Phantom of the okra

I had bhinddi for my late-breakfast this morning. Last night, on my way out from a family friend’s house, I had a brief chat with her chowkidar about the banned film Phantom. A few days ago, he was watching it with her cook when I left and I’d said to them that I expected a review on my next visit. I meant to watch it, if for nothing else than for the sake of forming a first-hand opinion. After gleaning the reviews and controversies, and hearing about it from film buffs, and my friend’s chowkidar, I couldn’t be bothered.

So what does all of that have to do with what I had for breakfast, you might ask. How does okra fit in? Given the trend these days, it doesn’t really have to. In the age of social media, when so many people tell me such stuff all the time, often with pictures, it should not be very jarring even if it is completely irrelevant, which actually it isn’t. As we proceed to discuss the pros and cons of censorship, hopefully, we’ll touch upon our hot breakfasts and those who serve them. But let’s talk about the hate-filled Phantom before we come to my beloved bhinddi.

The friend’s chowkidar said the film was against Pakistan. He said he felt bad watching it and deleted it from his phone after it ended. The critics in India have similarly trashed the film, but with a sophistication that comes with the experience of reviewing one of the biggest cinema industries of the world. From technical aspects like acting and plotline, to its socio-political dimensions, the film has been brought under the microscope, and written off as a waste of time. Above all, Phantom has received a cold shoulder from the Indian public as well. So why is everyone talking about a bad film? Is there nothing better to talk about?

Yes, of course, I almost forgot. There’s this controversy about banning the poorly-made Indian film from cinemas in Pakistan because of its hate-filled message. Our free-floating, free-for-all, self-loathing and self-proclaimed liberals are incensed at the infringement of something called ‘freedom of expression’. Refusing to entertain even a speck of what is called ‘context’, they must go around this or that imperial bush, chanting borrowed mantras in the hollowness of their political correctness.

Not to miss the limelight, the stars and starlets from our side have also hurled themselves in a pointless tiff, coming up with some equally petty and stereotype-laced messaging. Hate has inspired hate.

Should we be upset that we will have to watch Phantom from the internet and not have the pleasure of viewing this certified cinematic disaster on the big screen? For after all, at the end of the day, that is what an official ban on the film actually boils down to. A ban doesn’t stop people from watching it at home. So essentially, it is a question of control over the public space. And our blindfolded champions of a free-for-all ‘freedom of expression’ that is devoid of any context whatsoever, would obviously like the state to have nothing to do with it, giving the market forces a free hand.

This is more than a bit problematic. First of all, free-for-all is not all that free. In a capital-based globalised economy, the players with larger resources hold the advantage from the word go. Besides, it would be naïve to suggest that cinema is a pure art form never used for propaganda. From Nazis to present day Hollywood, it has been used to manage perceptions and manipulate the public mind. Films have been supported by the ISPR here just as RAW has obviously made inroads into the Indian cinema. Phantom has its sloppy stamp on it.
So is it okay to allow propaganda to infiltrate our public space unfiltered? Is it okay to open up our cinemas to films reeking with hatred and propagation of divisive stereotypes? Should the state sit on its hands, allowing anyone with resources, from anywhere in the world, to propagate hatred and defame the country in cinema houses across its length and breadth?

I don’t like this free-for-all eyewash and I’m glad that Phantom was banned. After all, why should the government not have the right to ban a hate-filled film? Even when it is naked propaganda devoid of any artistic merit? Would such films bring the people of Pakistan and India closer? Would it help us resolve our issues in a peaceful manner? Or would such jingoistic crap add to hostilities and ill-will between two neighbors?

My friend’s chowkidar said he watched the film because there was a lot of hype in the media about it. More than the ban itself, it was the fuss around the ban and controversial statements by stars that created the hype and interest in the film. Can’t our media find anything better than a hate-filled poorly-made film to talk about?

The point is: We spend so much time engaged with media-propagated negativity. So many times, our pointless conversations hover around useless things, driven by whatever hate-filled muck is trending in the media. Wouldn’t it be better to spend that energy working towards what we cherish? Wouldn’t it be better to be driven by compassion and love, something that is all-embracing and liberating like Hubb-e-Ali, rather than wallowing in negative emotions such as Bughz-e-Muaviya, hatred and prejudice?

Surely, I have more pressing issues to attend to than a hate-filled Phantom. Even my breakfast this morning has more significance because it rekindled my love for bhinddi. I must go downstairs now and thank the cook who made it taste so good. He could not have done it without putting his heart into the cooking. I’d been so engrossed all day, exorcising this vicious Phantom thrust upon me by the media, that I didn’t get the chance to thank him earlier.
Maybe, we should squeeze out some time from the phantoms unleashed upon us by the media, to think about things closer to our hearts, closer at home.

The writer is a freelance columnist. He can be contacted at

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