'Fanaa' a Hit Movie Despite Protests

Members of the Federation of Western India Cine hold posters of actor Amir Khan's film 'Fanaa' after it was banned in the western Indian state of Gujarat. (Photo: Sebastian D'Souza / AFP-Getty Images)

Call it coincidental. Two movies that were recently released on the same day across India have run into censorship problems. Both, however, have turned into box-office hits.

The two movies are the Hindi film "Fanaa" and the "Da Vinci Code," which endured a delayed opening in India, and has now been banned in various states across the country due to the fear of violent protests by the minority Christian community. This is despite the fact that it has been cleared by the independent Central Censors Board without any recommended cuts.

"Fanaa" (Annihilation) has enjoyed successful openings across India, except in the western state of Gujarat, raking in huge amounts of money and bringing accolades to its lead actors Aamir Khan and Kajol; the latter making a comeback after a long break.

While "Fanaa" is heading for its third week of playing to packed audiences across India, the nearly 180-minute movie has been released in only a single theater in the city of Jamnagar, in Gujarat.

The movie was initially banned in Gujarat following protests from members of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), who are angry at Khan for supporting the stoppage of work on the Sardar Sarovar dam over the River Narmada, and also for requesting adequate rehabilitation for the ousted villagers.

The majority of the people in Gujarat want Khan to apologise for his stance on this issue in a compromise for the movie's release — a plea that he has rejected. Khan insists that he has not said anything new which has not already been ruled on by the Indian Supreme Court many times in the past.

While "Fanaa" plays to full houses in the rest of the country, only 30 percent of the available tickets were reported sold for the first screening at the Amber Talkies in Jamnagar. This was in spite of a strong police presence in front of the cinema, as B.J.P. supporters shouted slogans in a demonstration led by the city mayor, Manhar Jhala.

After some initial hesitancy due to the fear of attacks from protesters, the movie is now running to its full capacity with people from outlying cities and towns flocking to the theater in large numbers.

In an ironic twist Vimal Madam, owner of the theatre, is the son of a former Congress Party legislator and nephew of Vikram Madam, a sitting MP from Jamnagar. Vikram said that the opposition to the release of the film was due to an "ego clash" between Khan and the B.J.P., and further stated that people should be allowed to decide themselves whether they wanted to see the movie or boycott it.

"Fanaa" was screened in Jamnagar one day after the Indian Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed by film maker Mahesh Bhatt to enforce the movie's release in the area, also ruling that the Gujarat government was duty bound to provide security for multiplex owners if they sought police protection.

The story of "Fanaa" revolves around Aamir's 'Rehan,' a tourist guide in Delhi who is actually a terrorist, and Kajol's 'Zooni,' a blind Kashmiri girl. The storyline is uneven, and it tends to go awry early in the second half where the film begins to drag. The mirth of the first half is replaced by a sobbing drama, with Zooni finding love and sight at the same time.

While Kajol gives an insubstantial performance, the 40-year old Khan does a commendable job as a terrorist, giving the audience chilling glimpses into a cold and calculating mind filled with fanatical beliefs, yet is a warm-hearted character with a lively demeanor.

According to senior Supreme Court advocate Rajeev Dhavan, the social ban on "Fanaa" in Gujarat was politically motivated, and Khan's remarks on the Narmada dam were wrongly construed as an attack on the Narmada project.

"But 'Fanaa' has nothing to do with the Narmada project," wrote Dhavan in a newspaper article, "so the logic of social censorship in Gujarat is that since Aamir is wrong on the Narmada oustees, he will be denied any kind of artistic speech in Gujarat."

Khan joined an April sit-in protest led by environmentalist Medha Patkar in New Delhi against raising the height of the dam, and in support of the plight of the poor inhabitants to be uprooted from their homes.

Khan did not say anything about the dam. His only plea was for the relief and rehabilitation package for the displaced villagers to be implemented. Supreme Court rulings have stated the same thing time and again.

Soon after Khan's symbolic dharna in New Delhi, protesters torched posters of his earlier hit movie "Rang-De-Basanti" and cinemas were asked to stop showing it. Advertisers who endorsed him were also threatened with a boycott.

The anger towards Khan has more to do with some comments he made on the dire situation facing minorities in Gujarat after 2002's communal riots, and recent clashes in Vadora.

With Khan sticking to his decision not to apologize, India's Bollywood is split over supporting the actor in his hour of crisis. Leading film personalities like Mahesh Bhatt, Boney Kapoor, Javed Akhtar and Hrithik Roshan have raised their voices in his favor.

Others, like Hema Malini, Vinod Khanna, Dharmendra, Jayaprada and Govinda — all members of parliament — have remained silent on the issue.

Another veteran actor, Anil Kapoor, said, "Today, it is him. Tomorrow it can be anyone of us. We stand united." But some Indian newspapers have panned this statement of solidarity, noting that the Bollywood fraternity closes ranks only if it is a question of revenue, collective safety, or both.

Unlike Hollywood actors, who tend to speak out on divisive issues like Vietnam and Iraq, Bollywood is more apt to adopt safer causes like cancer support or eye donation.

However, in addition to Khan there have been social activists from the film industry in the past like the late Sunil Dutt and Shabana Azmi who fought hard on behalf of poorest of the poor, and actively championed social causes.

Past films have also been targets of community and government ire. Two cases in point are "Aandhi" and "Kissa Kursi Ka." Both movies were perceived to be about the then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. While "Kissa" was denied a censor certificate, "Aandhi" was withdrawn from the cinemas. It was re-released a few weeks later when Mrs. Gandhi herself cleared it after consulting some critics.

Shekhar Kapoor's "Bandit Queen" also ran into censorship problems due to its excessive violence and rape scenes. It was shown after some cuts.

Protesters stopped showings of Deepa Mehta's "Fire" due to its lesbian content. The shooting of another movie, "Water," was vandalized in Varanas. Mehta completed the movie later in Sri Lanka.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for M.G. Srinath.