A flop upon its release, Aziz Mirza's Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani unleashed a plot involving a framed terrorist, State propaganda and a citizens uprising on an unsuspecting audience who must've gone expecting 90s vanilla starring Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi Chawla. A farce about the commercialisation of news, particularly TV news, and its unholy nexus with the establishment, this was Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro territory, cloaked in the sheen of a glossy Shah Rukh Khan entertainer, trying to marry the middle class sensibilities that had marked Mirza's earlier films such as Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992) with its leading man's newfound superstardom.
The film follows the rules of a satire. The politicians are evil in a matter of fact way. The owners of the two news channels are businessmen with no journalistic ethics. Even our protagonists Ajay Bakshi (Khan) and Ria Banerjee (Chawla) are a cog in the wheel of the same machinery, happy to help it turn as long as they get their promotions and gifts and advance their respective careers. Idealism is dead. Bakshi's father, who was a freedom fighter at the time of independence, gently mocks his son for a lack of principles.
In the climax, when protests break out in the streets of Mumbai, they are shown as a sort of last resort, when people must come together and exercise their democratic right and try and stop something wrong from happening, something that threatens the idea of India. A man has been framed a terrorist. What they believed to be the truth was a lie all along, fabricated by the Government, and propagated by the media. They have been fooled, turned into bloodthirsty jingoists in the name of patriotism, waiting in front of their TV sets to watch the live hanging of a 'terrorist' like it is a reality show. When the truth is exposed, it's almost as if an entire nation's conscience, which was in deep slumber, has awoken.
Inspiring them to come out of the comfort of their drawing rooms — housing societies, offices, slums and garages — is, who else, but Shah Rukh Khan, who gives a stirring speech after hijacking his way into the production control room of the news channel he was previously employed with (much like the gang in Rang De Basanti, who take over the All India Radio headquarters to tell people a crucial piece of information that the press had failed to cover). The message is loud and clear: Listen to your heart, not the Government version of things, the heart which is Indian.
Leading from the front, Khan literally becomes a flag bearer of the protest. When he waves the tricolour in the face of the police force that is ordered to shoot at the protestors, I couldn't help but think of the 500 odd students of Assam's Dibrugarh University who had gathered to oppose the Citizen (Amendment) Act last month. When it had looked like the police may lathi-charge at them, they started singing the national anthem, a beautiful protest tactic that worked.
And yet at the same time, it's hard not to make the connection with what happened in Jamia Milia Islamia in December, where the protesting students were brutally beaten up by the State-backed police, and none of our big movie stars spoke out. Particularly Khan, because it was expected that he'd speak up in support of his alma mater, which could have gone a long way in strengthening the resistance against the narrative that wants to show the agitating students in 'anti-national' light. Koi Hero yaha, Koi Zero yaha.
To be fair, Khan had spoken out in the past, commenting on the growing 'intolerance' in the country under the BJP rule in 2015. It attracted massive backlash, incited by BJP ministers who resorted to that oft-used rhetoric that 'he can go to Pakistan'.
In any case, it was a flop — the other film playing in the theatres was Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, which had released a week before. Today, the filmmaking and the acting may seem a bit crude and hammy and dated. But here was a film that was questioning everything, not only the hanging of a man who has been framed, but the idea of capital punishment itself
In Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, there is no mention of Pakistan, although there is talk of blaming it on the 'foreigners' and teaching the 'traitors' a 'lesson'. Mirza's film was loosely based on The Front Page, a broadway comedy that has been remade several times into movies, including one by Billy Wilder. In that plot, the man branded 'traitor' is painted by the press as a communist revolutionary, whereas he is a common man who had shot a police by accident. The 'terrorist' in Phir bhi… is not muslim. In keeping with the spirit of the genre, the film doesn't play it with a straight bat. In a nod to the director's brother Saeed Mirza's Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! (1984), a satire on the Indian judicial system, his name is Mohan Joshi. Or, maybe it was a smart way to circumvent any trouble, given that the film was made under the BJP Government, albeit a much milder one, under the Prime Ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Or maybe because the world was still pre-9/11, and Islamophobia hadn't become such a prevalent theme.
In any case, it was a flop — the other film playing in the theatres was Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, which released a week before. Today, the filmmaking and the acting may seem a bit crude and hammy and dated. But here was a film that was questioning everything, not only the hanging of a man who has been framed, but the idea of capital punishment itself, where its shown as being turned into a spectator sport (when a sensationalistic TV reporter interviews the executioner if he supports capital punishment, he says, 'Pet ka jawaab aur, Dil ka jawab aur/My stomach and my heart contradict each other'). It made me think of the Supreme Court statement in the hanging of Afzal Guru that justified the lack of evidence by saying that "the collective conscience of society will only be satisfied if capital punishment is awarded to the offender."
Certain moments leap out of the screen as if they are a commentary on what's going on right now. Such as the one where we see a group of young men walking back home after a game of gully cricket debate over the ethical implication of telecasting a hanging; one of them criticises it, the other friend aggressively defends, 'Whoever tries to harm our country will face such consequences.'
When the Chief Minister (Govind Namdeo), delivering a speech on TV, says 'it's a warning to the traitors', it's followed by the visual of a muslim family in their home watching it. Like this scene, there is some effective cross-cutting when Ramakant Dua — the Chief Minister's equally evil opposition leader (played by Shakti Kapoor) — condemns violence in one of his speeches in front of a gathering, and we immediately cut to shots of knives, glass bottles and rods being taken out by rioters, planted in the crowd by the politician himself.
But when you see Juhi Chawla, next to Khan, leading the march to the Central Jail, the irony isn't lost. The actor turned up at a pro-CAA event, and snapped at a TV journalist for, well, asking questions. Present in the same event was Dilip Tahil, who plays Chawla's boss in the film, a channel head. Khan's boss is played by Satish Shah, whose Twitter profile resembles a Family WhatsApp Group overrun by propaganda. Paresh Rawal plays the framed terrorist. Two years ago, Rawal, a BJP Parliament member, falling for a piece of Fake News, tweeted suggesting Arundhati Roy to be dragged by an army jeep and used as a human shield against stone-pelting in Kashmir. Rawal later deleted the tweet, but released a statement saying that he stands by it.
What are the odds that the 'protest song', the reprise version of the title track that plays in the climax, is sung by Abhijit, whose bigotry went so out of hand that he got suspended from Twitter. Only Anupam Kher seems to be missing.