Banning Yet Again?
At a time when there is back channel, track 2 and demand for greater dialogue to restore cultural interaction between the two countries, a section of Pakistan’s tottering film industry has yet again fuelled fire by filing a petition in a Lahore court demanding ban on Indian films because the Eid release because there was such an overwhelming response to the latest Salman Khan starrer Bodyguard that at least three of its own recent products— Love Mein Ghoom, Jugni and Bhallong—couldn’t even find a theatrical release. Hence the outcry—for wrong reasons again.
Screening of Indian films had been banned in Pakistan since the 1965 armed conflict but that did not deter people from watching especially Hindi films unofficially through unofficial and illegal import of CDs and DVDs, mainly from Dubai. The revenue loss to both the countries became the underworld gain. One of the main reasons for this was better quality and more enjoyable fare than what was being produced indigenously. Paradoxically, when that was happening even the inferior quality television soaps made in Pakistan became a rage in India. Unfortunately again the fledgling television industry remained deprived of any revenue because the videos got smuggled into India through the pirates and smugglers.
The concerns of whatever remains of a film industry in Pakistan are legitimate and understandable. If imported entertainment fare finds greater precedence, especially during festive seasons, and wider public appreciation where would they show their product? But at the same time the lessons from the past shouldn’t be forgotten. Things had changed drastically when the existing ban had finally been lifted in 2006 with the premiere release of Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal…an eternal love story, closely followed by Mahesh Bhatt’s Awarapan and Sunny Deol starrer Kaafila. The skies did not burst, coins were not thrown on screens, people did not throng the theatres in expected large numbers though a certain bonhomie was discernible around worn-out and dilapidated but hurriedly decorated theatres, especially in Lahore and Karachi.
Being part of the large contingent that was received with great pomp, drum beating and wide cheering at the Lahore Airport, this writer was an eyewitness to what followed the arrival and release of the film, and the series of receptions that took place there as well as in Karachi. None of the three films raked in the booty, as also the colourised version of K Asif’s classic Mughal-e-Azam. The reasons were not difficult to comprehend. Like in the past decade in India, the youth in these cities also did not throng the theatres. One of the reasons was this generation of film-goers either spoke English or Punjabi. Urdu merely enjoyed official patronage. The scene was the same though vastly different in Karachi where Sindhi is the spoken language and English the lingua franca of the educated elite. The presence of the army and para-military forces was, perhaps, another deterrent. It was also a first-hand experience how constricted was the air of liberty as the bus load of Indians was driven to the governor’s palatial bungalow.
The delegation led by the Juhu Khans: Feroz, Sanjay and Akbar, Manisha Koirala, Kabir Bedi, Mahesh Bhatt, Shatrughan Sinha, Arbaaz Khan and others was cynosure of the public eye. Crowds thronged the theatres and hotels in wide numbers. Needless to say these releases and visits infused fresh impetus to the near extinct Pakistani film industry. Theatres on the verge of closing down started to get revamped, production of films that had touched nadir suddenly showed signs of revival. And had it not been the enthusiasm with which subsequent Hindi films were received the opening-up of new theatres and multiplexes would have remained a distinct reality. More films have been made in the last six years compared to any corresponding period after the 1965 ban.
There is no gainsaying, given the levels of poverty coupled with curiosity and better production values, Hindi films must be drastically affecting the local industry’s pound of flesh. There is no denying the fact that Indian stars enjoy immense popularity in Pakistan, and the patronage is not limited to only the three big Khans despite the fact that no Bollywood product can find an outlet without official sanction. A situation that is contrary to existing norms for the release of Pakistani films in India. Like many other competently made Pakistani films in the past, the recently released Bol directed by Shoaib Mansoor, like his earlier venture Khuda kay Liye, may not have been a commercial hit (paradoxically pitted against Bodyguard) but they haven’t gone unnoticed. It is again a bold venture that deals with plight of girl-child (considering the prevalent conditions) suffering on account of despicable attitude of the orthodoxy and religious fanaticism.
While appreciating the fact regular production houses lack financial support required to execute better fare while working under the hawk’s eye of the religious fanatics who would not permit films depicting contemporary reality, concerns and problems of younger generation, there are urgent lessons to be learnt from the success of Hindi cinema— the canvas, the characterisations, the larger than life feat, technical finesse— to win the audiences back into the city theatres and mofussil towns. It will have to recreate its own stars like it was in the seventies and eighties of the previous centuries. Until that happens, more and more aspiring and established actors, singers, dancers and musicians will cease every opportunity to find an entry into the Indian entertainment industry. No one can survive by calling wolf all the time.
Collaboration and cooperation is, probably, an option instead of confrontation. One is reasonably certain that many of the big Hindi film stars, if called upon, would be willing to be cast in quality Pakistani films and help bring the audiences back to the theatres. In this age of global entertainment onslaught it has to be the win-win game of survival of the fittest. Seeking absence of competition can only be the war cry of the weak. Let the Pakistani film producers pull up their socks, gear up for the entertainment onslaught through the skies rather than crib about the success of a handful of Hindi films.
By Suresh Kohli