Filmmaker Karan Johar's controversial remarks on intolerance today kicked up a storm with the Congress hitting out against the Modi government accusing it of stifling freedom of expression and BJP dismissing the criticism saying India is the most tolerant country.
Wading into the intolerance debate, Johar said, "The talk about freedom of expression is the biggest joke I believe in the world. Democracy is the second biggest joke I think."
"I really wonder how are we really democratic? How is there freedom of expression? As a filmmaker, I feel bound at every level be it what I put out on celluloid or what I say in print," he said at the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival.
Attacking the NDA government, Congress leader Manish Tewari said, "This goverment of Modi is against intellectuals. They are against liberal voices. The tension is increasing from everywhere. Other than Anupam Kher, who is a pawn for the government, all other artists, painters, filmmakers are saying that this government is against intellectuals."
Union Minister Mahesh Sharma retaliated saying, "The whole world is seeing that India is the most tolerant country."
Also hitting back at Congress, his ministerial colleague Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said, "Those who are raising questions on India's tolerance have no knowledge about the country's culture and traditions. They are illiterate. It is true that issues of intolerance crop up the moment elections are announced."
Rubbishing their claims, Tewari said, "It is against every such behaviour that wants to take the liberal and all encompassing ideologies forward."
"If all other artists and actors and filmmakers and writers are saying that this government is against intellectuals and is trying to curb the freedom of expression, then it must be true. Truth does not need any evidence," he said.
In his conversation with Poonam Saxena who has penned his biography 'An Unsuitable Boy' and author-columnist Shobaa De, Johar said he felt he was living in a "tough country" where speaking about one's personal life can land people behind the bars.
Recently Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan found themselves in a controversy for speaking up against the "growing intolerance" in the country.
Johar who has made films on contentious issues such as homosexuality ("Dostana") and relationships outside wedlock ("Kabhi Alvida Na Kehana"), said, "I feel like there is always some kind of a legal notice awaiting me everywhere I go."
"I've become some kind of an FIR king," Johar said referring to the controversy over the AIB roast, staged in Mumbai last year which involved the western concept of insult comedy.
The Bombay High Court recently asked Mumbai police not to file charge sheet against the filmmaker and others facing a criminal case for allegedly using obscene language on the show.
Johar said he did not want to fight the "governance" by speaking out on "intolerance" like his colleagues in Bollywood industry did last year.
"Look what happened as a result of anyone who said anything on it. I make movies, I'm fighting megalomaniac movie stars everyday. Do I need to fight the governance?
"We're fighting the censor with every film. You write anything, you can't say anything. How are we democratic then?" he posed.
Johar also said that he is "always looking for scandal" as that keeps him in the news, something he loves about the business of showbiz.
"This keeps me in the news. I have no extramarital affair to talk about...So I think I’m looking for scandal," the filmmaker said.
Congress spokesperson Amiben Yagnik asked why one cannot speak freely in public, a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution.
Backing Johar, actor Raza Murad said, "Whatever Karan has said has come straight from his heart and it should be introspected upon."
"When Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir spoke about it, they faced a lot of flak. Their films were stopped and their posters and effigies were burnt. And now when Karan, who is not related to any political party and has never given any such statements before, has said this that means somewhere down his heart he is afraid."
"People from film industry also have the right to speak their mind. Our honourable PM Modi Ji, does 'Mann Ki Baat' on radio and people listen to him very carefully. All of us in the country have the right to say our 'Mann Ki Baat' and we cannot be ignored."
Filmmaker and Censor Board member Ashoke Pandit tweeted, "What is @karanjohar's reaction on the #Intolerance of #ISIS, that the govt. Is successfully cracking on?"
Commenting on Johar's remarks, actor Anupam Kher said, "Before 2014 everyone in out country used to live in peace and harmony. No one was afraid of anyone. Everyone lived happily. Jai Ho!"
Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt tweeted in support of Johar, "In these times where everyone is trying to impress the powers that rule! it is heartening to see Karan take the risk of being honest."
Asked to comment on Johar's remarks, BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said, "He is denying his own position. He is saying what he wants. At least he should not create an illusion in the country. He is a good filmmaker and should do good work. He is saying as there is freedom to speak. He is raising questions on democracy," he said.