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No art passes our conscience in the way that film does. It goes directly to our feelings. It sinks deep into the dark rooms of our soul. We may argue as much as we want about the differences of both mediums, yet the fact remains that one’s summation of both of them arrives from one’s scale of sensibility and magnitude of knowledge. These then juxtapose to provide one, a well-defined picture of why we choose to deconstruct what we are viewing, and could end up being thoroughly idiosyncratic and quite left open to deep deliberation, based, once again, on one’s sensibility and knowledge.  

Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM), a romantic drama written and directed by Karan Johar made it to the screens for Diwali. The festival is particularly associated with the goddess of prosperity, and marks the beginning of the financial year in our country. The motion picture sported a stellar cast, yet Imran Abbas was the only saving grace I found in the film. Despite that the charm of his mellifluous voice brought life to the beauty of Urdu, he lit the screen up in what little was left of him to showcase, though unfortunately, five of his vital scenes saw the scissors.

Whilst the film opened to great reviews and appreciation by the critics, I was not able to endure the hollowness of the character development, the poor quality of dialogues, and the over-exploitation of endorphins. The scenes failed to flow seamlessly into each other, and the script made no sense considering that it was not meant to be an experimental piece of work, but pitched as la-di-da cinema intended to talk to people of a particular section of society. I walked out during the interval, (not for any didactic reasons as aforementioned) but because the incoherence, coupled with the pretentious performances, got to me. On the way out, I pondered how such situations had ever been conceptualised? And how the actors, who claim that they are mighty sharp, had even approved to enact them? Didn’t they see that it was going nowhere on paper itself? If that was not surprising enough, how did the office bearers at the censor board, who object to films without any rhyme or reason, not object to the shallow objectification of the human body here?

How had an actor like Anushka Sharma given a nod to something as thin as this? And Fawad Khan – he had signed on the dotted lines too! Just goes to prove that at times, great actors do end up making grave mistakes, and this was one textbook sample of such a blunder. Anushka is gifted, and she will catapult to doing stuff that suits her sooner than later. Fawad, however, is as deep as the ocean, and as talented as the skies above. A negligible stain like ADHM will make no difference to his stature. Instead of bothering about markets that have given him a raw deal, he should go on and make the world his canvas, and shine as bright as the brightest star in the planetary system, showing those who shunned him out from here his middle finger.

However, what irked me to stride out was the triteness of the lead actor. My two cents of counsel to him would be that if he does not stop mimicking his forefathers, then he is bound to end up in the dustbin. Such histrionics suited those times. Not these. I concur that old wine can be packaged in new bottles, but it has to be done in some innovative ways, definitely not in the style that he is epitomising here. Coming to think of it, he began his career with great promise, but overconfidence appears to have made him lose the plot along the way. The characters he has been choosing lately look like an echo of something that he has done in the past, and if he does not get a hold of his bearings, and quickly, then it would not be too long before he would be exiled from the screen and remain a mere memory.    

No matter how big the banner, or how fabled the director, the script must rule sovereign. Directors and producers need to refrain from packaging garbage as gold with the assumption that the film buffs would be incapable of seeing right through their foolhardiness. I do understand that not everything one does can turn out to be a masterpiece, but you expect a certain level of credibility at least from certain individuals, and when such individuals think that they are one step ahead, and play to the gallery, the outcome is bound to be a stillborn like ADHM. Perhaps I am making it seem terribly grim, but not everything is gone with the wind – there is no dearth of outstanding directors one can look up to, directors who concentrate most earnestly on their subject rather than the sexual and sensual metre of their material.

Nowadays, every human being who holds a phone is a photographer, just like anyone who can string a few flowery words is a writer. Stories, sadly, do not work on such principles. They are not the manifestations of the surface thoughts of one’s mind, but emblems of years of layering of analysis and introspection. When such words go on to take the appearance of anything for the big screen, then one automatically knows that the mode of cinema has a far more effective influence on the mind than the written word, and one has to adhere to a certain code of conduct in order to respect the medium. Agreed, we are assaulted by sex in the mass media. And living in the ever-distracted era, where we seem to be acquiring more and absorbing less, we are bound to think of ‘anything’ as ‘normal’ if something abnormal is shown to us repeatedly and packaged eloquently. It would be logical at this point to ask – is it abnormal to kiss? It certainly isn’t. Is it abnormal to make love? It certainly isn’t. Then you are entitled to roll your eyes and ask further – what then is the trouble? The trouble is that there is certain decorum. No matter how forward thinking we think we are, some things are not meant to be made a public display of. The human mind holds this inborn need and derives great joy in watching someone copulate, but to be cool about it and show it on the screen is anything but cool. When we step into a cinema hall with our family or friends, we do not expect to be bombarded with empty metaphors, and comprehensive representations of sex and erotica. We do not expect to hear frivolous lines to the effect of: Sex kar li uss se? (Have you had sex with him?). It is this erasure of boundaries between people that has, in some ways, resulted in the decay of values. Yes, we are undeniably at liberty to express ourselves to people based on the comfort level we share with them, but then there was this unwritten set of customs, mainly of decency that we never transgressed with them, and nobody had to remind us of it, it was part of our standard etiquette. Since we have taken ourselves terribly lightly, we are seeing that the veneration of a relationship, any relationship that is, is eroding at frightening speeds. The overexposure to the uncouth leaves us desensitised in discerning whether it is beneficial or harmful to us, and what was once taboo now becomes a way of life. 

‘Aren’t you getting a bit too primeval?’ I was asked when I shared the first draft of this article with a friend. ‘Would you watch porn with your children?’ I asked. She used as many expletives her vocabulary could muster, in jest obviously, and swiftly switched the topic. This is where I say that as ‘fashionable’ as we think we are, at the basest level we are each primeval, and in order to maintain that propriety we must refrain from meddling with the purity of our thinking. I feel that one can be kinky, experimental, have threesomes, orgies, do what they wish to do, but within the confines of their homes: while in public, one must maintain the poise that has been practiced from centuries, and hopefully will be practised for a long time after, provided wisdom prevails over this generation that seems utterly bewildered and overtaken by the frivolous. Similarly, writers and directors can say what they want to say, but there has to be a level of artistic liberty that illuminates their journey left to individual interpretation. Let us take Mohit Suri as an example, the lead couple make love in his iconic film Aashiqui 2, but the lovemaking he represented on the screen was sensual and not sexual, and that is where the difference rests – in conveying exactly what you want, but with finesse. Nothing should be made vulgar in order to capitalise on the inability to support a weak theme. 

Sultan, a romantic sports drama directed by Ali Abbas Zafar had Salman Khan in the lead opposite Anushka Sharma. It did exceptionally well without the use of love making or making out as the focus of its premise. Salman’s films are eternally bursting with unpredictable dances, and buffoonery to the limit of holding one’s stomach and tumbling off the seats in laughter. They are tailor-made largely for the family going crowd. There was a time when Salman did films that had dialogues that catered to the masses, but even then, never were they written so shoddily so as to dip one’s head in shame while watching him. When Salman, whom some love wholeheartedly, and some hate sternly, can keep away from such gimmicky publicity and make himself and his producers millions by delivering consistent successes at the box office, how difficult is it for some of the rest to take a cue?    

You can be as bohemian as you wish, and you can watch what you want to watch if it makes you happy, and justify it with your own viewpoint. Also, I may disagree with your viewpoint, but if you agree with your conscience, who am I to disagree? Yet, I have only one question to ask – say your child marches up to you one fine day and declares that she is all right with living a promiscuous life, would you let your child wear skimpy clothes, get hammered, dance the night away, and wake up the next day in bed with a stranger?

In today’s free society anything looks possible, but it is interesting that when faced with a trying situation one would find one’s roots most shaken and stirred. Crux is that human beings are cut from a similar fibre, laid-back for the world, but awfully conservative when it comes to our own, which brings me back to square one – is this the vainness we are leaving our children with? Is this the culture that we are proud about? When our men delight in scantily dressed women, and women lust after men, why then do we spend enormous amounts to cover ourselves up? We can simplify things by walking about unclothed, can’t we? As they say, think right, for thoughts are also things, and as we think, so we are. Similarly, know that words are like precious stones, and our behaviour, the jewellery.

I am not trying to be an activist here, or judging anything or anybody. I am merely asking my countrymen who claim to be the only owners of this land questions based on what I have been observing from your own conversations across varied segments of society. That you are comfortable with women, married or not, being depicted such perkily and hungered after on the screen, then how is it that you are hounding and sending others back home in certain parts of our country for indecent dressing? Is this what you are teaching your generation – double standards? Sure, sex sells, but it should to be sold to those who want to buy it. Not thrust upon the populace in hard to resist, suave gift-wraps. One cannot symbolise a woman and man by confining their treasures to their lips, bosom and genitals alone when the weight must be on their deeds and thoughts. Shouldn’t this tastelessness be something the powers that be ought to protest to, than to prohibit actors from other countries from working in our country? 

I happened to stumble upon an edition of a widely read film magazine that stated in bold letters on its cover:

FAWAD AFZAL KHAN: THE CROSS-BORDER TURK WHO’S GIVING OUR HEROES SLEEPLESS NIGHTS! In hindsight, these are the factors that disturbed people here. They were unable to digest that the cross-border Turks had invaded every discernable nuance of creativity in our country, and with such passion and unmatched perfection, that many here were plainly incompetent to keep up pace with. It is not hidden too that the abhorrence towards their faith was the lone motive to ban them, when they were the true ambassadors of amity, more like an iron steamrolling the hatred that was being spread by the statesmen who were indulging in warfare for their own personal welfare. Deplorable that by doing what they needed to do, they achieved their agenda in this country, but it is not a worry really, considering that life is designed in such a way that where danger is, grows, the saving power also!

Art is above the affairs of the state, and like Salman Khan, a Fawad Afzal Khan or an Imran Abbas would not take refuge in using sex and smooching to foster their worth. They know that they have a sacrosanctity to preserve, and in preserving that, they have proved to the world, in hard proof actually, that one does not require the scaffolding of the superficial in life to make it meaningful. To further explain this point, I see no better epitome than Ali Zafar. He is a poet, a lyricist, a model, an actor, a painter, a filmmaker, a composer, a humanitarian relentlessly campaigning for upholding the tenets of his faith, and sprinkling the magical dust of love, unity and kindness to one and all. In living each of the above, he leaves no room for impropriety to trickle into any aspect of his expressions, simply because he is aware that clean humour is vital to keeping optimum mental and physical health. Examine the world at large; a minority may appreciate the bawdy, while the majority will despise it. Goes without saying that it is the nobleness of Ali’s thoughts and in his gentleman virtues rest his strongest identity, and isn’t that the soundest portrait of how a human being should conduct oneself, in private or the public? Ali’s idea of natural growth is to let people be what they are rather than twisting them to suit his beliefs. He turns towards things in such a wonderful way that he seldom challenges it, which in turn allows people to unhide, and enabling people to unhide themselves is what humans do, wherein it awakens them, brings them closer to themselves, transforms them, and helps in presenting to themselves their sincerest selves. What’s more? To achieve this state of being, Ali uses no crutch of uncouthness. And that, in my opinion, is exactly what a clever filmmaker must strive to achieve, this idea of thinking differently than adopting a different way of thinking.

Coming back to the drawing board, Imran Abbas sets a glittering example with similar qualities as well. He is crystal clear that those he is associated with on a daily basis speak with refinement and think with intelligibility. That one does not violate the cipher of basic human goodness. He is tolerant towards the absurd, and forgives the foolish. A man who treats everyone alike, he makes an immense difference to the lives of people, and a slice of that can be found in the goodwill he garners from everyone around him. Succinctly put, both Imran and Ali demonstrate, with their own distinct approach, that finally it is a courteous code of conduct that leaves a mark on the imprint of time, and that crudity and unscrupulous temperaments have little shelf life. And that is how life must be lived now, shouldn’t it? With integrity and pride.

By now you have deduced that the plain and the simple, with oodles of humour, are some elements that keeps people in their seats. Attempt to outsmart the viewers and they will reject your over-smartness instantly, which is what sunk the ships of several filmmakers and their companies in the last couple of years. They began crunching numbers, ignoring that it is ‘connect’ that the audience seeks. Mindful, and yet carelessly oblivious, they championed along and faced bankruptcy as a direct consequence of their over-confidence. Just as a fitness aficionado knows that abs are not made in the gym, similarly, projecting escalated numbers does not make a film triumphant. For jaw-dropping abs, one has to keep at a watchful diet in accompaniment of the correct balance of workouts, and likewise, for a film to do terrifically well, one has to predict the pulse of the market (a fragment that stems out of experience, intuition and reflection) and give the spectators what they want, and not what you think they want. 

We may be repulsed of talent from the neighbouring nation, but it cannot be refuted that the television series or the films being made there have nil graphic depiction of obscenity. Nobody undresses anyone there. Nobody drinks, or demands a prerequisite that if these many kissing and lovemaking scenes are not included in the contracts, we will not do it, and despite that the series and movies from there are sought after the world over. The same goes with Iranian cinema. The ‘less is more’ policy due to their political helplessness literally pushes them to rethink how something of consequence could be portrayed without offending somebody, and keeping on track with the quintessence of the story, with the added bonus of it making complete sense to the current trends, it does wonders.

Many of you may consider me old-fashioned, rigid, black and white, or even a lunatic, but please bear in mind that there are always two sides to a coin, and this is my side. Customarily, I would not have wasted my time on a film as inane as ADHM, but I went there solely for Imran Abbas, and noticed that something was terribly amiss. The filmmakers looked like they were trapped in a time warp of sorts, and of the stupidest kinds. Even the most drab drawing room discussions have more entertaining significance than the rubbish that they had sketched up to regale the pubic with in the movie, and I felt it was more of a duty, than a choice, in wanting to communicate my undiluted thoughts. Without having to sound moralistic or pious about it, one must have the gall to call junk as junk, and not cheesecake, and what is sad is that ninety-five out of the hundred in the industry are busy blowing phony kisses to the team, and gossip-mongering behind their back ceaselessly about what a piece of crap the film is indeed. I agree that diplomacy is the key to calm coexistence, but honesty is the best policy too, isn’t it? It might offend some in the bargain, but one must care less so long as one knows that one is not being a hypocrite. 

Lastly, we must remember that we are living in an age where our lives are quite like an open book. And that it is each one of us who have to figure whether we want a semblance of balance in our lives, and the life of our immediate family, near and dear ones, or leave them to live the lives the characters in some films, books, digital platforms are living lately – insecurely, lewdly, and without aim or purpose. I also want people to realise that cinema and literature are quite the mirrors of the time, and it is rather in our own hands to amend the manner in which we want to behold their reflection.