By Manik Sharma Jan. 21, 2020
Twenty years ago, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani that starred Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla, featured a news channel that toed the government’s narrative and paid goons hired by a politician to orchestrate riots. It ends on a positive note where codes of democracy are honoured and protestors usher in a change. Today, as the entire country protests against the CAA-NRC, the film’s subtext has never been more relevant.
In a scene from Aziz Mirza’s Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, an exasperated Commissioner of Police confides in his subordinates about the pressures of his job, “Jo kursi pe baithta hai bas nachna chahta hai.” The admission is meant for comic effect because it culminates in the laughably Shakespearan quandary “Main kiska aadmi hoon? Main aadmi hoon bhi ya nahi.” Yet there is something troubling and revealing in his anger about the ways the Indian police has always been a pawn in the hands of its political masters.
Fast forward to 20 years later and reality seems unchanged from the sentiment of that outburst of anger. For all the protests in the country, the police force has offered a severely compromised and partisan image of itself. As Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani shows, instruments of the state, dunked in their power, can often forget the share of accountability they owe to the people. It exhibits the grim alliance between power and state machinery and the fact that, when both collude to disruptive and unconstitutional effect like the CAA-NRC hopes to do, it falls to the average citizen to stand up, protest, and prevent it from happening. For the Indian police has crucially been trained to target the constitutionally provided right to peacefully protest.
In Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani Shah Rukh Khan plays Ajay Bakshi, a charismatic TV reporter whose popularity is akin to that of a Bollywood celebrity. Dreamz Unlimited/ Red Chillies Entertainment
In Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani Shah Rukh Khan plays Ajay Bakshi, a charismatic TV reporter whose popularity is akin to that of a Bollywood celebrity.
Dreamz Unlimited/ Red Chillies Entertainment
Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani was the first film Shah Rukh Khan produced under his banner, Red Chillies. In it Khan plays Ajay Bakshi, a charismatic TV reporter whose popularity is akin to that of a Bollywood celebrity. Incidentally, the channel he works for, toes the government’s narrative. The charisma and likeability notwithstanding, you wouldn’t have to look too far to find examples of similar stooges sitting in TV studios today, ready to toot the government’s horn and endorse their preaching. To counter Bakshi’s popularity, a rival channel ropes in the talented Ria Banerjee (Juhi Chawla). As the two compete for prime-time eyeballs, they begin to unearth an ideological soul in each other. The murder of an opposition leader’s brother, becomes a flashpoint in the film. Rather than convict the killer (Paresh Rawal), politicians on both sides see in it the possibility of electoral gain and instead decide to milk it.
Soon, flashy, funny exposes give way to existential dread. As they fall in love with each other, both Ajay and Ria confront the basic necessities of their job – speaking truth to power. In flashes, the film casts a scathing eye on the role politicians play in inciting and encouraging violence: Paid goons are hired by a politician to orchestrate riots while his opponent tells the commissioner to fabricate an inquiry – “Inn dangon ko mazhabi rang de do ilzaam uspe daal do,” he adds without flinching an eye. It is chilling, even in retrospect, that India seems not to have descended but only realised the script of Mirza’s film. From the PM claiming that protestors (defined as rioters in the government’s book) can be identified “by their clothes” to colouring protests as “Hinduphobic,” politicians who ought to offer explanations have instead resorted to altering and colouring the narrative. A false recent Twitter trend started by the BJP’s IT cell, for example, attempted to claim that the women protesting at Shaheen Bagh were doing it for ₹500 a day. As it stands today, and as the film said over 20 years ago, politicians and their lackeys have become puppeteers, and institutions of law and justice their actors.
It’s difficult to ignore that Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani offered rare social commentary that continues to be relevant even today.
In that sense, it’s difficult to ignore that Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani offered rare social commentary that continues to be relevant even today. For example, when it is revealed that the identity of the assassin could hurt both politicians, the one in power and the one in opposition, it is mutually agreed upon to give the issue “nationalistic” colour and declare the suspect a “terrorist”. It seems eerily reminiscent of the strong-arm politics of today where patriotism has itself become a pitch, a strategy. Take for instance, the moment when Deepika Padukone chose to stand in solidarity alongside students who had been assaulted by goons at JNU; she was instantly labelled an anti-national” and a member of the “tukde tukde gang”. There were even calls to boycott her film Chhapaak.
Eventually, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani culminates into a third act that sees Ajay and Ria transform into activists rather than just being passive journalists. Like protestors across the country today, they take to the streets. Since cinema comes with the prerequisite of being dramatic, both Ria and Ajay call for an immediate gathering and are duly answered. In reality, protests are slow, trying and testing, and not without the sacrifice of time, space and health as many of us have learnt over the past few books. Both however, are products of oppressive and deaf governance; an act of defiance in response to being unheard, unacknowledged, and repeatedly let down. Despite its flaws, the film’s subtext does honour codes of democracy, of the right to protest and stand against the state’s actions.
Yet, the biggest argument for Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani’s relevance today can be perfectly summed up in one scene where the state governor asks the commissioner whether the protestors are Hindu or Muslim. “Aaj ye na Hindu hai na Muslim hain sir. Aaj ye Hindustani hain,” he replies, gloatingly, relieved to have found India’s soul. It is this soul today that is being threatened by suppressing peaceful protests. It is this organic unity, this alliance of love and empathy that is the underlying message of Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, a long forgotten piece of cinema, and the country it tried to imagine.