Pakistan's ban on Naam Shabana is typical of its love-hate relationship with Bollywood
Pakistan only loves Bollywood when it offers the perfunctory escapist fare that it is universally acknowledged for
The recent news of the Pakistan Censor Board banning Naam Shabana in Pakistan on account of scenes related to terrorism in the film showing Pakistan in a bad light has brought to the front the strange love-hate relationship that the country has with Bollywood.
This isn’t the first time that Pakistan has banned Hindi films and only last year, it had put an embargo on the screening of Indian films following the cross-border tension between the two countries. A few months later — in January 2017 — Pakistan decided to lift the ban and while fans, aficionados, and cinema lovers were celebrating the development with equal gusto on both sides of the border, in a strange twist of fate Pakistan ‘banned’ the very film that was to be the first to be screened after it had lifted the ban! Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees (2017) and Hrithik Roshan’s Kaabil (2017) were slated to usher in the new post-ban era of Hindi films in Lollywood but the former was not allowed to be screened as it showed a particular sect of Muslims in a negative light.
Time and again, Hindi films have proudly displayed their love for themes and talent originating from Pakistan. In its own way, a part of Bollywood still believes that the partition of India might have created a border but the jazba of the artist continues to be just the same when Pakistan didn’t even exist.
In spite of the mutual love, the two look at each other in a very different light: Pakistan loves Bollywood when it offers the perfunctory escapist fare that it is universally acknowledged for and just like the concept of the Westerner imagining that India is still a mystical place where snake charmers, flying carpets, maharajahs and their elephants commingle, Pakistan, too, would like to believe that Bollywood is all about dancing around trees and such. Of course, the whole naach-gaana business persists but anything from Bollywood laced with a tinge of reality is a no-go for Lollywood.
It has in some capacity or the other banned more than 15 films in the recent past: Ek Tha Tiger (2012) for an ISI agent falling in love with an Indian spy, Agent Vinod (2012) for showing ISI and Pakistan in a bad light, Baby (2012) for suggesting that all terrorists in its narrative were Muslims, Delhi Belly (2011) and Dirty Picture (2011) for being a tad too vulgar, Khiladi 786 (2012) as it could hurt the sentiments of its citizens, Tere Bin Laden (2013) for its comical take on Osama Bin Laden that could provoke an attack, David (2013) as it showed a Muharram procession in a song in an inappropriate manner, etc. Even Raanjhana (2013) was refused a release as it showed a Muslim girl falling in love with a Hindu boy.
It is a widely accepted fact that the average Pakistani viewer loves Bollywood as much as Bollywood loves the idea of people warming up to it in Pakistan. Every time an ethnological observation is made about Bollywood and its ability to transcend borders, the joy is palpable on either side. A recent example of this was seen a few days ago when a Pakistan-based author’s opinion about the sheer joy of watching Bollywood films in Pakistan was widely shared on social media. The post was written following the Pakistan release of Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya (2017) and its popularity suggested that not showing Bollywood films in Pakistan was akin to withholding life-saving drugs.
The joy was short-lived.
The news of the Pakistan Censor Board demanding certain cuts in Aamir Khan’s Dangal (2016) that included scenes with the Indian tri-colour and the national anthem to be deleted came as a reality check. One can comprehend when Phantom (2016), more on that later, or Naam Shabana would irk the Pakistani censors as they present certain facts about Pakistan’s state policy towards elements that spread terror but to demand cuts in a sports biopic such as Dangal or even Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) where the historical fact about Milkha Singh (Farhan Akhtar) beating his Pakistani opponent Abdul Khaliq didn’t go down well with the country’s censor is lamentable.
Two events last year put the whole ‘Pakistan-Loving-Bollywood-and-Bollywood-Loving-Pakistan-back’ business in perspective.
In April 2016 when filmmaker Kabir Khan visited Pakistan, he was heckled at the airport by a group of people for making the anti-Pakistan Phantom (2016). Only a few months before that when Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) had released, the same Khan was being seen as a custodian of brotherly love — but when he made Phantom, where he showed a crack team infiltrating Pakistan to deliver justice to the perpetrators of 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, Pakistan didn’t think twice before ‘banning’ the film. Khan’s Phantom even riled up Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks and he moved court alleging that the film contained “filthy propaganda” against him and his outfit. Juxtapose the reactions to both Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Phantom and you would see how anything remotely capable of being ‘anti-Pakistan’, which here is a euphemism for showing certain realities as is, would simply be unacceptable to the powers be in Pakistan. But what truly needs to be pondered over is not how the Pakistan Censor Board or anyone else reacts but Bollywood’s seemingly Pavlovian response with most things concerning Pakistan.
At a press conference during the pre-release publicity for Phantom Kabir Khan reasoned with Indian journalists that his film was not anti-Pakistan and added that it is their mindset that compelled them to see every Pakistani as a terrorist. Of course, this was months before he visited Karachi where he was targeted for Phantom and following which he told a reporter that he would never visit Pakistan again as his wife, Mini Mathur, had made it clear “he can’t go there.” Even the fervour with which many in Bollywood presented the case of Pakistani actors to continue acting in Indian films and television shows following the September 2016 Uri attacks in which 18 Indian soldiers lost their lives, was at odds with an industry where camps are almost a way of life: people don’t work with people who say anything against them or anyone close to them, they delay projects endlessly for personal reasons that at times had made producers insolvent and bankrupt but when it comes to Pakistani actors being in their film they cite reasons such as livelihood of hundreds of people at stake, to carry on.
In an indirect but definite way, the news of Kulbhushan Jadhav, a former Indian naval officer believed by the Indian government to have been abducted from Iran, sentenced to death by Pakistan on charges terrorism and being a RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) agent also sheds lights on how Pakistan views things. In December last year, the Pakistan Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz admitted that there was no conclusive evidence against Jadhav but despite insufficient evidence, the authorities in Pakistan have not only convicted and sentenced Jadhav but also denied him consular access. Remember how Pakistan also simply refused to entertain any requests from the Indian government when the head priest of Nizamuddin Dargah and his nephew went missing in Pakistan a few weeks ago… Well, Pakistan loves to operate in its own universe and when any modicum of reality is ‘banned’ in that cosmos what hope for Bollywood, the dream factory of billions?
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