Ya allah tera lakh lakh shukar hai (I thank you many times God) exclaimed a housewife upon hearing that the ban on the screening of Indian films has been lifted. It had been over two months and most people were suffering from withdrawal symptoms of their favorite addiction that is Indian entertainment. Whether they like to admit it or not, Pakistanis are deeply impressed with Indian cinestars and their world; they may despise India but Bollywood is a separate entity in their minds-serving as almost another country. Bollywood runs in our veins as much as it palpitates in the heart of a Hindustani. The separation anxiety from their saas-bahu serials also must have been torturous for some because our saases (mothers in law) and bahus (daughters in law) have been graduating in family politics, with top honors, ever since Star plus entered our homes.
The recent surgical strike by Pemra and Pakistan Film Exhibitors Association on content from India, in a tit for tat move, obviously backfired on them. Thousands of employees working with big movie exhibition chains were laid off; their own exhibition business went for a toss and it hurt our soft image internationally too, that is if we had one to begin with. Time and again it has been debated in Pakistan whether Indian entertainment shows have been tainting our culture or not. In my opinion we have been on a self-detonating mode for long as a country so it hardly made any difference.
The fondness for content from across the border is emotional, aspirational, as well as, filled with curiosity about a territory that is out of bounds for most Pakistanis. Neo-Pakistani films have also been borrowing formulas from Bollywood, even incorporating item songs, which are a signature Bombay film industry thing. Our dependence on Indian content is not a new phenomenon though. It didn’t start with “3 Idiots” or after being hooked on to Bigg Boss, our relationship with their films solidified much before the internet came into the scene.
Before Producer Ekta Kapoor destroyed Indian television with her never ending soaps and unrealistic plot lines — the male lead in her serials is always an uber rich guy owning assets worth thousands of crores — there was a Zee Tv in the early 90s. Bored with watching just PTV and the privately owned STN, Pakistanis in metropolitans began installing the humongous, 6 feet tall dish antennas on their rooftops to catch seven or eight channels beaming from Bharat. The Dish antenna soon became a status symbol, costing over 10 thousand rupees in those times. It gave people an opportunity to boast about watching the latest episodes of ‘Taara’ or singing along in ‘Antakhshari’ with host Annu Kapoor.
Indian films, though, had always been making it to Pakistan before they hit their own screens. Watching a movie in theatre was not deemed suitable for Pakistani families. Moreover, Hindi films were not allowed on our parda(screen) for many decades. So video cassettes of the latest Hindi movies arrived on Thursdays after their screening in Dubai; these were all pirated copies, of course, wholesaling from Rainbow centre in Saddar, Karachi. These prints were loaded with commercials breaks as well as additional ads with a fan or an odd ghee can whirling on the screen along with several tickers. Every street in Karachi had a film ki dukaan. Young men with no particular ambition found it easy to invest their time in a business that was bound to thrive. Their main inventory were films from India, being rented out to customers at 10 or 20 rupees for a day or two, depending on the star cast and hype surrounding a movie.
‘Haalaat bahut kharab hain’ (the times are rough) is a catchphrase that can be applied to any decade in Pakistan and it would stand its ground. For the elders and adults alike the halaat (circumstances) have never been okay. Pakistan of the 80s and 90s was a battleground of civil wars, rampant unemployment, and ethnic based prejudice. There weren’t too many outlets for public entertainment apart from eating out or watching movies in the security and comfort of your home. Hindi Films and TV serials served as an antidote to the happenings that engulfed our country.
Hindi films were mostly seen as a secular space in the eyes of Pakistanis, unlike Hindu India and its government, half the names that flashed in the film titles were Muslim sounding. Urdu or Hindustani, the language of the movies acted as a common ground too, and not to forget folks constantly mentioning Dilip Kumar’s association with Peshawar. Rishi Kapoor’s visit to Islamabad in 1990 was as celebrated in the media as much as Aamir Khan’s attendance in his relative’s wedding in 1989 in Karachi. There was a bond that the audience shared quietly with their favorite stars that relieved them from their stress, by acting in movies that allowed one to escape their fate for three hours.
Similarly, Delhi which is mostly populated with Punjabis who crossed over from the western side during partition, lapped up video cassettes of Umar Shareef ‘Bakra Qiston pe’ and drama serials like Dhoop Kinare, Ankahee. The wounds of 1947 were overlooked momentarily as citizens of the two neighboring countries watched creative expression of the other on VHS. There was a sense of familiarity and a sense of wonder also, vicariously observing the other culture developing through the artists and their work. This practice picked up once again in India with Zee Zindagi showcasing Pakistani serials for its audience until they decided to punish actors for all the hungama at LoC and stopped their broadcast in an immature move.
In recent times, those that strongly advocated bans on Pakistani artists working in India are bound to feel stupid about their emotional decision too as the months go by. Pakistan could have acted with more restrain as well and displayed a larger heart allowing Indian creative projects to reach its population and to save themselves from embarrassment later on. Two wrongs can never make a right; cricketers and artists often become the sacrificial lamb by our politicians when tensions fly high on the borders. The job of an artist is to emote with precision feelings that are universal so the audience member can find a reflection of his or her emotional state in a performance; all art is global, artists do not require a visa to reside in the heart of their fans.
The real ban ought to be on the boycotts themselves which restrict cultural exchange when we need it the most to understand each other better.