How Pakistan Fell in Love With Bollywood

The history of a culture clash.


Last month, just before the release of the Bollywood film My Name Is Khan, a message generated in Pakistan on the microblogging site Twitter was massively retweeted in Mumbai, India: "You might want to come to Karachi to catch MNIK’s first day, first show!"

The release of My Name Is Khan, or MNIK, as it is popularly known, had to be scaled back in Mumbai, India’s film capital, because of a political controversy. Just days before the premier, its lead actor, Shah Rukh Khan, had lamented the exclusion of Pakistani cricketers from the Indian Premier League cricket auction. This infuriated Shiv Sena, a Hindu ultranationalist group that advocates snapping all sporting and cultural ties with Pakistan. It launched a campaign against Khan, threatening to stall his film’s release until he apologized and retracted his statement, which he refused to do. Placard-wielding protesters besieged his mansion in suburban Mumbai, burning his effigy and bellowing slogans like "Shah Rukh Khan, go away to Pakistan!" One of the protesters clutched in his hands a dummy airline ticket emblazoned with the words: "Mumbai to Pakistan." Mumbai stationed police officers at movie theaters and rounded up 2,000 people in advance of the opening as a cautionary measure.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border in Karachi, My Name Is Khan opened Feb. 13 to packed houses and was received with roaring claps and whistles. According to Pakistani cinema owners, it was the highest-earning film ever to screen in Pakistan.

This film certainly resonates with Pakistani audiences because of its theme — it tells the story of an autistic Muslim man’s struggles against prejudices in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The big applause line in Pakistan comes at the beginning, when Khan proclaims, "My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist!" But the widely published tweet inviting Indians to watch the film in Karachi offered a somewhat twisted insight into a cultural paradox: two countries sharing so many cultural references, and yet watching them through such different lenses.

The division between India and Pakistan has been compared to the split between East Germany and West Germany during the Cold War, but the situations are widely divergent. Whereas Germany’s division after World War II was largely peaceful, if tense, the subcontinent’s partition in 1947 into separate Hindu and Muslim territories was followed by a fratricidal bloodbath. More than a million people were killed and 12 million uprooted. Refugees traveled by foot, carts, and trains to their promised new home, making it one of the largest mass migrations in history.

Since partition, the two countries have spent decades attempting to erect barriers against cultural exchange across the border. Bollywood movies were banned in Pakistan after 1965, following the bloody Indo-Pakistani War. After Pakistani Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq toppled Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977, he initiated a process of sweeping Islamization that cemented the artificial split between Indian and Pakistani culture. He labeled entertainment, particularly Indian entertainment, as fahashi, or vulgar. Classical Indian music and dance were banned, and colleges were instructed to shut down their music societies. He banned the sari, a Hindu garment that, according to him, revealed too much of a woman’s body. Pakistani columnist Sarwat Ali has noted that in state TV programs, women playing negative roles were shown wearing Indian clothes (mainly saris), while the good ones wear salwar kameez and a dupatta, a more modest outfit that involves loose pants under a tunic, with a shawl covering the hair.

Of course, Pakistanis, especially in the cities, never gave up on their love for Indian culture: They continued to smuggle VHS tapes of Indian films into the country, and they bought satellite dishes to watch Indian programs. More recently, cable operators began to sometimes broadcast Indian TV shows, concealing the logos so that the shows would look like local broadcasts and evade the authorities’ attention. Although Pakistani children couldn’t watch Bollywood movies in the cinema, they still read the Urdu versions of Indian gossip magazines like Stardust and followed Bollywood fashions as much as they were allowed.

In 2003, a new peace process blossomed, and cultural contact blossomed along with it. New train and bus services were created between major cities, meaning that the two countries could connect, not only literally (poor families separated by partition rejoining for the first time), but also with shared cultural moments, such as the journey of Noor Fathima, or Baby Fathima, a 2-year-old Pakistani girl born with cardiac defects who rode the bus from Lahore to a hospital in Bangalore to be cured.

The period also saw a rise in exchanges of actors and musicians, though some went sour. Nazar, a 2005 Bollywood film that was touted as a cross-border collaboration and starred Pakistani star Meera, provoked death threats from Pakistani conservatives when a Lahore tabloid published photos of Meera and her co-star embracing.

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf finally lifted the 40-year-old ban on Bollywood films in February 2008. Because of the active, and largely undisturbed, smuggling trade, the ban had become meaningless — and though the government made much noise about lifting it in a way that wouldn’t harm "religious and cultural norms and values," the motivation was economic. Pakistan’s film industry had been driven into the ground by the ready availability of cheap pirated copies of Bollywood films. "Lollywood," as the Lahore-based industry is known, had lobbied the government to overturn the ban so that Pakistan could encourage India to begin importing Pakistani movies, while Pakistani cinemas could start reaping the rewards of Bollywood’s popularity. Whatever the motives, however, Pakistani viewers welcomed the Indian films with open arms, even if the censored ones screened in cinemas were often far less interesting than the unexpurgated pirated version they could watch on DVD or VHS.

But the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai stalled the peace talks indefinitely and reignited the culture clash as well, sparking nationalist parties in India and putting Pakistan in a defensive crouch. Soon after the attacks, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), an ultranationalist political party created in 2006 after breaking away from Shiv Sena, began a campaign to eliminate all cultural associations with Pakistan. Its activists harassed Oxford Bookstore, a prominent Mumbai bookstore, until it stopped selling all books by Pakistani authors. The MNS also drove out Shakeel Siddiqui, a Pakistani stand-up comedian performing in Mumbai last year, sternly warning him never to return to India. The group asked "Karachi Sweets," a shop selling Indian sweets in Mumbai, to purge the Pakistani city from its name. The owners of Karachi Sweets, the Athwani family, who migrated to India from Karachi after partition, were forced to change the name of their shop to "Sri Krishna Sweets."

In Pakistan, meanwhile, there were rumblings of a new Bollywood ban, though nothing ever came of it. Still, the cultural détente built in the heady days of the new millennium had clearly stalled, even before the outbursts surrounding Shah Rukh Khan’s cricket comments and the release of My Name Is Khan.

It’s not clear when the situation will improve. Last month’s tepid security talks between the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers, following on a cafe bombing in the western Indian city of Pune, seem unlikely to build rapprochement. And little cultural progress can take place so long as terrorism remains a serious threat to both countries. Cultural progress remains hostage to the issue of terrorism. And without cultural intermingling, it’s easy for jingoists to whip up hysteria each time a bomb detonates in India and leaves telltale signs of cross-border involvement. Controversies that begin as minor spats quickly escalate into violent political conflagrations, as with the My Name Is Khan mess, and until both sides eschew military competition and engage in joint defense arrangements against the very real common threats of the Taliban and al Qaeda, this pattern will continue. If either country wants to stop, it’ll have to issue a far more sincere invitation to engage in joint actions than a retweeted joke.

Anuj Chopra recently joined Agence France-Presse as an editor in Hong Kong. His previous work is archived at www.anujchopra.com. <p> &nbsp; </p>