There was a time when Pahlaj Nihalani seemed sitting under the shadow of Shatrughan Sinha. He produced several films with Sinha in the lead and when Sinha entered politics, Pahlaj too did.
Finally Nihalani has come of age. While Shatrughan Sinha and even L K Advani and Yashwant Sinha have been sidelined, Pahlaj has emerged as the man on the right side of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I have known Pahlaj since mid-seventies and seen different phases of his career – as a film producer, a ‘political activist’ and now the Chairman of Central Board of Film Certification. We had a long chat. Clarifying the stories about his close friend and hero of many of his films Pahlaj was the first answer on the agenda, “It is not correct to say that they have been sidelined. Shatrughan Sinha cannot be neglected. It is only a public perception. Others might feel that he hasn’t got his dues. It may even pinch him when some people take this view to him. But he is not a taker. He knows how to give. We have to be in the party, work for it and remain loyal. Be a soldier of the party. It is not important what the party offers us. “Posts and portfolio would come in time.”
Talking about his own position as the Chairman of CBFC Nihalani says, “I never asked for it. It was offered to me because of what I have done as a filmmaker and what I have done for the industry. People say that I got to become the Chairman because I am a Modi chamcha but they don’t know that I was offered the same post during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s reign in 2003 too! I accepted to be the Director NFDC, though. I declined because I was busy making films. Whatever I have received has been given to me unasked. The government knew what I had done.”
What Pahlaj has done for the industry includes getting rebates in entertainment tax, exports benefits, relief in customs duty and when Sushma Swaraj was the Information &Broadcasting minister, got Industry status to Bollywood.
He said, “Shatrughan and me were instrumental for all that. It was because we got the industry status that getting the finance from the banks became possible. The corporates entered the industry and the underworld money could be reduced to a major extent. More important, I (and Shatru) got Gopinath Munde to work out a policy for the multiplexes. It is because of the multiplexes and the malls that the industry has gone global and many of the production companies and studios are listed in the share market.”
He goes on. “The government realises the important role film folks have as cultural ambassadors. If the politicians play a role in enacting rules and legislations that can push India up in the eyes of the world, film industry projects the values that depict the image of the
country before the world.”
Nihalani recalls how Raj Kapoor mesmerised the Russians who hummed ‘Awara hoon’ and honoured him as the State Guest and says, “If India was known for Raj Kapoor in Russia, the world knows us through our high profile Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He is the most recognised face all over the world. When people see Modi they think of India.”
Pahlaj’s admiration and closeness to Modi is well known. Few know that their friendship started even before Modi became the Prime Minister!
It was during the days of Keshubhai Patel government in Gujarat that Nihalani first met Modi. It was during the National Executive meeting of the party in Ahmedabad. He remembers Modi as a dynamic person with a great body language and very high energy level. The first meeting remained in his mind and he was sure that the energetic man he has met would go places.
When Modi was the in-charge of the parliamentary election campaign during 2014 Pahlaj made a film around him and the manifesto of the party. He said, “No one asked me to make this film. I had taken initiative for it. I joined the party when it had only two seats. Shatru used to be their star campaigner. And now, again, we saw the party being led to power with the dynamic leadership of Modi. My film too projected him as Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi. Now, it is Har Dil Modi, Har Zuban Modi.”
Pahlaj Nihalani plays another 7-minutes song video he has made around Narendra Modi. No one asked him to make this, either. He did it on his own. And we return to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). There were controversies around his appointment and his arbitrary ways so irked the industry that they started a campaign against him and a delegation too met the Information &Broadcasting ministry. There would be wide coverage to their efforts to throw Pahlaj out of the office. A leading tabloid even published a story that Pahlaj Nihalani had been sacked. But the man continued to hold the office.
According to him, he wasn’t even asked for an explanation by the I&B Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. “Industry people, specially those who were against me, had assumed that I may create problems for their under production films. They made noise.”
“But the minister doesn’t interfere in day to day functioning of the Censor Board. Okay, they formed Benegal committee to suggest reforms but I had given a suggestion to have more categories within two months of my appointment. Life has changed, the films have transformed and seeing the changed requirements, we can allow bold language and cuss words in some cases,” he said.
Ask him about demonetisation, and you find a true Modi loyalist. He says, “Fake currency had become a major problem. It had gone to such an extent that the fake currency came out of even ATMs! Not only the neighbouring country was the source of fake currency, even the Reserve Bank of India seems to have printed currency notes of the same series, twice. Wait and you’ll see a major exposure on this account.”
L K Advani and Ram Jethmalani aren’t the only Sindhis who are concerned about the problems Sindhis face. As the Vice President of Global Sindhi Council, Pahlaj Nihalani too is a part of it. Few know that Sindhi refugees who came in droves during the partition migration, continue to find safety and security in India even today. Says Nihalani,”Sindhi Hindus are being harassed in Pakistan. Forcible conversion to Islam and kidnappings of Sindhi girls have forced them to find shelter in India.”
Global Sindhi council helps them – over a year ago, sewing machines were provided to Sindhi refugees – and has organised easier ways to let them settle in India. There is a movement for Sindh’s freedom like in Balochistan, but ask him about India helping Sind in the freedom struggle and Pahlaj Nihalani seems averse to it.
(Mohan Deep is an eminent novelist and Bollywood biographer, based in Mumbai.)