The Nawab has lost all his Nawabi! First the fist fight in a five-star hotel and then close at the heels of the release of his big picture, the news of its banishment from our neighbouring country. If there is a Khan in the news, for good or bad the Indian news media jumps to its cue. And if there is Pakistan involved in the equation it is enough to create an outrage!
So it happened with Saif Ali Khan and his film being banned in Pakistan last week. This desi ‘James Bond – esque’ thriller is plotted against Pakistan’s ISI Generals teaming with the Taliban to set off a nuclear bomb somewhere in the Indian capital. Muhammad Ashraf Gondal, the Vice Chairman of the country’s non-existent Film Censor Board pointed out that “It falls under the negative codes of our censor.” It of course did little good when the film’s lead actor and producer emphatically announced, “Agent Vinod is for Indians, but it isn’t against Pakistanis…But I understand if they get upset because we are beating them up quite often in the film” It didn’t end there, in a very undiplomatic play of words the Producer went on to say that “If you this (ISI officials planting bombs in India) is unreasonable or not true, then it is fair enough. I think it is all quite true.”
Now really, the brouhaha around the film and its plot is of little interest since the film has opened to mixed reviews. Style, but low on content. Some have called it (Travel) Agent Vinod! But really, Indian cinema could work a little harder to find a new villain. Given the point that India and Pakistan share a troublesome relationship, why are our film makers bent on rubbing them the wrong way? We haven’t forgetten “26/11”. We haven’t forgotten the chilling conversation between Pakistani handlers and their foot soldiers. We haven’t forgotten Kasab’s face and that he continues to eat into crores of Indian rupees for his maintenance and security. But, we can do without being reminded of the brimming anger and hate that is in all of us.
Every evening scores of Indians and Pakistani’s line up for the beating retreat spectacle at Wagah. This famous border post is in a lot of ways represents the dynamics of the troubled twins. Loudspeakers on either side bleat patriotic tunes. Citizens line up waving flags. Cameras are zoomed and shutters wink. The soldiers march and beat their ‘hooves’ and the audiences cheer them on to show some spite and hate. It’s really a spectacle that is choreographed for the audience. The India-Pakistani hate factor is an ingredient. A sentiment, as such that is responsible for multitudes of citizens visiting this border post every day of the year.
It is this very sentiment that is played out at the movies every time Pakistan and India enter a film’s plot! The enmity sparked during the 1965 war with Pakistan when the country laid a blanket ban on all Indian Cinema. Thanks to the ban,’Lollywood’ was born and it did reasonably well for itself. But briefly. Wrought with its own problems, Pakistan lifted the ban in 2008. Indian cinema, and the Hindi industry went back to Pakistani theatres and soon challenged their home grown reels. However, displeasure at Indian subjects and film plots have not changed. Think of all the popular films that have had the two countries playing a pivotal role. Take the partition movies for instance. For the longest time Indian cinema held an ambivalent stance on its neighbour. People were aware of the problems but no one wanted to take it up on celluloid. Even though the countries were born in 1947, it took more than a decade for film makers to dapple with the subject. One of the earliest to take up partition as a cinematic subject was the pioneer of new wave cinema in Bengal Ritwik Ghatak. His trilogy, Meghe Dhaka Tara, Komal Gandhar and Subarnarekha all released in the early 60’s dealt with the plight of refugees in Calcutta. In Hindi cinema, MS Sathyu’s Garam Hawa starring Balraj Sahni was a notable film. For the first time it dealt with the stories of Muslims who chose to stay in India. Even then it was a ‘controversial subject’ for a film and its making is a story in itself. Govind Nahilani’s Tamas was a defining work of cinema as it first breached the anti-Hindu-anti-Muslim subject. Shyam Benegal, another defining name in the realm of parallel cinema dealt with partition and the Muslim identity in new India with great precision in Mammo and Sardari Begum. Deepa Mehta’s 1947 Earth based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s true story Ice Candy Man carried brutal scenes of communal carnage. Around the same time India fought its third war with its neighbour and Indian cinema slowly found a new language. Gadar: Ek Prem Katha became a cult film at the turn of the century. The love story of Tara Singh and Sakina at the backdrop of partition became a canvas for a generous dose of Pakistan bashing. Sunny Deol’s fiesty dialogues in what was shown as Pakistani soil were cheered with loud claps, cheers and whistles. Riding high in the anti-Pakistan sentiment around that time, Gadar had all the makings of a blockbuster movie, which it was. In 2003, two very poignant works on partition reached cinema lovers. Pinjar a cinematic adaptation of Amrita Pritam’s novel by the same name for the first time gave a humane touch to the pain of partition. Pakistan on the other hand came out with another brilliant piece of cinema called Khamosh Paani. A look at the birth of the Jihaadi movement in Pakistan, this 2003 film was path breaking cinema.
The Kargil War gave Hindi cinema a much respite from partition movies. Here was a new subject that touched the chords of the million Indians around the globe.We knew we had lost our brave young men who went to secure the captured summit from Pakistani rangers. Pakistan was clearly the villain now. So out came war films like LOC Kargil and Lakshya. Sunny Deol in the early 2000’s starred in a series of ‘patriotic’ films, all of which had one common enemy. Pakistan. Maa Tujhe Salaam in 2002, a year later, The Hero: The Love Story of a Spy had its share of venom. Post 1993 and the Mumbai serial blasts Dawood Ibrahim became India’s most wanted man. And when reports came in that Pakistan was a refuge for this international terrorist, the country was clearly on the wrong side of the fence. What changed thereafter was cinema and its subjects. Terrorism became a modern day cinematic idiom and film makers fell into the mould of stereotyping again. Ram Gopal Varma, the King of Gangster movies came out with Company making Dawood nothing less of a cult hero. On the other hand Anurag Kaashyap’s Black Friday struggled to find a release. Watch both the films one after another and you have a study of a character, a real life villain larger than any film actor! Mission Kashmir held a mirror to India’s strained relationship with Pakistan as Kashmir became a sore ache. And Sarfarosh carried the cross-border terrorism issue with great panache. Yash Chopra couldn’t resist the urge to make a cross border love story in Veer Zaara. Released during the time of Gen Musharraf it is believed that he highly objected to the film’s story. The General wanted to approach the film maker and challenge him on the premise of an Air Force Officer being held in Pakistan. Post the hijacking of IC 814, Ajay Devgn and Abhishek Bachchan starrer Zameen gave enough on screen space for Pakistan bashing. Daddy Amitabh Bachchan starred in a new Dewaar: Lets Bring Out Heroes Back that dealt with the stories of imprisoned army officers in Pakistani jails. Full of hate and obvious rivalry India and its virtues were held up. It was only Main Hoon Na that dealt with the India-Pakistan plot as a catalyst for the twists in the plots. Pakistan and its natives were not the villain, this time the enemy was from inside, for wanting to disrupt the peace process!
Pakistan on its own gave Indian audiences two brilliant examples of its innate talent. Khuda Ke Liye dealt with the Pakistani-Muslim identity post 9/11. For once it felt important to hear them in their own language. More recently, Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol was received with enthusiasm. However, Pakistan has also from time to time banned individual films , like Tere Bin Laden, fearing it will spark a fire! On the other hand it revelled in joy when Shah Rukh Khan was involved in a controversy around the release of his film My Name is Khan. Perhaps in a promotional spree SRK commented that he pitied that Pakistani players were not a part of the Indian Premier League. Aiming for his throat Shiv Sena and its patriots created a much hue and cry. There were protests outside his house and he was promptly asked to go to Pakistan! SRK went on to apologise, but Pakistani’s on the other side of the fence invited him and the rest of the country on Twitter by saying, “You might want to come to Karachi to catch MNIK’s first day, first show.”
In a country that has almost killed its own film industry, it is a pity that very little is being done to revive it. Pakistani’s continue to watch pirated copies and DVDs of Hindi films. Much like the 80’s when Pakistani television plays were a rage in India and we smuggled their VHS. Today, we have brought home their singers – Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Adnan Sami, Atif Aslam and now Ali Zafar. Think of Dilip Saab. If the actor had not migrated to India, chances are that Indians would have had to smuggle Pakistani movies to watch them here. Let’s be tactful. Let’s be clever. Let’s offer them entertainment on a platter, but not serve them nuts and bolts for dinner! Today Hindi cinema has the potential to monetise a new market that is drought ridden. But somewhere one has to tow the line. Not everyday will Pakistanis cheer every Indian film that is released in its theatres. And definitely not when they are painted black and grey on their faces. I’ll perhaps work to think of new villains. So no matter what the personal opinions of our film makers’ are it is best to leave them out of their scripts.
This post originally appeared on India Wires