Soft diplomacy through pretzels and ballroom dancing-Meet ex-Law Min Salman Khurshid
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Soft diplomacy through pretzels and ballroom dancing-Meet ex-Law Min Salman Khurshid

Smrithi Suresh

Plot point- Two good looking men vying for the attention of a stunning woman.  One of them is lamenting about his ill-luck, lip syncing to a beautiful melody as he watches the lady getting closer to the other guy. Sound familiar? Apart from every other Bollywood potboiler from the 70’s that carried a similar plot, this particular scene and song is from the 2003 blockbuster, Kal Ho Na Ho.

Cut to 2015- Replace Brooklyn Bridge with India Gate; Central Park with beautiful grounds somewhere-in-Delhi; And SRK with Michael Steiner, the German ambassador. Confused? Don’t be. New- age diplomacy is here and it’s called ‘Lebe Zetzt- Kal Ho Na Ho’. (During the course of our meeting, Khurshid would tell me that Lebe Zetzt means Kal Ho Na Ho in German)

While Steiner himself is busy advising viewers to live in the present and not worry about the future, Steiner’s wife Eliese plays Preity Zinta and our very own former Law minister Salman Khurshid plays Saif Ali Khan, neatly serenading his lady with a pretzel.

The concept is refreshing and the execution, spot on. I tell this to Khurshid and he smiles softly, telling me how the video that everyone seems to be talking about, took shape.

“Somehow there’s been an event or other in my life that provides a very special link to Germany and it has always surrounded my perceptions. It dates back to my grandfather’s time who studied in Berlin and we used to hear fascinating stories about what Germany used to be like. I have known the present Ambassador for years, even before I was the Foreign Affairs Minister. He is really outgoing and has a lot of enthusiasm. One day he suddenly came up with this idea and said to me, ‘You know the Germans are really hooked on to Bollywood and remake their movies all the time so why not we attempt a remake of Kal Ho Na Ho? At that time, I had no clue that he wanted me to play Saif’s role so I encouraged him to go ahead with it. When he finally made that suggestion, I gave him an incredulous expression and asked him whether he was crazy!”

It was not just Khurshid who felt that Steiner’s suggestion was a bit startling to say the least, his friends and family held similar views. But he eventually gave in.

“He is such a nice man and I felt that I could not say no. Besides, his thought of treating this as a different way of encouraging soft diplomacy appealed to me. He was thinking about a very special message that one could send out; on how Germans and Indians were alike.

The next challenge was coordinating the schedules of everyone involved. Khurshid, however is all praises for the crew which managed everything efficiently. He also admits that he did not have to rehearse much.

“Frankly, not a great deal of preparations went behind it. I went for instructions to the rehearsals one evening, post court. They took me to the location where we would shoot and discussed outfits etc. Of course we saw the song several times to get the steps right (especially for the ballroom sequence). I finished my shoot in one day.”

So what went through Khurshid’s mind before he agreed to this new role. Was he at all skeptical about the response the video may generate? After all no mainstream politician/lawyer in recent times had attempted something like this. He thinks for a minute before replying to that and responds that the thought did cross his mind more than once and he was worried about it even while he shot the video.

“I was truly apprehensive as to how people would react here. There is a lack of sense of humor and people tend to slot you in a particular manner if you are a politician or lawyer on how you ought to behave in public. But it seems to have gone off well. I haven’t had any adverse reactions except one single reaction. That did upset me but then I told myself, ‘Ah forget it! None so blind as those that will not see.’

He can afford to be self-assured.  The video has gone viral and everyone on social media seems to have embraced the humour behind the video. The makers are being lauded for treating the subject of international diplomacy with dollops of unconventionality. Did he anticipate the response or has the frenzy caught him by surprise?

“I did not expect the massive response. I thought some would see it and some would be amused. The Ambassador kept telling me that you never know what may happen. It could go completely viral. The response has had him jumping like a child and he keeps sending me messages that now it has registered so many hits.  I definitely believe that we have been able to deliver our message successfully. It’ll be interesting to see how people from Germany see it. But I feel it’s gone down really well and has got youngsters thinking about how alike similar we are to Germany, in our tastes.”

“I remember the Ambassador telling me that I could invite anyone for the video launch and I had called only a handful of people while his list had 300-400 invitees.  Now that I see the responses, maybe I should have invited more people (laughs heartily) because everyone seem to have enjoyed it.”

And “everyone” includes Shah Rukh Khan himself, who showered glorious praises on the ‘remake’ while Times of India carried a headline saying, ‘Move over Salman Khan…there is a new hero in town.’ The premiere of the video was held in the presence of Sharmila Tagore, Saif Ali Khan, and Madhu Kishwar (who also stars in it), all of whom seem to have liked the concept.

So is Khurshid ready to make his foray into the silver screen? Despite earning rave reviews, and his professed love for drama, he is clear on which side of table he prefers to be on. “No, certainly not. It’s an interesting thing but I am sure it is also very tough. Much as I believe that politics is tougher and so is law, courts remain my happy place.”

Maybe it’s not all that bad for politicians to be irreverent about themselves and have a sense of humor. With all the bad news that keeps hitting us from various quarters, a fun piece like this, albeit with a message (their YouTube description says “connecting people across borders”) is exactly what the doctor ordered. Team Lebe Zetzt, take a bow!

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