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Cross-border film politics

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Bollywood has been a constant rage across the border. Why make much ado about entertainment? As Alfred Hitchcok once told an overwrought Grace Kelly, who was getting hyper about getting a shot  right, “Dear, it’s just a movie.”

By Khalid Mohamed


It’s a key constituency: the Muslim viewers. Like politicians, Bollywood trade bosses have consistently acknowledged that alienating the minority community entails a losing out on a major chunk of their votaries.

Traditionally, Muslims are said to form the most enthusiastic of India’s filmgoers, heading to the week’s new release, right after the Friday afternoon namaaz.

And it is also conjectured that if this segment of moviegoers likes a certain film, they go for a second and third helping — or what is termed as “the repeat audience.”

That’s why perhaps yesteryear’s wizardly filmmaker Manmohan Desai maintained, “If I lose out on the Muslim audience, I will have to retire.” In addition over the last two decades, Bollywood has a ready-made viewership of Asian settlers in the UK, the US and the UAE.

In fact, frequently the strategy has been to open a film in Dubai a day in advance, recently. If a film contains derogatory comments — however inadvertent — about Muslims and, of late Pakistan, the ticket sales go on a down curve.

In recent years, Pakistan after many negotiations has permitted a limited quota of Indian films for theatrical release there.

Predictably enough, the purported espionage thrillers, Agent Vinod and Ek Tha Tiger, were banned.

Their Pakistan distributors’ remarks were somewhat vague, regretting the bans, and at the same time asserting that they would not feel morally right about being associated with films, which are, in any which way, against their nation. Fair enough. However, the bans do seem to be a classic case of raising a storm in a tea-cup.

After all DVDs of each and every Bollywood product — pirated or legitimate — are accessible at the local bazaars. And Pakistan is known to have a grand appetite for Mumbai’s high-budget extravaganzas.

So what’s all the fuss about? Be that as it may, at this point Indo-Pak relations vis-à-vis cinema are at best, confusing. Like it or not, the inter-exchange is one-sided.

There’s no positive news about Indian artistes performing at music concerts in Pakistan, or participating in their film industry in a way that can be remotely described as “substantial.” Conversely, Pakistani artistes have been a part of Bollywood cinema, be it Zeba Bakhtiar, Meera, Javed Shaikh, or Mona Lizza.

Or the Lahore-born Zafar Ali, who’s first outing Tere Bin Laden enticed leading production banners to take him on board. Currently, he is wrapping up David Dhawan’s Chashme Buddoor, the remake of a Sai Paranjpye film.

Meanwhile singer Adnan Sami has sparked headlines over marital discord and prime real estate property issues in Mumbai.

Pakistan’s stalwart ghazal artistes the late Mehdi Hassan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ghulam Ali, Abida Parveen and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan have been justly appreciated on India’s soil. Cinema and music, as has been reiterated constantly, know no boundaries.

Yet, has Pakistan been as cordial in welcoming Indian talent? Ask Sonu Nigam, who some eight years ago in Karachi for a concert, had to face a bomb blast.

In what was aptly described as a jolt to Indo-Pak cultural ties, eminent secularist and writer Javed Akhtar was denied visa by Pakistan in 2006.

To add insult to injury, the state-owned PTV had withdrawn sponsorship for an Indian delegation to attend the premiere of the magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam, leading to cancellation of the event in Karachi. “Of the 25-member delegation, I was the only one to be denied a visa,” Akhtar had said incredulously.

The annual film production rate of Pakistan — called Lollywood! — has been barely existent or is miniscule compared to India’s national output of approximated 800 films in various languages.

Some TV serials have been shot with Indian artistes on overseas locations — like Canada, New Zealand and Dubai — but instances of these are rarely reported or considered newsy.

As for the number of Pakistani films, seen at the Indian multiplexes, these can be counted on a few fingers, like Shoain Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye and Bol, both excellent in quality and critical of the inequities in the country’s social structure.

Albeit censorship is a major blockade in the two countries’ cultural relationship. The Saif Ali Khan-produced Agent Vinod — on the lines of Bond and Bourne thrillers — was pure chaos.

The plot ran helter skelter in a bid to entertain the audiences with a face-off between the espionage networks of India and Pakistan.

Yash Raj banner’s Ek Tha Tiger, however, had the inbuilt advantage of its hero, Salman Khan, portraying a RAW agent, who falls in love with an ISI Mata Hari.

Anything that the Khan does nowadays is lapped up, no questions asked. Although Tiger was once again modeled after Bond and Bourne, the hair-raising stunts and the charisma of its leading man, assured a major success at the place, where it matters the most: the box-office. It didn’t have a music score to whistle about, or a song- and-dance item on the lines of Munni badnaam hui.

Yet it’s a phenomenal hit. In the script, Pakistani’s ISI agents may have been the kebab mein haddis in the way of Salman and Katrina. But the script played a politically correct balancing game. The RAW agents were stumbling blocks, as well.

Director Anil Sharma specialized in Pak-bashing with Gaddar, and succeeded, and aimed at his target again in The Hero: Love Story of a Spy, which did not succeed.

Aamir Khan took on the Pakistani spying network, represented in the form of a ghazal singer, in Sarfarosh. And went the other extreme of being a covert terrorist in Fanaa.

Quite clearly, efforts to take on Pakistan in Bollywood cinema have yielded mixed results. If there’s a mega-star on board, the chances of connecting with the audience are infinitely higher. J.P. Dutta, the war specialist, made this connection with Border.

Understandably, actors themselves are wary of alienating the pan-Asian audience, which is why Akshay Kumar dropped out of Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo till changes were made in the script.

The attitude of India’s film industry is mainly that of pacifism. Political stands are avoided, perhaps because most filmmakers are quite apolitical.

Those, who care about closer ties between the neighboring nations, however, do make their opinions felt. Like Naseer-uddin Shah and Rajat Kapur did by portraying Pakistani and Indian diplomats in the stage play Walk in the Woods, which showed to packed houses earlier this month.

Adapted from an American play by Lee Blessing, which followed the conversations of an American and Soviet diplomat, the adaptation underscored the need for amicable relations.

In this context, Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan had also found favor, especially among NRI and Pakistani immigrants. Like Salman Khan today, SRK’s star appeal contributed in articulating the film’s underlying message of tolerance.

Pakistan’s ban on Agent Vinod and Ek Tha Tiger is quite redundant. At most, they spark some headlines, and needlessly accentuate the fact that the credo of make-politics-not-peace still prevails.

Meanwhile, Bollywood has been a constant rage across the border. Why make much ado about entertainment? As Alfred Hitchcok once told an overwrought Grace Kelly, who was getting hyper about getting a shot right, “Dear, it’s just a movie.”