First, a disclaimer: I am neither Indian nor Pakistani. I am an American citizen, watching in horror as my country divides itself in the weeks leading up to our presidential election. The rhetoric on either side has devolved into mudslinging of the worst kind, with each side seeming to believe that only they are true patriots with the country’s best interests at heart.
I am also a fan of international cinema, Bollywood in particular. And in order to understand the art of another culture, you have to attempt to understand the social and political context in which it was created. Perhaps that’s why it’s been such an eye-opening experience to watch the mounting tension between India and Pakistan manifest itself in a bizarre need for film stars to become political mouthpieces.
Do not misunderstand me; celebrities who enjoy large fan followings have an unprecedentedly large platform to encourage positive social change. But even if we could all agree on what “positive” social change would entail, at the end of the day, they’re only actors. They are private citizens whose job it is to entertain us by parroting lines others have written. They do not speak for their country, regardless of where they come from. And should they happen to misspeak on an issue, they are certainly vulnerable to the fury of verbal and physical threats their words might inspire. To put it in the simplest terms, actors are no more qualified to participate in political crises than you or I (unless, of course, you believe that being rich and good-looking makes you better than the rest of the population).
So imagine how strange it must feel for Pakistani actors invited to work in India during a time of relative peace to suddenly be asked to play diplomats in the wake of a horrible terrorist attack. Fawad Khan may be right for many roles, but easing decades of tension between his home country and its neighbor isn’t one of them. As politicians and fellow actors demanded Fawad, Mahira Khan, Ali Zafar, and other Pakistani artists to condemn the Uri terrorist attack that had been credited to their country, everyone seemed to forget what is truly at stake when art is used for political target practice.
Enough has been said about the MNS, the threat of boycotts that the upcoming Fawad Khan-starrer Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has been under, and the “price” of 5 crore rupees that producers will now be asked to pay should they choose to engage Pakistani talent. But this is about more than just a few individual actors or the movies they star in. It is about the fundamental capacity art has to show us the world through a different set of eyes. And there is no artistic medium more powerful than cinema. Like millions of other cinema-goers across the globe, I escape into art when I don’t like what’s going on in my own life, in my own society. But when those problems start dictating the art our society is allowed to create, we can no longer claim we are free. Perhaps the immediate acceptance of Fawad Khan by both the audience and the Hindi film industry was symbolic of a minor shift in attitude, a willingness to allow art to break down the barriers we’ve created for ourselves…if only for a couple of hours. But it was the people who decided to embrace these artists and their contributions to cinema, not the politicians. And isn’t that the cornerstone of democracy, the freedom to choose? Take that away, and what is left?
But as I said before, I’m an American. I can’t tell you how it feels to be a Pakistani or Indian citizen in today’s political climate, but I can tell you what it feels like to see my own country being torn apart by a misguided sense of patriotism. And when I see political conflict in the form of Facebook posts, presidential debates, or physical protests, I have to remind myself that even if we can’t all agree on what is best for our country, we are fighting so passionately out of a love for the same nation and a desire for it to be better. That simple truth is what patriotism is, and I’ve learned you can’t put a price on it, or attribute it to a certain political party. And you certainly can’t buy it at the cinema hall.
So this Friday, whether you choose to see Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Shivaay, or any other film that’s playing at the multiplex, just know that your decision has nothing to do with how much you love your country. But perhaps it warrants consideration that supporting artistic freedom, even when you don’t like the artists, where they come from, or what they have to say, is what a true patriot would do.