Success Of ‘Pathaan’: Is It Triumph Of Indian Secularism?

Is the success of movie ‘Pathaan’ a victory of secularism over religious hate-mongering? Some analysts are tempted to believe so. They see a lot of positive messaging in the effusive audience reaction to the film which received boycott threats prior to release. They draw two important conclusions – one, despite a widespread attempt to divide them on communal lines Indians have not lost their inherent secular trait; two, the forces behind the boycott and cancel culture are gradually making themselves irrelevant to the public at large.

It is possible their reactions are a bit hurried and premature. It’s too early to read the success of the film as some kind of a statement on secularism in India, given the subject is complex and has several independent and overlapping dimensions. Moreover, both conclusions maybe based on a flawed assumption. The boycott gangs may possess big nuisance potential but it’s amplified much beyond proportion. Their impact may not be as powerful as they are presumed to be. It’s only when films with poor content fail, they appear strong. Films such as ‘Padmaavat’, ‘Dangal’, ‘PK’, ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’, ‘Bramhastra’ and now, ‘Pathaan’ have succeeded despite boycott calls. Sometimes movies with great content fail to impress the masses — ‘Vikram Vedha’ and ‘Laal Singh Chaddha’ are a case in point. Even Raj Kapoor’s classic ‘Mera Naam Joker’ and Guru Dutt’s ‘Kagaz Ke Phool’ were commercial flops. It’s a trade hazard filmmakers are not unfamiliar with. So connecting the failure of a film to the success of the boycott mobs is a bit of a stretch.

Coming back to the secularism question, perhaps it is apt to look at it with a fresh perspective. For the most part, the topic is seen through the prism of hardcore religion and the separation between religious communities. Political ideologies tend to take hard positions along this separation. However, secularism plays out quite differently at the larger social level. How communities interact or respond to each other socially in secular areas such as films, sports, the arts and economic activities defines Indian secularism in a different way. These convergence points include religious festivities too. Hindus participating in Christmas celebrations and Muslims getting involved in various Hindu festivals are a few examples of such interaction. Communal rancour and acrimony are much subdued here; mutual acceptance, tolerance, cooperation and adjustment are more pronounced.

This is the true secular spirit of Indians at work. Any communal campaign to divide them is bound to fail unless it breaches this territory. The boycott gang’s singular motive is to introduce tension and destroy harmony at the convergence points. They are often, as is evident in the film industry, backed by insiders However, success has eluded them so far. Because they confront Indianness, which is a larger unifying force than any identity-centric entity.

An icon represents that unifying force. Nobody really bothers whether late singer Lata Mangeshkar was a Hindu or Muslim or of any other religion. The same goes for actor Amitabh Bachchan or cricketer Sachin Tendulkar. An icon or a popular hero is above all narrow identities. To perceive Shah Rukh Khan as a Muslim actor only is pointless. As an icon, he sits on a different pedestal than ordinary people. It doesn’t matter much whether he plays Rizwan in ‘My Name Is Khan’, Raees in the movie ‘Raees’ or Dr Jehangir Khan in ‘Dear Zindagi’ or ‘Pathaan’ or Rahul or anything else. He won’t be judged on communal lines. The same goes for Hrithik Roshan, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan, Virat Kohli and Sania Mirza.

The fans reflect Indian secularism the best. Pure and solely guided by love, their secularism is obviously different from politically and communally coloured version of it. It is inclusive while the latter is exclusive; it is liberal while the other is prohibitive; and it’s full of affection while the other is driven by hatred. None of it has eroded despite a shift in the political-ideological ecosystem. The performance of movie ‘Pathaan’ emphasises that point.

However, the conclusion that the boycott gangs have made themselves irrelevant is far-fetched. Cinema and stars have the weight of the fans and invisible well-wishers to withstand attacks from malicious crowds, not so the case with stage artists, writers, academicians or similar other players with limited bandwidth. They and their backers can be browbeaten or physically intimidated easily. We have noticed that organisations with considerable financial power and clout otherwise cower at threats and withdraw advertisements. Literary meets and seminars on supposedly controversial topics get cancelled after social media attacks. With the police looking the other way, this trend is likely to continue.

But let’s accept that the success of ‘Pathaan’ has revived hope. Let’s celebrate Indian secularism.

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