View: Ballot box-office, it's popcorn polarisation!

I have always suspected that Indians deal with politics the same way they deal with movies. This suspicion was confirmed with the release of a movie last week: Pathaan.

Even before ‘polling booths’ opened on Thursday, The Public – the same pool of people who turn into The Electorate when the Election Commission waves a magical wand over the swathes – was polarised. Much of it, of course, had to do with what Pathaan was built up to be prior to its release: a return for Shah Rukh Khan. That’s what producers of big budget films do before the release of a big budget film. But there is something palpably extra this time that the producers did not account for – counter-polarisation.

Since mid-December, when a music video from Pathaan was released, a loud bunch of few people cried ‘Haraam!’ (or its Sanskritised equivalent) because it depicted Deepika Padukone not wearing a royal nath as she did in Padmavaat while resisting a Khilji, but rather a modest bikini of a colour that some people don’t like on bikinis while cavorting with a Khan. It turns out that Bollywood doing erotic irony didn’t quite cut the ice with this lot who also had a problem with the name of the song, ‘Besharam Rang‘.

By the time January arrived, we heard a few more loud folks, including some in official positions, ‘threaten’ that they’d ban the film. We’ve heard demands of putting a lid on films before, usually against perceived hate speech. But a ban on perceived hate couture was a first.

Soon, some other loud folks joined in and started tearing up and burning posters of the film. Burning, as any practitioner of motion pictures will tell you, is far more telegenic than tearing. Speaking of motion pictures, a week before Pathaan’s release, the much-acclaimed drama The Kashmir Files was re-released in cinemas. Many of those already wanting Pathaan to lose its security deposit, turned Vivek Agnihotri‘s film into a pump-primed candidate for a direct contest as if for a prize Lok Sabha seat.

It also turned out that not every Indian has heard of Shah Rukh Khan. Fair enough. Some Bengali intellectuals, during their heyday, insisted that they hadn’t heard of Amitabh Bachchan. But once Khan reportedly called up the gentleman in question ignorant of a key aspect of Indian pop culture, requesting him to ensure the film’s success in the areas under the gentleman’s able jurisdiction, all was well. Reports of individuals buying ‘some 120 tickets’ and ‘192 tickets’ may sound like ballot-stuffing of yore, but unlike one person, one vote, you can buy whole blocks in a cinema hall quite legitimately.

But the counter-polarisation seems to have worked with The Public going to watch the movie with a zeal last seen in Himachal Pradesh‘s voters last year. On opening day, box-office collection in India was a record-smashing ₹67.86 crore (and ₹106.49 crore worldwide). Self-appointed ‘opposition’ parties have already started their ‘post-poll’ SWOT analysis – ‘People have made going to watch Pathaan virtue signalling’, ‘The philistines have been won over by an illogical, over-the-top film while not being able to appreciate far more nuanced movies,’ and ‘There is something insidious about a middle-aged actor showcasing his ‘ripped body.’ All this is the equivalent of that old gem, ‘They didn’t get more voteshare but only won more seats.’

But as with Indian politics, so with Indian films:

  • People are besotted with/loathe the star; the film itself is almost inconsequential.

  • Much of one’s wish to watch a film is determined by the energy with which people you abhor trash it.

  • Even fence-sitters get mobilised to go to the hall once a film has been ‘targeted’.

  • The mandate is all that matters and the majority’s view has to be accepted.

Have I seen Pathaan yet? Have I decided to resist the majority’s view by not watching it? Will I watch it as a sense of ‘duty’? I don’t know yet. But I do want to know how the movie is, without getting into the drama surrounding it – controversy being only drama with a false handlebar moustache.

That doesn’t really answer your question, does it? It’s not meant to. Secret ballots exist for a reason.


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