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Just how real is the ‘ban’?

The government eased up on the import of feature films from India in Musharraf’s time, circa 2006, but the ‘issue’ has kept coming back — only to reinforce the ambiguity surrounding it

Just how real is the ‘ban’?
Graphic by Naseem ur Rehman.

The Motion Pictures Ordinance, 1979 makes no mention of it. The 1,209 ‘negative’ (or prohibited) items listed in the Import Trade Policy 2012-13 do not include this. There is no clear provision in the Punjab Motion Pictures (Amendment) Bill 2012 regarding a ‘ban’ of any kind. So, where does the bar on the screening of Indian films in Pakistani theatres come from, in the first place? Even as the government eased up on the import of feature films from across the border in Musharraf’s time, circa 2006, the ‘issue’ has kept coming back — albeit in popular knowledge — only to reinforce the ambiguity surrounding it.

There are those who blame it on “some presidential order” (in the words of leading film critic and academic Ajaz Gul) dating back to Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s time, post 1965-war. Indian films which had been a regular feature in Pakistani cinema houses till then were now declared ‘enemy property’.

The Martial Law Order ’81 sought to decertify all Indian films that had been released between 1947 and ‘81. Furthermore, the Trade Policy prohibited import of any film whose language and/or actors are Indian or Pakistani. These movies needed to obtain NOC from the Ministry of Commerce before they could be presented for review by the Central Board of Film Censors.

It translated as a ‘ban’ nonetheless and continued through decades. The ban was so well placed that it impacted the import of a big Hollywood franchise like Raiders of the Lost Arc because it starred Bollywood actor Amrish Puri. The only two Indian movies that ever saw the light of the day in Pakistani theatres — Meena Kumari’s Noor Jehan and Reena Roy-starrer Kashish — were afforded special permission by Gen Ziaul Haq in 1981 because Sheikh Mukhtar, the actor-producer of Noor Jehan, had migrated to Pakistan for good and Dr Jan, the importer of Kashish, had promised the government to use all revenue generated from the box office collections of the movie in building an eye hospital in the country. (That Kashish flopped and no one ever came around to starting a hospital is history.)

It is interesting to note that even though Indian movies have always enjoyed huge popularity among the masses in Pakistan, it wasn’t until Gen Pervez Musharraf that film was actually seen as a diplomacy channel to improve relations with the neighbouring country. In April 2006, Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal and a digitally coloured version of K Asif’s epic Mughal-e-Azam became the first two Indian films in decades to be officially screened in Pakistani theatres. Both the films were historicals, set in the Mughal era, and ‘gifted’ to president Musharraf.

In August 2007, the release of Awarapan, starring a more mainstream actor Emraan Hashmi, was justified as being an Indo-Pak co-production. The same year, John Abraham’s Goal made it to cinemas in Pakistan. It was now believed that an Indian film that had been shot outside of India — Goal was shot entirely in the UK — could be considered for release here. But most of this was only popular misconception.

History shows how the release of legendary Bollywood actor-director Dev Anand’s blockbuster Jaal in 1952 was vociferously resisted by the film fraternity on this side of the border.

In 2008’s blockbuster Race, the Pakistani importers had their first real taste of box-office success in an imported Indian film, which paved the way for similar deals by more and more people associated with the cinema industry. The crooks also had a field day. Bollywood films were routinely smuggled into the country by obtaining the Certificate of Origin (CO) from the UK or Dubai.

On April 4, 2011, the then government of PPP devolved the powers of the Central Board of Film Censors to individual provinces through the Eighteenth Amendment. This move is yet to pay dividends.

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