Yesterday thoughts of literary exchange took a backseat to high drama as actor Anupam Kher appeared to have been denied a visa for entry into Pakistan, where he'd been invited to participate in the Karachi Literature Festival.
With the literature festival only a few days away (it begins on February 5) Kher took to Twitter to express his disappointment and followed this up with a press conference explaining his stance. The press conference became relevant because while Kher claimed his visa was denied, Pakistani officials stated they had never received a visa application from the actor.
Speaking to Dawn, KLF's organisers and Pakistani officials painted different pictures of the scenario -- but however this decision came to pass, it ultimately yields only one result: Anupam Kher will not be coming to Pakistan to attend the Karachi Literature Festival. Attempts have since been made by Pakistani officials to rectify this issue but to no avail:
Meanwhile, the issue has escalated in India, with some calling on other Indian attendees at KLF to either boycott the festival or at the very least use it as a platform to express their disappointment about Kher's absence. Though Nandita Das and Barkha Dutt, among others, are still expected to attend KLF, Kher's publisher Ashok Chopra has said he will not be attending out of solidarity.
We spoke to Anupam Kher to get his own take on the issue. Here, he discusses what he hoped to achieve at KLF, his views on Pak-India relations and also, Aamir Khan.
1) We were looking forward to hearing you speak at the Karachi Literature Festival. Can you speculate on why your visa to Pakistan did not come through? Pakistani officials state you never applied for a visa, how would you refute this claim?
Anupam Kher: I cannot speculate on why I was not granted a visa. But I can definitely state that the Pakistan High Commission’s statement is an untruth.
The fact is that the Indian invitees to the Karachi Literary Festival did not have to apply for visas. Only when the organisers were given the NOC from the Interior Ministry of Pakistan were we supposed to send our passports across to the High Commission for the visa to be issued. Factually speaking, not even one of the other 17 invitees in the delegation did apply for a visa either.
2) In a statement you made online you mentioned that Pakistani authorities may have rejected your visa for two reasons: that they didn’t want you to spread ‘India's rich tradition of tolerance’ or that they were afraid you’d ‘expose Pak’s terror nexus’. Could you elaborate?
Anupam Kher: In the absence of any reason being given by the Pakistani authorities, I can only conjecture.
I certainly don’t have the resources to ‘expose’ anyone’s terror nexus but I have maintained that Pakistan too was a victim of terrorism. In fact, when the massacre of school children took place in Peshawar in 2014, I wrote an open letter to the terrorists which was widely appreciated in your country.
3) What’s your view on the visa policy and restrictions between India and Pakistan – especially for artists? How many actors do you know or have you heard of who’ve been unable to attend cross border events because of visa problems?
Anupam Kher: I believe that at least for artists, which includes practitioners of all the arts, there should be no visa restrictions.
I would also like to broaden the ambit to have an easy visa policy for genuine tourists as I firmly believe that we should have greater and freer civilian contacts. In fact, such contacts will help create a positive force on both sides to solve all our disputes.
But sadly, all such issues are dealt with on a reciprocal basis. So while India, for example, has granted liberal trade terms to Pakistan, Pakistan has not granted India the Most Favoured Nation trade status, despite having announced it years ago.
4) Many actors working between India and Pakistan these days are of the view that art and politics must stand apart. You're vocal on both subjects, so perhaps you don’t feel the same way. Could you explain your stance?
Anupam Kher: Ideally, the Arts and politics should share different spaces, but it is rare that they don’t get intertwined. Let me explain the strange dichotomy.
I believe that artists should be freely allowed to perform in both countries but if the political ties are frayed, then the environment to host them gets compromised. Also terrorist attacks, like the recent one in Pathankot, or 26/11, muddy the waters. All such incidents create less than conducive environments for exchange of artists and civilians to flourish.
Having said that, let me emphasise that India has been very generous in according visas and work permits to Pakistani artists. Many actors have starred in our movies and many of your famous ustads such as Ghulam Ali, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mehdi Hassan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan have lent their voices too and have huge fan followings in India. We have even accorded citizenship on Adnan Sami who has carved out a great career in India.
5) You recently said you were hesitant to publicly say you were Hindu in India because people might label you as having extreme views. Many saw this as a U-turn on your statements about Aamir Khan, where you criticised him for calling India intolerant. Where do you stand on this now?
Anupam Kher: In India, when one identifies oneself as a Hindu, the pseudo-secularists feel it is being regressive. So the majority community is wary of expressing religiosity. But we have never been critical of the Muslims expressing their religious faith.
On the contrary, we have been very supportive of them in all spheres. Our super stars are Muslims. Our cricket captains have been Muslims. We have had two Muslim Presidents, chiefs of the Air Force have been Muslims and even our current vice-president is a Muslim.
I honestly do not think I will ever see a Hindu as the President or Prime Minister of Pakistan. In the case of Aamir Khan, he was the brand ambassador of the Incredible India campaign. And so I feel he should have been more responsible in his utterances. In any case, he has now withdrawn his statement on intolerance.
6) If you had made it to Karachi you would be speaking in a session titled ‘Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai,’ which is ironic in light of this visa issue. Can you give us some insight into what you were planning to discuss with Ashok Chopra during this talk?
Anupam Kher: I was planning to speak on my motto, ‘Kuchh Bhi Ho Sakta Hai’ in a very positive way.
If I, the son of a humble clerk in the forest department can become a successful actor, then kuchh bhi ho sakta hai!
I was planning to speak on hope, on faith, on how art transcends borders, about how we with a common culture are separated by an artificial divide, about how we can forget the past and forge a future. I was going to speak of our commonalities, our heritage and not our divisions. I was going to tell your people of the wonderful experiences I have had with Pakistanis around the world… about how every Pakistani cabbie has never charged me any fare in the US, Canada and in the United Kingdom! Sadly, that will not come to pass now…
7) Apart from this talk, what were you hoping to gain and exchange with Pakistani actors, writers and attendees at the Karachi Literature Festival?
Anupam Kher: I was planning to meet members of the Pakistan Film TV Journalists Association who were hosting me, as well as writers and actors of the industry in Karachi. There were many things I wanted to learn from them, share their experiences so that I would return enriched. Above all, I wanted to partake of the legendary hospitality of your country and take back warm memories.
8) If you were granted a visa in the future – would you still be glad to visit Pakistan?
Anupam Kher: Inshallah, I am always ready to visit Pakistan!