We were standing in a long line, waiting to get our movie tickets for Badrinath Ki Dulhania in one of Karachi’s largest shopping centres — The Ocean Mall. Pakistan had recently suffered from a string of terror attacks. Regular security alerts didn’t deter people from staying at home.
Right next to the ticket counter, a cadaverous yet impish looking Anushka Sharma is peering out of a poster. Her film Phillauri had not released yet. Another line awaited us outside the popcorn booth.
The hall was dark and full already. The film is a romantic comedy with a feminist undertone, and the opening scenes immediately sent the theatre into a roar of laughter.
Unlike most public places in Pakistan, which are usually male-dominated, this crowd had almost the same number of men as women.
The first time I realised that life and culture could be different in different places was when I saw an Indian film. The image that stuck with me was that of Madhuri Dixit’s belly button. Her dress was in sharp contrast to what women around me, like my grandmother, wore. I didn’t understand what exactly was “forbidden” about it.
One of my father’s brothers was 6 feet and five inches tall and was obsessed with restrictions like not letting anyone listen to music or watch films. But it was in his room that we discovered those films, which he rented to play on his VCR. His ban on us watching films or listening to songs failed like bans always do and as a child, I became obsessed with Bollywood, in an era when both entertainment and Indian culture had become taboos.
Pakistan’s Bollywood dilemma
Most Bollywood films attract the masses, which don’t come from the upper economic and social milieu. Therefore, upper-class Pakistanis would prefer getting caught with their pants down than watch Alia Bhatt dance.
One of my relatives watched a film with me and denied knowing anything about Bollywood in the evening when guests came over to our house. An uncle of mine stated, “film te gora hee bananda hai” (only the whites can make a film) after watching Dangal. They would never admit knowing who Kangana Ranaut was dating or who Katrina Kaif broke up with — even though Pakistan’s newspapers regularly carry such gossip.
While my uncle’s generation feigns a disregard, their children are genuinely disconnected from their cultural and linguistic diaspora. They would rather binge-watch Netflix and reality shows like Master Chef. Appreciating Jennifer Lawrence is acceptable but Deepika Padukone is not.
Freedom of entertainment
My relationship with Bollywood is reflective of Pakistan’s complex relationship with it.
I remember once an Afghan friend was having the time of his life listening to an absurd Hindi song, with obscure stars and jarring notes. He later explained that when the Taliban left, this was the first film he saw in a theatre.
Afghan film industry, just like its Pakistani counterpart in the 1980s, was crushed under the Taliban. Taliban adhered to the same creed of Islam that influenced the Pakistani establishment and which equated all entertainment with vulgarity. Therefore, in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, Bollywood means exerting freedom.
The first Indian film I saw in the cinema was Taare Zameen Par, during a college trip to India. It was a transformative experience. I wish it were a traditional song and dance film. In the hallway outside the theatre, I saw a huge poster of Jodha Akbar, with the imperial-looking Hrithik Roshan and Aishwariya staring blankly at us. This was the first time I realised how big these stars are.
The first Indian film I saw in Pakistan was Dhobi Ghat — an Aamir Khan Productions Films, so abstract and loosely plotted that I didn’t understand much of it. Eventually, I did see the customary musicals Bollywood produces that made me feel more fulfilled at the end.
Banning and (un)banning
Hundreds of Bollywood films are screened in Pakistan annually, and they have reintroduced cinema in the urban culture. This new trend uplifted the local film industry. But this boost led the Pakistan government to mistakenly believe that the business can run on Pakistani films alone.
Last year, when the pressure to remove Pakistani artists from Bollywood intensified, the Pakistan Electronic Media Authority placed a blanket ban on the Indian content on the radio, television, and cinemas. The police started arresting people for using any devices that brought Indian channels to their homes.
The lack of content pushed the vibrant multiplex economy into a slowdown, and the government was forced to end this ban last December. For Pakistani films to do good business, it is imperative that they earn three times the money invested because the profits are divided among the production team, distributors, cinema owners and financiers.
Pakistan needs to produce more films to fill its theatre screens but also more theatre screens to help these films do more business. Recently, Pakistan’s premium intelligence agency is also said to have started to help the nascent film industry by giving them finances, equipment and access to locations. It also produced a full-fledged commercial movie called Waar, and it became Pakistan’s highest grossing film. Patriotic films that followed this hit didn’t take off as well. Indeed the “deep state” has its eyes set on the big screen, not just for monitoring but also for propaganda.
Disowning the artists
Pakistani artists have been working in India since Partition. Singers like Noor Jahan, Mehdi Hassan and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan used to perform in India. In the 80s and 90s, many artists tried their luck in Bollywood. But Bollywood then had traditional content and marketing that probably couldn’t accommodate a Pakistani star.
Unlike the previous generations of Pakistani TV artists, the fresh crop is from the middle class, urban and educated. Many of them are former models with many years of acting experience and a star power fueled by Pakistan’s burgeoning TV industry. Mahira Khan, Fawad Khan, Mawra Hocane and Ali Zafar are not just actors — they are stars and will continue to maintain a public presence despite being criticised for working in Bollywood.
Artists like Rahat Fateh Ali and Ali Zafar have been publicly rebuked by their fraternity for working in India. Usually, this is triggered by jealousy because the film industry back home had hit a snag. Now, most artists say they refused Bollywood because they “expected Pakistanis to be insulted there.”
But watching Pakistani stars in Indian movies was enchanting for someone who has grown up with Bollywood. Pakistan’s rising film industry could have benefitted from this exchange as well as with technical help from India. We struggle badly with choreography and action sequences.
Badrinath Ki Dulhania has three leading women protagonists fighting against the social norms of dowry, arranged marriage and being forced out of careers. In one scene Varun Dhawan is sexually molested, and to my surprise, the hall exploded with laughter, probably because they mistakenly believe that men can’t be sexually molested. But I am thrilled that this idea is rendered so publicly in Pakistan. I am also delighted that people around me can see individuals who come from Ranchi and Jhansi, struggling to live their lives on their own terms and dancing at weddings. Some kid will notice Alia Bhatt in a choli-lehnga and realise that in some parts of the world women are allowed to show some skin, just like I did as a child.
The attempt to control what the public will see and hear, as it is happening in India now, is common in communist and Islamist societies. This censorship has already expanded beyond expelling Pakistani artists to controlling what a film director like Sanjay Leela Bhansali will portray on screen. Pakistani stars can’t be eliminated from the Indian culture through restrictions. Similarly, not screening a movie as innocuous as Raees is nothing more than a futile (and silly) political statement that cost cinema owners a lot of business.
Attempts to stop someone from watching something always fail — they failed in Pakistan and Afghanistan when cinemas were shut down, they failed when my uncle forbade me from watching Indian films, and they will fail when Indians are forced to not see Pakistanis on screen.