The case in Pakistan regarding the continued certification and commercial screening of films produced in the Indian Union territory has been settled. Mubashar Lucman, the Film Producers Association and the Cinema Owners Association have come to an agreement that would allow for the equal sharing of screening time between films made locally and those imported from the Union of India. This is a useful opportunity to discuss some issues regarding the commercial import and certification of Bollywood Hindi films in Pakistan.
Let us first understand what these ‘Indian’ films are. We are largely talking of films made in the Hindi language produced via a very cash-rich industry setting in Mumbai. For the rootless young people in certain metros of the Indian Union, that is much of what constitutes ‘Indian’ films. But for those who are talking in terms of greater mutual understanding via these films, one needs to realise that much of the Indian Union does not speak Hindi and produces films in their own languages. The content of such non-Hindi films represent a much greater terrain of the subcontinent than Bollywood Hindi flicks can ever aspire to. To be fair, Bollywood Hindi films never did aspire to that. Thank the gods for that, as with the money power behind Bollywood Hindi films, they might even try to define Tamil-ness or Bengali-ness through a metro-centric Hindi medium. Are they influencing people in Pakistan with an alien commercially-produced idiom? If yes, people in Pakistan better take notice.
Those who portray films as some sort of a medium to develop India-Pakistan bonhomie might also do well to look beyond Bollywood. Virulently anti-Pakistan films with a lot of ‘action’ are also a Bollywood Hindi film sub-genre. Yes, that does good business. Go find an Assamese, Bengali, Tamil, Manipuri or an Oriya film in the last 15 years that has an anti-Pakistan theme. There are none. Are these not ‘Indian’ films? What is it about the Bollywood Hindi film idiom that lends itself to making films like Gadar: Ek Prem Katha and LoC Kargil, which unabashedly dehumanise people from Pakistan? The economic muscle of Bollywood ensures that such films receive a wide audience. It is not the specific film that matters. Pakistan can choose to not allow this film or that. But it is the same set of cartels that produce most films — the ones that are anti-Pakistan and the ones that are unrelated. This industry understands only money and would not stop from producing the next commercially lucrative anti-Pakistan blockbuster. There is a market for such prejudice in India just like there is a market for anti-Hindu prejudice in Pakistan. Do people from Lahore and Karachi really need to add to the profits of an industry that sees no qualms in showing Pakistanis in a bad light?
Most Bollywood Hindi films are set in the cities of Mumbai or New Delhi, and increasingly in cities of the Western world where people from north India live and aspire to flourish. This can be Sydney, London, New York or Chicago (Dhoom 3, an action film released a few days ago and which has already grossed crores of rupees, is set largely in Chicago). Delhi and Mumbai choose to tell their stories and want people to pay for them. But Karachi is not Delhi and I am sure it has its own stories to tell, stories that are different from the stories of young partying explorers of Mumbai and Goa, stories that are not about aspirational or ‘everyday’ life of Delhi people. Despite the Zia years, one can be sure that 15 crore people have stories to tell. If the decision was left to the burgers, they might even start a juloos in support of Hollywood and Bollywood. The culturally illiterate have no investment in their own cultural milieu. That is precisely why their ‘tastes’ shouldn’t be setting agendas. Nor can they be depended on for a revitalisation of films culturally rooted in Pakistan (and not cheap Bollywood remakes).
Bollywood Hindi films represent the metro-centric and homogenised ‘idea of India’ in the mind of the new Indians — 20-40 years-old, in the top five per cent income category, aspirational migrants with Hindi and English being their near exclusive vocabulary. They are concentrated in a few cities but have the economic might to determine cultural policy. These multiplex consumers, with their moneybags, have launched a great assault on the idea of mass-films, which is why now a film’s profits are not an indication of its popularity. The Pakistani film industry is up against an economic behemoth with an agenda of its own cultural expansion. Its production, distribution and broadcasting machines are well oiled. Stupendous amounts of black money from deep pockets bankroll the ‘creative’ explosion that is Bollywood.
The twin attack of a homogenising national ideology and economic muscle has grave implications on visible public culture. The 19th Kolkata International Film Festival witnessed the extraordinary scene of Bollywood Hindi film stars being feted in a manner as though they represented some pinnacle of human achievement. It was a sad moment — underlining how limited and predictable the cultural horizon of West Bengal’s film industry had become. The lack of self-confidence showed. Film industries that do not have as much black money circulating, have lesser number of casting couches, have lesser number of ageing ‘artists’ and producers targeting young actresses, have lesser number of big crooks financing films and which do not make films in Hindi or India-English, have been relegated to second and third class status. Pakistan has the legal mechanisms to stop the damage that Bollywood has done to film industries elsewhere. It better act soon.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2013.