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At the end of January, Pakistan lifted a ban placed in 2016 on the import of Indian films into the country. In a step welcomed by supporters of cinema, cultural exchange, and freedom of expression on both sides of the border, the Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif sanctioned the move on January 26, which is India’s Republic Day.
However, as with most things involving the neighboring countries, there have been some complications with the deal — and there is no long-term happy ending in sight. On Monday, February 6, the second Bollywood film scheduled to be released in Pakistan following this rollback — superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s crime drama “Raees” — has been banned in the country, due to its supposedly negative portrayal of Muslims.
The move reignites a level of censorship that had seemed to be a part of history only days earlier. As a major example of creative freedom hitting a wall, it deserved more attention from the global film community.
A Natural Exchange
Cinema has always played an important part in the Indo-Pak diplomatic relationship due to multiple factors. Films are an intrinsic element in the national psyches of both countries, and Bollywood is arguably India’s most reliable and beloved export to Pakistan. Not only do spoken Urdu and Hindi sound extremely similar but also centuries of shared societal values enable subcontinental audiences to identify with a film regardless of its country of origin.
Urdu has also exerted a strong linguistic influence on Bollywood over the years. For decades, it was one of three languages most Bollywood films displayed their title in, the others being English and Hindi. Some of the industry’s most celebrated lyricists and scriptwriters were fluent in Urdu, and the language is prominent in some of Bollywood’s most beloved dialogues or songs. The diminishing presence of Urdu’s poetic cadence in Bollywood films – discarded in favor of an increasingly cosmopolitan mix of Hindi and English – has been lamented by people both inside and outside the industry.
After the India-Pakistan war of 1965, Pakistan initiated a partial ban on the domestic release of Indian films. In 1971, when India and Pakistan fought again while East Pakistan seceded to form the country known today as Bangladesh, this curtailment was turned into a complete ban. In hindsight, the Pakistani government’s actions seem like an act of self-sabotage, given the fact that Indian films account for around 70% of Pakistan’s box office. Movie theaters in Pakistan possessed little to attract audiences with and started shutting down, hurting the country’s thriving film culture. By the time the restriction was lifted in 2007, it was too little too late. In its statement lifting the most recent incarnation of the ban last week, Pakistan’s Ministry of Information statement acknowledged this outcome, saying that the move would help with the “revival of the Pakistani film industry.”
Why the Ban Happened
It’s instructive to look closely at the language of this latest ban to understand why cinema is treated as a jingoistic weapon to be wielded in this terse neighborly relationship. Last September, following a cross-border militant attack on an Indian military installation, the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association (IMPPA) announced that Pakistani actors were banned from Indian film projects, effective immediately. In retaliation, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority blocked all Indian content from releasing in the country.
The IMPPA’s action is the kind of grandstanding behavior that helps no one while hurting everyone. Not only is it morally repugnant, it also makes no logical sense. In a film-crazy country that frequently reaches across the border for artistic talent ranging from music composers to singers, why attack only actors? Under the World Trade Organization’s charter, the Indian government still treats Pakistan as the Most Favored Nation for trade. What is the legality of such an aggressive move?
This sudden announcement also endangered projects that were already in production or had finished shooting. Filmmaker Karan Johar’s romantic drama “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil” rounded out its starry cast of Aishwarya Rai (“Pink Panther 2”) and Ranbir Kapoor with Pakistani heartthrob Fawad Khan. It was due for release just a month after this announcement and was one of 2016’s biggest titles in both India and Pakistan.
However, its release in Pakistan was indefinitely delayed with the ban. Meanwhile in India, an extremist right-wing political party threatened to block the film’s release because it featured Pakistani talent. In a shameful chapter for artistic expression in India, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra — of which cinema hub Mumbai is the capital — acted as an informal mediator between the film’s producers and this political party. The film’s release went ahead only after the producers agreed to pay 50 million rupees ($750,000) to a fund for army welfare. (The fund later refused the donation, rightly aghast at the circumstances.)
All of this is to point out that while India consistently went low, with its lifting of the ban, Pakistan went high. It was depressing that as soon as the trailer of “Raees” released, Shah Rukh Khan, who also produced the film, had to meet with leaders of the same political party and essentially apologize for its Pakistani lead actress. He had to pledge to not work with any Pakistani actors in the future. As self-censorship in India kept hitting new lows and the government, with its tacit silence, kept enabling extremist elements to twist humanitarian issues into a nationalistic discourse, the Pakistani government’s actions showed us the way ahead and an example worthy of emulation.
However, with the ban on “Raees,” a lot of that has been undone. An official from Pakistan’s censor board said to the BBC that the film “depicts Muslims as criminals and terrorists” and is offensive to members of a particular sect, presumably Shia Muslims. Apart from the obvious flaw in equating depiction with endorsement (a criticism that also plagued Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”), this ruling seems to imply that any work of art that isn’t supportive of Muslims will not find favor with the censor board. This is likely to induce some self-censorship among artists inside Pakistan as well.
Finally, how this ban will be perceived in India is also a cause for worry. The Constitution of India enshrines it as a secular country, but numerous right-wing political forces seek to project a Hindu vision of India and marginalize minorities such as Muslims. They will almost definitely leap upon the Pakistani censor board’s reason behind banning “Raees” and equate Muslims with Pakistan, the neighbor to be despised and fought and vanquished.
A move that started out as a show of virtue by one neighbor may end up reinforcing a vice in the other. That’s why this relationship is so perennially fraught. Anyone who cares about issues of censorship should be concerned.