In July this year, a leading lifestyle magazine of India flew their international team to Lahore. They were supposed to shoot an exclusive feature with a number of Pakistani artistes and media celebrities for the magazine’s ambitious October 2016 issue. That the shoot eventually took place at choicest locations in Lahore — as well as in Karachi — is another story (I know of it from personal quarters). Come September, and the magazine decided to push all the stories they had invested a good deal of money, creative energy and effort in, to a later issue. Printing them at a time when Pakistan and India were on the brink of a war would seem insensitive, they thought.
They were right about it because the world outside their comfy, little office in Mumbai was rapidly becoming intolerant, even more than they had assumed. One incident was leading to another: the Uri terrorist attack that killed 19 Indian troops had India blaming the massacre on Pakistan army, and the latter rejecting the allegation as pure farce; Pakistan and India exchanged fire on the border; and the SAARC summit that was due to be held in Islamabad in October was called off.
Suddenly, it felt like we were breathing in an entirely different space where there was no room for any arts exchange, let alone a peaceful dialogue. Ironically, whereas Pakistan still enjoys the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status given by India, and its sugar and cotton imports from India or cement export to the neighbouring country haven’t been stalled, the war rhetoric continues to dominate the mainstream and social media. On a daily basis, the news channels have been churning out what could at best pass for noisy courtroom dramas, only a tad more vulgar, the Indian media going to the extent where it began to question the loyalty of anyone who dared to have an unbiased opinion.
For some strange reason, the first casualty in this violent campaign of intimidation and Pakistan-bashing, led by Raj Thackeray’s far-right party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), and fuelled by a bunch of hyperventilating, uber-nationalistic news anchors howling out of their television screens, turned out to be the Pakistani crossover artistes — actors, musicians, and stand-up comedians. In fact, if you listen in closely, much of the media tirade has since been focused on Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan, and also occasionally Ali Zafar, all of whom have their Bollywood films due out soon.
At first, the MNS gave a 48-hour ultimatum to Fawad and Mahira to leave India. Their contention being that these actors had ‘chosen’ not to condemn the attacks on Kashmiri soldiers. Yes, they didn’t speak a word — for or against the attacks — till very recently, but even when they did, the MNS and most of the hawkish Indian media weren’t convinced. “Why this fake outrage,” asked Arnab Goswami, an Oxford-educated journalist and news anchor, on his weeknight show.
“You can’t take an ambivalent position on this,” he ranted. “I think it’s the moral hypocrisy of an Ali Zafar who releases a full song after the Peshawar attack and doesn’t say one word about Uri.”
The names of Mahira and Fawad have been routinely dragged in heated primetime discussions on Indian news channels, by panellists that have typically included an MNS leader, a martyred soldier’s grieving father, a raging ex-serviceman, and an angsty actor or director all of whom seem as if they were handpicked to represent the show host’s myopic argument. And, then, there is always that odd man out — a social or cultural critic, or some liberal voice — who would express a different opinion and, thus, invite the wrath of the whole lot, the host included, while they literally pounce on him with abuses and insults, and the programme attains its Jerry Springer Show-like climax and lots of TRPs.
The next we know, the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association (IMPPA), a 79-year-old private organisation, resolved in its September 30 “Extraordinary General Body Meeting” (as described in its official PR) to ban all Pakistani talent “until … the Government of India declares that all is well.” This was followed by Zee TV’s popular Zindagi channel, which prided itself on being the flag-bearer of unity through arts exchange between the two countries, taking all Pakistani shows off air.
Cinema owners in Pakistan, together with the importers and distributors of Bollywood films, decided to “reciprocate the ban” and remove all Indian movies from the screens, even if it meant incurring heavy losses. What’s more, Pakistan Electronic Media Authority (PEMRA), a government body, announced launching a crackdown on all importers of Direct-to-Home (DTH) transmission services from India, and made it mandatory for them to acquire the NOC. On October 19, the Authority which had earlier allowed a maximum of 6 per cent foreign content on local TV and FM radio channels, now placed a blanket ban on Indian stuff, leaving the average viewer dismayed.
Meanwhile, in India, hate mongers were having the time of their life tweeting up a storm. A less harsh editorial cartoon depicted an audience staring at a cinema screen that says, “No Pakistani artist has been involved in the making of this film. Utmost care has been taken not to hurt Indians’ sentiments.”
The countable few sane voices that we got to hear — like Priyanka Chopra and Anurag Kashyap — were conveniently shouted down for ‘loving the enemy,’ while the patriotism of those who had hired Pakistani talents was shamelessly questioned.
Karan Johar’s is the saddest case in point. The otherwise vivacious and garrulous producer-director cum talk show host was harassed to the point where he caved in and recorded his mercy plea in a video post, at the risk of losing face, only because his latest Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (ADHM) featured Fawad Khan as one of its principal actors. The MNS had threatened to vandalise its October 28 theatrical release in Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra, and a group of single-screen exhibitors had joined in to boycott the film in certain other regions.
In a similar incident, though not necessarily in the same fashion, senior actor Om Puri rendered a public apology, after making a shockingly bold (albeit not-so-cautious) statement against the trumpeting of ban. A spontaneous person, Puri was in character when he confessed that he had “caused hurt to the martyrs’ families” and so he “must be punished.”
Puri’s initial outburst may be attributed to the fact that he has been to Pakistan a number of times before (six times, he said), and every time he was in great company. Besides, his first Pakistani film, titled Actor In Law, recently opened across the country as well as internationally, to an overwhelming response. The film was up for release in India also but its distributors were held back by the escalating tension on the Line of Control.
For the record, this wasn’t the first time the MNS took up cudgels against Pakistani films and artistes. Last year, Bin Roye’s Mumbai-based international distributor B4U was forced to have a very limited release in India. Pakistan TV channels are already not part of the cluster offered by the cable operators.
‘Bhaijan’ Salman Khan also risked being labelled “anti-national” when he stated that Pakistani actors and musicians had come to Bollywood only after they were granted visas and work permits by the Indian government. His declaration that artistes must not be bracketed with terrorists was genuinely heartfelt. But he was slighted across the length and breadth of various media outlets ringing heavily with jingoism.
Unlike Johar, Salman Khan didn’t have much at stake in taking this position. Johar had a thick load of money riding on his film ADHM. Perhaps, that is why he jumped on the very first deal the Thackerays offered him in return for allowing his film an “uninterrupted” release: pay up INR 50 million to the Army Welfare Fund as “penance”. The second condition (set by the MNS) was that a slate should be shown before the start of the film as “a tribute to the Uri martyrs.”
Reactions to Johar’s submission began to pour in. While many were critical of him, some even saying that he had only saved his own ship from sinking, there were voices of reason also. Barkha Dutt dedicated an entire TV show, aptly captioned “Goondaism in the garb of nationalism,” where she took an MNS leader head-on.
In Pakistan, too, fans of Johar were confused whether to express pity or disappointment. Film academic Mira Hashmi responded, “It’s easy to pass judgement, but we have to understand that liberal voices are under siege in India and not everyone can afford to stand up against [the] extremists. If KJo doesn’t release the film, it’ll mean a colossal financial disaster. If he releases the film as it is, he will be held responsible for any violence that may occur as a result (unfair and unreasonable though that may be). It’s not an easy position to be in — damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
In the final analysis, artistes are a soft target. We know how Pakistan banned Indian films after the 1965 war. The ban remained effective for well over four decades, although artistes were never barred from moving between the two countries for business or pleasure. Our film legends such as Madam Noor Jehan and Meena Shorey famously began with the then Bombay film industry before Nadeem and Zeba-Ali appeared in Sharmila Tagore-starrer Duur Desh (1983) and Manoj Kumar’s Clerk (1989) respectively and, years later, Zeba Bakhtiar, Mahira, Fawad and others worked in India. Our musicians have also always enjoyed a special place in the hearts of millions of Indians. No wonder they often got picked up by Bollywood.
Personally speaking, I believe if it weren’t for Pakistan’s pop music whose popularity went beyond borders, Bollywood music might never have changed its ‘filmi’ course — in terms of composition, orchestra and singing style. Or, if we didn’t have an Atif Aslam, there wouldn’t be so many of his me-toos going around.
Of course, Pakistan has also borrowed talent from India, and fondly so. Sabiha Sumar, Shoaib Mansoor, Mehreen Jabbar and Meenu-Farjad are some of the recent filmmakers who worked with Kirron Kher (Khamosh Pani; 2003), Naseeruddin Shah (Khuda Ke Liye; 2007, and Zinda Bhaag; 2013), and Nandita Das (Ramchand Pakistani; 2007). Shah will be seen in another Pakistani film, Jeewan Hathi, which hits the theatres in November this year.
On television, we have seen Juhi Parmar (known for her Star Plus soap Kum Kum), and Aamna Sharif and her Kahin Toh Hoga co-star Rajeev Khandelwal in different productions of Humayun Saeed. (Saeed also later worked in a 2009 Bollywood film, Jashn). Rekha Bhardwaj has lent her voice to many Pakistani TV serials’ soundtracks some of which have lyrics by Gulzar. The list goes on.
I’d only be stating the obvious if I said that generations after generations of Pakistanis have grown up on Indian films — whether we watched these on TV and VHS tapes, back in the 1970s and ‘80s, prior to the invention of the digital and the internet, or in theatres, till the early ‘60s, and after the 40-year-long gap, in 2006 onwards.
Our screen idols have always been the likes of Dilip Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, and now the three Khans; our goddesses Madhubala, Rekha, Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi, and so many others. Indian film stars are also our first choice for endorsing most brands. Of late, if you walked down a commercial street in any big or small town in Pakistan, you couldn’t miss an all-smiles Ranveer Singh running his fingers through his freshly shampooed hair on a hoarding, or a pouty Katrina Kaif promoting a beauty soap.
Ban or no ban, Bollywood updates and sound bites are still a regular feature in our news journals. While we don’t get to hear Hindi film songs on radio now, we can’t have our mehndi events without playing them.
That said, the ban — as implausible and implacable as it is — isn’t going to do Bollywood or Pakistan any good. Strange that it is the performing arts that must suffer, even as much of other trade activity goes on as usual. Naseeruddin Shah put it most succinctly while speaking at a book launch in Mumbai recently: “We haven’t severed diplomatic relations with Pakistan, we haven’t sealed our borders, we aren’t in a state of war, so why target artists?”
On a positive note, the Indian glossy hasn’t scrapped its stories that celebrate Pakistani artistes; it has only postponed these to a more suitable time. Here’s hoping the time comes soon enough. For all we know, we may have a sweet November.