It is Bollywood’s sleeper hit of the year, having quietly completed four weeks in theatres and netted over ₹62 crore at domestic turnstiles as this column goes to press. As it happens, Hindi Medium starring Irrfan Khan and Pakistani artiste Saba Qamar raises political questions that go beyond its theme. For one, why has Mumbai’s nationalist brigade not protested against the casting, as they did in the run-up to the release of Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM) starring Qamar’s compatriot Fawad Khan? What happened to the rhetoric about boycotting Pakistani talent following the Uri attacks?
Hindi Medium is not the only one that got away. Between October 2016 and May 2017, at least four Hindi films starring Pakistanis have come to Indian theatres, but extremists have victimised only one: ADHM last October. Raj Thackeray and his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), with the tacit collusion of the Central and State governments, harangued Johar over Fawad, prompting the panicked producer-director to issue an apology and even rewrite, re-edit and re-dub his film to erase a crucial, potentially contentious aspect of his storyline: that ADHM was originally an India-Pakistan romance. (For details, read the November 2016 edition of Film Fatale: ‘How KJo reworked Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’ ).
Johar also did not quell rumours that he donated ₹5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund, a ‘penance’ supposedly stipulated by Raj. Sources in the film industry and defence establishment tell me no such payment was made. However, Johar’s silence on the false stories in circulation helped Raj to further strut his fake bravado. Just weeks later, Dear Zindagi starring Alia Bhatt, Shah Rukh Khan and Pakistani actor Ali Zafar came to theatres, unopposed by Raj & Co, his estranged cousin Uddhav and Shiv Sena, who together form Mumbai’s first family of cultural policing.
To understand the difference in extremist responses to ADHM and Dear Zindagi , rewind to October 2009 when MNS threatened to block Johar’s production Wake Up Sid on discovering that its characters were referring to “Mumbai” as “Bombay”. Johar apologised, thus gifting Raj an important political victory.
Shortly afterwards, Cousin Uddhav decided to use Johar — now with a reputation as an easy mark — to score a point in the game of one-upmanship with Cousin Raj. The SRK-starrer My Name Is Khan ( MNIK ), directed by Johar and co-produced by Shah Rukh’s Red Chillies Entertainment, was scheduled for an early 2010 release. Uddhav decreed that Shiv Sena would obstruct it unless Shah Rukh apologised for remarks made a short while earlier about the need to include Pakistani players in the IPL. Shah Rukh refused, MNIK was released despite hitches, and Uddhav wound up with egg on his face.
You may now understand why, in 2016, Raj was confident that grandstanding over Johar’s ADHM would pay off, but steered clear of Dear Zindagi (a Shah Rukh-starrer, and a co-production between Johar, director Gauri Shinde and Red Chillies). What if he or Uddhav had demanded contrition for the casting and been snubbed? A bully fears nothing more than losing face.
Besides, both Thackerays understand news cycles and would have known that sustaining the ruckus for four weeks after ADHM ’s release would have been near-impossible. The media would have moved on to other stories, and organisations like the Senas are nothing without the spotlight on their aggressions.
This is not to say that Shah Rukh is unbendable. India in 2017 is vastly different from 2010, when the left-of-centre Congress was in power at the Centre and in Maharashtra, and the actor may have felt that both governments had his back in the MNIK fracas. Today, with the right-wing BJP ruling India and Maharashtra, not surprisingly, Shah Rukh held a pre-emptive meeting at Raj’s house in the run-up to this January’s release of his home production Raees , in which he played the lead opposite Mahira Khan from Pakistan. (Disappointing though it is that Shah Rukh chose to legitimise Raj as an extra-Constitutional authority, it must be acknowledged that a toned-down Raj seemed to tread carefully around him.)
This brings us back to Hindi Medium . A spokesperson for the production company T-Series confirms that during the ADHM episode they had informed Raj that they finished shooting Hindi Medium long before Uri and promised not to use Qamar for the promotions. Raj would, in any case, have known that raising the same issue within just eight months would yield diminishing returns in the media. Besides, Qamar is not as familiar a face in India as Fawad. To target her film would be less politically rewarding.
Likewise, controversy over a small Irrfan-starrer is likely to get less media space than a massy KJo production or a Shah Rukh-starrer. Above all, Hindi Medium ’s theme — language and class snobbery — is a pet cause of the present Central government, whose spokespersons routinely demean opponents proficient in English by labelling them the “Lutyens elite”. The ruling BJP is unlikely to have backed an assault on Hindi Medium , since it could have ended up being a self-goal.
Like the late Bal Thackeray before them, Raj and Uddhav cherrypick controversies with great thought. Keeping all these factors in mind, sparing Hindi Medium would have been a no-brainer for them.
Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic; @annavetticad