Until the late 1950s, Bollywood movies were a big part of Pakistan’s cultural intake. Cinemas showed them freely, without any kind of opposition. After a misguided agitation by Pakistani filmmakers and actors, who of course had a vested interest in the matter, Indian movies were deemed at variance with Pakistan’s cultural and ethical values, and Bollywood was held to be detrimental to the growth of Pakistani cinema.

The government, quite predictably, ceded to these demands and banned the import of new films from across the border. Yet demand was so high that not long after this ban those films that were already the property of local distributors were allowed to be shown. Even that came to a halt during the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. For some years, Afghan cinema satisfied the Pakistani taste for glamour and openness. The political upheaval there dried up that avenue as well.

In the absence of competition, Pakistani films received a temporary boost. Yet, as is often the case when there is no competition, this induced complacence among directors and writers. Anybody with money jumped into the industry to make a quick buck. Terrible films were churned out, most of which lacked a proper story, and usually glamourised the violent lives of known goons.

The decay

It was inevitable that the middle class would have no appetite for such fare. The halls began to decay after years of ill-use, and no effort on the part of owners to maintain them as before. The whole industry collapsed. Cinemas were converted into theatres, shopping malls and marriage halls, until a law was passed disallowing such conversions. Cinema owners now preferred to lock up their halls rather than run up further losses by screening movies for empty seats.

It was only ten years ago that concerted pressure from cinema owners and distributors, along with shifting political circumstances, forced the government to allow Indian movies to be screened again. People stopped watching pirated movies at home and cinema-going culture was revived. This has ironically saved Pakistani cinema. Bollywood’s immense popularity in Pakistan has had a knock-on effect: filmmakers here have again started to make films with better content. Even the technical quality of Pakistani films has improved in the last decade.

Towards the end of the 1990s, political tensions between the two countries was again approaching a peak, and jingoism ran high on both sides of the border. It was at this moment that two prominent Pakistani producers, Syed Noor and Sangita, announced that they were throwing away their Bollywood music collections because of tense ties with India. They were also prompted by the government’s impending decision to reopen the door to Indian movies. Nobody paid them any heed. It is unlikely that they themselves parted with their musical treasure either.

Despite Pakistan society undergoing increasing Islamisation today, the people of this country are not convinced that music is haram, or that it has a nationality. Bollywood music has permeated our hearts and souls, through ancestors who have grown up savouring it. It has become such an important aspect of our lives that sometimes it seems we can neither celebrate or grieve without recourse to some Indian film song or the other.

When Shashi Kapoor came to Pakistan

Ashiq Choudhry, the best and most experienced film reporter in Pakistan – perhaps also the last, since reporters cannot extract a living from an extinct industry – narrates a bizarre incident. Jinnah was being filmed in Lahore. It was the late 1990s. Shashi Kapoor was in the country for the shooting of the film. Choudhry met him during the shoot and requested an interview.

When he came to the filmstar’s hotel at 9 pm, he found Kapoor was absent. When he called to check up on him, he was told by the actor that he would be there in fifteen minutes, and that he should get they keys from reception and make himself comfortable. An hour went by, without any sign of Kapoor. Another call was made, and further apologies tendered by the actor, along with promises to be there soon. He still he failed to arrive. On the third call, two hours after their scheduled meeting, Shashi Kapoor whispered in a rushed voice that he would have to postpone the meeting until the next day, granting him a time right then.

The next day, when Choudhry finally met Kapoor, the actor expressed his embarrassment over the repeated delays the night before, spending the first minutes of their meeting simply apologising. Choudhry expressed his curiosity about the reasons for the delay.

The actor shook his head and said, “I came to the hotel just in time for our interview when I received a call from the Prime Minister’s house that Mian Nawaz Sharif wants to meet me. Of course I agreed immediately, and made some quick calculations about the time it would take me to return: travelling time with the entourage, 15 minutes; time with the PM, five minutes; time for the return, 15 minutes. Well…” Kapoor looked up and explained that when he got there, his chair was set parallel to another, where Sharif was comfortably ensconced. Pakistan’s prime minister then proceeded to melodiously sing number after number from Kapoor’s films. As Kapoor explained, one cannot simply walk away when the head of government is cheerfully crooning for you for two hours.

A few years ago, I called a singer named Zaheer on a TV show I help produce. He had participated in a musical contest in India. He arrived a few hours late. It so happened that he was recording in an important local studio when Mian Sahib walked in from nowhere. He asked them what were they doing. They started naming upcoming songs and humming pieces for him from their melodies. Sharif stopped them in their tracks summarily, asking them to sing Rafi songs for him instead. They complied while he listened, intervened, even correcting their ‘Jaghayen’ and ‘Surs’. This went on for a couple of hours.

Another friend, Abid Farooq Sahib, who is close to Nawaz Sharif, told me that one thing common to all the prime minister's many houses is a projector room. In his free time he watches old Hindi songs with friends, though he never shares his playlist. Neither does he let anybody else have the remote control.

The failure of exclusion

There is an upside to all of this. In Pakistan, we have learnt from the bouts of discouraging the growth of Bollywood cinema, once our own industry shut down. So it hurts now when India follows policies of exclusion. Apparently, while Indian music producers give Pakistani vocalists singing assignments, some Indian singers protest it.

One member from the Indian side of the production team of Sur Kshetra – a television show that pits Indian and Pakistani singers against one another – told me that it was a tough task selling the idea of the show to Indian production houses and channels in the first place, because they were apprehensive: what if a Pakistani wins the show?

I am told that Indian music channels have instituted a policy that mandates that Pakistani music will only be aired after 1 am at night. Our roles are reversing. When you watch Indian music channels you notice the repetition and conclude that they need more content. By showcasing Pakistani music they will have more songs to play.

Pakistan has a small music set-up and an even smaller film industry. Even if that thrives in the presence of the giant that is Bollywood, it doesn't pose a threat to India’s industry. There should similarly be no reason to feel insecure about Pakistani musicians, actors and filmmakers.

(Ali Aftab Saeed is a journalist and singer based in Lahore, and a member of the band Beygairat Brigade.)