida, Dahek and Fiza were the others.)

Police had to fire teargas shells and use force to disperse the activists. Two police personnel were injured in the fracas and had to be admitted to hospital. The screening of the period drama was suspended in the city.

Three days later, Muslim organizations in Lucknow, the capital of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, raised their voice against the movie. They were objecting to the mention of the name of a prominent Muslim leader in its list of acknowledgements.

Major portions of Gadar were shot in Lucknow and the organizations were agitated over the filmmaker crediting Maulana Kalbe Sadiq for help in making the film. Sadiq was abroad but his son, Sayyed Hussain, who is president of the Muslim Jagrati Manch, strongly reacted over the inclusion of his father's name in the acknowledgements.

Hussain demanded an explanation from them as to how Sadiq helped the film unit, saying it was seemingly a "conspiracy of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and other Hindu organizations to defame the Muslim leader". Hussain said his father was a religious leader and his name should not be associated with a film containing modern songs and dances. "It is an insult to him," he observed.

The Muslim Jagrati Manch has threatened to take legal action against the filmmaker. Hussain also expressed serious reservations over a scene of the film in which the heroine, a Muslim girl, is shown offering namaz (prayers) with sindoor (vermillion) on her forehead. He further claimed some dialogue in the film appeared designed to create animosity between Sikhs and Muslims. The Lucknow district administration has made tight security arrangements in and outside the theater in which the film is being screened.

During the same week, in Aligarh, also in Uttar Pradesh, a bomb was thrown at the theater screening Gadar and in Ahmedabad in the west Indian state of Gujarat, a cinema screen was set ablaze. The Gujarat government has put police on high alert throughout the state wherever the movie is being screened.

The film is set in the year 1947, the year British India was partitioned in Inia and Pakistan. It is a love story in the lush border state of Punjab. Protagonist Deol plays a Sikh truck driver who comes across a Muslim girl student (Patel) from Lahore during one of his journeys. Love blossoms between the two, but the division of the country creates havoc in their lives.

As so often happens in such cases, the Gadar controversy soon spread to other parts of the country. The Mumbai unit of the Muslim League has called for an immediate ban on Gadar for "hurting the religious sentiments of the minority community". The party has also threatened to launch mass protests if the Maharashtra government fails to ban the film. Describing the film as an "attempted conspiracy to create tension between Muslims and Sikhs", Faruque Azam, president of the Muslim League, said he suspected a foreign hand in the entire matter.

According to Azam, the film depicts Muslims as barbaric rapists who instigated partition riots. He also objects to the fact that the film does not show the suffering of Muslims in the same way it talks about the pain Hindus went through at the time of partition. And he is opposed to the film's female lead being named Sakina, a name held in reverence by Muslims.

Meanwhile, the right wing Hindu party Shiv Sena joined issue with Muslim organizations protesting against the "objectionable scenes" in the movie, terming them as "anti-nationals" and stating that the film was simply reflecting the events of 1947.

Fireball Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray jumped into the fray with a statement accusing fundamentalists of trying to whip up communal passions. By torching cinema screens, the protesters had insulted their own religion, he said. Ever the rabble-rouser, he questioned whether the government had the guts "to take action against Muslims expressing their loyalty to Pakistan by protesting against the film".

But luckily, amid all the mayhem, there have been a few sane voices. Mumbai's Muslims said threats against the movie amounted to the inciting of violence by troublemakers, and they did not support such protests.

Urdu poet Javed Akhtar said, "I haven't seen the film yet, so I can't say if there is anything objectionable. But even if there is, it doesn't mean people can incite violence or indulge in acts of vandalism. There are appropriate forums to voice one's objection."

In a signed front page statement in the Bombay Times daily, his wife, noted actress Shabana Azmi said. "I don't agree with Gadar's aesthetics or its sensibility. I also question the sagacity of making the film at a time when efforts are being made on both fronts to ease the tension between India and Pakistan. Yet, I defend the right of Gadar to be screened."

Fuzail Jafferey, editor of the popular Urdu daily Inquilab says, "A film should not be seen from a religious point of view, unless there is something that challenges the basic tenets of any religion." Jafferey added, "We oppose this stance taken by some members of our community." Hinting at a possible political motive behind the issue, Jafferey adds, "But if someone wants to make an issue of something, who can stop them?"

The makers of Gadar are incensed at reports encouraging sentiment against the movie. Nittin Keni, the film's producer, said, "There is no question of banning the film. Nor will we delete any scenes. Certain groups are merely seeking publicity at the cost of our film." He added that he was willing to reason with anyone with a genuine objection, but wouldn't submit to bullying. "My film is not communal. It is about patriotism. It is about the way the people of India feel," adds director Sharma.

His detractors allege he used sensationalism to sell his film. He deliberately chose a subject that was delicate. To which he says, "I would request people to go and see my film, not to listen to any rumors. There is no sensationalism in my film. Gadar is a love story. It has a certain earthiness about it. People identify with the film. Both for those who have been through the partition and for the new generation, my film is a chapter in history. They can learn from my film."

What was forgotten, though, is that Gadar is a movie that will go down in the annals of Indian movie history as a film that started a new, positive trend in Indian filmmaking.

The film industry is notorious for its large transactions of unaccounted money, and its close links to the underworld. Gadar is the first film where all the financial transactions have been on record. Produced by Zee Network, a leading Indian satellite TV company, it has started off a phase of corporatization in the Indian film industry. Gadar is an audited project of a public limited company - the first corporate film where even the carpenters were paid by check after having taxes deducted.

The film opened with a bang, with 100 percent weekend collections in all theaters. The overwhelming response carried over to the second week, particularly in north India where many theaters organized extra screenings.

Says Sharma, "My film has done well everywhere. It is a big hit in Mumbai." It is expected to gross 200 million rupees (US$4.2 million) in this city alone. This should be music to the ears of the producers, for the film was made at a cost of 180 million rupees.

That the film is being lapped up by the masses, however, will have no effect on the hysterical mobs out to seek some cheap publicity as the whole controversy shows the recurrence of a familiar pattern. It happened earlier with violent protests against Fire a badly made movie with lesbianism as one of its themes. Then the communists protested against the negative depiction of Lenin in the James Bond thriller The Golden Eye. Indian protesters have also come out on the streets for more inane reasons: women wearing Western dresses, Valentine's Day celebrations and the organization of beauty contests.

In all these, the individual's right of expression has been infringed. Gadar is only one more addition to the already long list. Sadly, the world's largest democracy is also becoming one of the most intolerant.

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