I was looking forward to watching the movie MS Dhoni (though my enthusiasm damped a little after reading a few reviews). However, on Friday, this much anticipated movie, whose trailers were being shown in Pakistani cinemas for weeks, did not play as many cinema owners across the country decided to stop the screening of Indian movies.
Perhaps a weekend of cricket would have helped me through the blues.
Last month, Pakistan thrashed West Indies in the first and second One Day International, edging closer to the much-coveted number eight spot on the One Day International ranking list. But it was the second Test match between India and New Zealand that I was eying. Pakistan’s short stay at the number one spot of Test ranking was dependent on this match. I had followed the first India vs New Zealand match on September 22, which India won by 197 runs, and was quite disappointed. I had hopes that my team would retain its position. I flipped through the channels on Friday, the day the second Test was being played, but could not find Star Sports, which was screening it. Following the lead of cinemas, several cable operators had also stopped showing Indian channels.
‘A matter of honour’
More than an actual invasion, it is this cultural invasion of Pakistan by India that Pakistani nationalists fear more. Often I hear stories about how Pakistani children can name Hindu deities and know Hindu rites of marriage that they learned through Indian channels, which were widely watched in the country before last weekend. Such comments represent an urgency – as if this knowledge will unscrew the structure of Pakistani nationality. Ironically enough such simplistic notions of Pakistani and Indian national identity lack a deeper understanding of Pakistani identity, which is entwined with its Indian past.
Several filmmakers and citizens in Pakistan have hailed the decisions of cinema owners and cable operators to stop screening Indian movies and channels. The issue is being viewed as an honourable decision, where a tit-for-tat response becomes the only way available to retain one’s honour. Others argue that by banning Indian movies, cinema-goers will automatically turn towards movies made in Pakistan, hence giving the Pakistani film industry an impetus.
Such notions are based on simplistic concepts of how the economy, or consumer choice, works. Many forget that Indian movies started being shown in Pakistani cinemas only eight years ago, but the Pakistani film industry was not thriving before they arrived. In fact, several cinemas in Pakistan had shut down because of the lack of an audience. The quality of Pakistani films was simply not good enough.
When Indian movies started being screened in 2008, after President Pervez Musharraf lifted the decades-long ban, cinemas were renovated and new cineplexes opened. With a booming cinema industry, newer Pakistani films also emerged, and were able to attract an audience despite competition from India. Thus, the rise of the Pakistani film industry over the past few years is directly linked to the screening of Indian films in the country.
A few years ago, I was working on a project on the Pakistani film industry where I interviewed directors, producers, actors, and other practitioners of the art from the 1990s, ’80s, and ’70s, before the contemporary decline of the industry. I started this project a few years after Pakistan had opened up to Indian movies and people were heading to cinemas once again. However, instead of seeing this as a positive development, many of those I interviewed pointed out its threats to the Pakistani film industry and the two-nation theory. Many directors, producers and other professionals even organised press conferences to oppose the screening of Indian films.
In many ways, the situation is reminiscent of the Jaal agitation of 1952 in Lahore, the hub of the Pakistan film industry. Jaal was a Dev Anand movie. The actor had spent his youth in Lahore studying at the Government College. The movie made its way to Lahore via East Pakistan. That is when film luminaries gathered outside Regent cinema on McLeod road, the hub of film practitioners at that time, and protested against its screening. The protests, which resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of several film personalities, yielded results and the government decided to implement a film-for-film agreement with India. Then came the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, and a complete ban on Indian films was implemented.
It was also in 1965 that a strong nationalist sentiment emerged from the Pakistani film industry, with singer and actress Noor Jehan leading the way with her patriotic songs that are still played on important national days. Patriotism had a new definition and anti-India sentiment became its chief fuel.
In her book, The Great Transformation, author and commentator Karen Armstrong narrates how only a few years after the Persian invasion of Greece in the fifth century BCE, playwrights all over Greece started writing plays about the war from the Persian perspective, presenting Persian soldiers as tragic characters. Thus, only a few years after the invasion, Greek citizens were weeping for Persian soldiers as they died on the stage – these were the same soldiers who died killing and looting the Greeks. But this did not make Greeks any less nationalistic. It just made them more human.
Similarly, banning Indian films in Pakistan and vice versa would not make us more Indian or Pakistani. Neither would it achieve anything in terms of an actual conflict between the two countries. However, it will suck out of us the last modicum of humanity if there is any left after the conflict between these two neighbours.
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.