The Controversy over Jinnah Movie
The Nation
March 13, 1997
‘Jinnah’, the movie on Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah being shot in Karachi, is currently the focus of severe criticism by a section of the press. Critics objects to the movie script, alleging that it is anti-Islam, anti-Quaid, and, thus, anti-Pakistan. Their objection is also to the actors chosen for the purpose, the foremost of them being Christopher Lee, the British actor best known for acting as Dracula in a series of movies. Prof Akbar S Ahmad is the man who is trying to push this venture forward. One English newspaper editor (who failed in the audition for the key role of the Quaid which now Mr. Lee is performing) is the person who is trying to pull it backwards. And, in this push and pull game, the biggest loser appears to be this nation.

Critics allege that ‘Jinnah’ will be another Satanic Verses, and that by making this movie Prof Akbar wants to win the West as Salman Rushde did by penning down Satanic Verses. They allege that the script which Prof Akbar is showing to the government to get some nine crore rupees of funding is not the one on which the movie production is based. They allege that the movie script includes, as one of the movie characters, Archangel Gabriel, who, acting as a Narrator, poses to the Quaid such questions as may bring the person of the Quaid into disrepute. And their objection is also to the one acting as a narrator, Shashi Kapoor, the famous old Indian film hero.

Why should a Hindu actor be chose for a movie on the Quaid? Why should a Western horror movie hero be allowed to play the lead role of the Quaid in his old age? Is there any dearth of talented local actors? These are the questions being asked in the ongoing media debate against ‘jinnah’. The answers obviously are: that is a ‘blasphemous’ act on the part of the moviemakers to include Shashi and Christopher in the movie cast, which, instead, should have been an all-Pakistani affair.

In their defense, the makers of the movie, Prof Akbar, in particular, have clarified that there is nothing like Archangel Gabriel in the movie. Instead, what they say is that there is just an imaginary character, the Narrator, who asks certain “provoking” questions from the Quaid to know his points of view about why he did this or that. The Quaid is shown living in the year 1947 until the creation of Pakistan. But, to explain his viewpoints, he travels frequently to the past and the future. The’ Jinnah’ makers claim that, instead of following the traditional approach in biographical movie-making as was apparent in ‘Gandhi’–which focused on Gandhi’ s life from its beginning to end—they have tried the latest mode of playing with the limitations of time and space.

‘Jinnah’ would, thus, not only take its viewers to the pre-partition years of upheaval, it would also give them a glimpse of the present-day Pakistan and how the Quaid would have felt about it had he been alive today. To the movie makers, the fictional aspect of ‘Jinnah’ may not be liked by those having a cursory look at the script of the movie or quoting it “out of context.” But, they claim that, in the end, the Quaid does emerge as a towering personality, with whom all of his contemporary leaders, Gandhi, Nehru, and Mountbatten had no match.

In view of this media controversy about ‘Jinnah’, the government has started a review of the script so as to know whether the allegations which are being leveled against it are true or false. The government may make its decision about the script in a few days time. In the meantime, however, the shooting on ‘Jinnah’ continues.

As a nation of proud people, we should certainly not accept anything that disgraces our Founding Father. Being neither on the side of the movie makers nor its critics, one would argue that the government must review the script in an objective manner. The reviewers must not side with either of the two sides, which appear to one as equally ambitious. I have myself seen the video of the audition of the editor concerned for the role which Mr. Lee is now performing. By all accounts, the acting of the person being auditioned was unimpressive. First, he did not look like the Quaid at all. Second, his acting itself, the style of walking and speaking, was quite miserable. Nothing in him resembled the Quaid. All the time, he was sweating.

As for Prof. Akbar, his ambitious nature is quite well known. As my friend Masood Hasan has already pointed out in his six-part paper article, Prof Akbar in his six part documentary on the BBC, Living Islam, would make sure that he should be physically present with sunglasses in every other shot of a Muslim shrine, mosque, tomb, and the like. When I visited his place in Islamabad earlier this month, Prof Akbar showed me the videotape of the audition of the editor, who, in his opinion, threatened the movie team of dire consequences after his case was rejected.

Prof Akbar handed over to me photocopies of several pieces of information published in the Western media in his praise as a ‘great Muslim scholar.’ Incidentally, while he was doing this, he mistakenly gave me letter written to him by President Farooq Ahmad Leghari. Before I could see this letter, Prof Akbar realized the mistake and virtually snatched it from my hands, saying that it was “confidential.” What was so secretive about this letter? I have not yet been able to comprehend.

Prof Akbar seems to be using Prof Sharif al-Mujhaid, the founding–chairman of the Quaid-i-Azam Academy as a shield to neutralize the impact of criticism against the movie. Mohsin Akhtar, a UK-based Pakistani financier of the movie, and Prof Sharif accompany Prof Akbar these days, wherever he goes. And, when it comes to defending his movie project before the press, Prof Akbar prefers not him but Prof Sharif to speak on authority.

Thus, while reviewing the script, the government should also not ignore whether or not ‘Jinnah’ is just a means to fulfill a personal end. The criticism about the contents of the script may be justified. What, however, looks ridiculous are the objections being raised against the cast of the movie, and that also on ground which is totally nonsensical? Dracula series is not the only movies series Christopher Lee has acted in. There are dozens of other hit movie to his credit.

At least when it comes to movie business, we should never be ethno-centric, or, to put in better words, nationalistic. Whether the person being auditioned and then selected for the cast is a Hindu or a Christian or he has a history of performing the role of a vampire, his success depends upon many factors. His face, height, general physique, and style of waling and talking are some, not all, of these factors.

The government reviewers of the script of ‘Jinnah’ should therefore, ignore the criticism which must have already hurt two of the great movie actors, Shashi and Christopher. But if the script needs to be changed, it must be done as soon as possible. We should celebrate our Golden Jubilee with ‘Jinnah’. But there is a word of caution: its production team can be expanded to include many other persons of high repute with credible work on the Quaid.