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Print edition : March 12, 2010

Shah Rukh Khan arrives for the screening of his film "My Name is Khan" at the 60th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin on February 12.-THOMAS PETER/REUTERS

For most Mumbaikars, the release of the Shah Rukh Khan starrer My Name is Khan on its scheduled date of Friday, February 12, came as a surprise. Inured as they were to the Shiv Sena having its way because of threats of violence, the firm stand of the State government and the police and the faith reposed in them by theatre owners were something of a first.

The situation had brought to the fore an old, unhealthy relationship between the government and the Shiv Sena. Just as it has become a habit for the Sena to threaten violence if its diktats are challenged, it has also become a pattern for the state to adopt a soft stand in response. Whenever the Sena raised the red flag, shops would down shutters, cinemas would agree not to screen films, writers would apologise and playwrights would rewrite their work.

This time, however, it was a different story. According to a source in the Congress, the Centre took a special interest in the matter and instructed Chief Minister Ashok Chavan to ensure that the Sena was not allowed to have its way. Though the Sena vandalised some theatres and threw stones at vehicles, 36 single-screen theatres and more than half of the multiplexes in Mumbai decided to run the film. There is no doubt that the additional security reassured theatre owners. But the Sena is known not to have backed off so easily in the past. According to the grapevine, the Sena had another agenda and used its time-honoured tactic of intimidation disguised as protest as a means to top up its coffers. When this need was satisfied, the party let the issue die down.

The film played to packed houses, albeit with strong police protection, and grossed Rs.8 crore on the first day of its national release. Pune, which along with Mumbai accounts for among the highest shares of box office takings, turned out to be a no-show on the first day because theatre owners responded to the Sena threat rather than the governments assurances. The film was released in Pune later in the same week. Had the city screened the film on the scheduled day the total income would have crossed Rs.10 crore, trade journals say.

Redeploying police personnel from areas with naxalite activity and posting them temporarily for duty so that My Name is Khan can be safely screened might appear a little absurd, and even the Chief Minister said that it is not fair or correct that this has to happen. However, given the Senas record in Mumbai, it was unavoidable. Pathologically possessive of the city, the Sena has held it to ransom over the decades.

But even a casual analysis would show the partys history of hypocrisy. From severe water shortages and a steep rise in the prices of essential commodities to a worrying increase in the number of suicides by students and the lack of affordable housing, there is no dearth of issues for the Sena to take up and play a valid role as a party in opposition. But it is typical of the Sena leadership to raise its voice against a Bollywood actor-cum-cricket team owner who merely stated that his choice of players would depend on what his team required and if that player happened to be a Pakistani then the Indian Premier League should allow it.

A girl holds up her ticket for the film at a theatre in Mumbai on February 12. Youngsters reacted with joy as the film opened to packed houses.-VIVEK BENDRE

The joyful reactions of Mumbaikars especially the younger generation at the release of the film exposed how tired the city is of the Senas coercive tactics. The incident has also brought up old and inconvenient questions relating to the effectiveness of Uddhav Thackerays leadership. Bal Thackerays wisdom in passing on the mantle to his son also came into question. Invariably, comparisons between his nephew Raj Thackeray and Uddhav arose.

Raj played his cards in a canny manner in this case. Despite the announcement of an ambitious agenda when he started the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) four years ago, he has done little. While effectively staying away from the My Name is Khan episode, he chose to pepper it with the incendiary suggestion that the Sena should attack not just Khan but also Amitabh Bachchan for participating in an advertisement that promotes harmony between India and Pakistan. A source in the Congress explained, The comment was a barbed one Raj was actually throwing a challenge to Uddhav since Balasaheb and Amitabh Bachchan are respectful of each other.

The quashing of the Sena threat was a boost for the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party coalition and a shot in the arm for their cadre, for whom it has been a given that when it comes to street fighting the Sena will win regardless of who is in power.

In the aftermath of the films release, there has been no significant reaction from the Sena. A Congressman shrugged this off saying, Maybe they realise there are more serious issues to be dealt with, and in the aftermath of the Pune blast even they possibly think it is wrong to continue with this non-issue.

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