In Bollywood fantasia, heroes strike down villains by delivering crushing blows. This time around, Bollywood has struck back in real life, too, with surgical strikes against Lollywood—Pakistan’s celluloid industry and its bootleg hooch-swilling chatterati. Even though the number of Indian soldiers killed and maimed by terrorists funded and aided by Pakistan is on the rise, those who mint money by hawking films and music to both Indian and Pakistan audiences continue to flick the dust of conscience off their immaculate cuffs with insouciance. Previously, they would nonchalantly enter one another’s territories at will and the time of their choosing. Not anymore. In tandem with PM Narendra Modi’s worldwide diplomatic offensive to isolate Pakistan, prominent Indian film personalities and organisations have delivered an economic punch to Pakistan.
Last week, the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India (COEAI) declared that movies featuring Pakistani actors will not be screened in Indian halls. It was no coincidence that the announcement came just two weeks before the release of Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, starring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan. The invocation of nationalism was telling. Said COEAI president Nitin Datar: “It was decided that keeping in mind the patriotic feelings and national interest, we have requested all member exhibitors to refrain from screening movies which have involvement of any Pakistani artiste, technician, director or music director. We are also in the process of requesting other associations connected with the film industry to support the sentiments in the best interest of our nation.”
COEAI’s stand echoed a previous move by the Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association (IMPPA) prohibiting Pakistani actors and technicians from working on Bollywood sets. Overnight, B-Town has become the most effective and credible launching pad for strikes against Pakistan’s finance and fun-loving establishment. Of course, the Modi government and the BJP have kept a respectable distance from its newfound silver screen ally. The home ministry clarified it has no intention of cancelling visas already granted to Pak celebs.
For the first time, national interest has prevailed over commercial interest in an industry which has been writing the script for dialogue and peace with our truculent neighbour. Most of the Bollywood fraternity has either been keeping schtum on terror or pushing for cultural and commercial connect with their counterparts. Johar has been leading the peacenik battery, and flirting with Pak cinematic talent more than any other Bollywood tycoon. Though a call to ban Pak artistes was given few weeks ago, a directive against the screening of their films was announced on the eve of Johar’s film. Censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani said, “Not one producer member of IMPPA is working with a Pakistani artiste. The ones who stand to lose heavily from such a ban are Karan Johar and Ritesh Sidhwani, who have almost completed films with Pakistani artistes.”
Intervention by such Bollywood forums is meant to mount pressure on opinion makers in both countries to rise as one against the growing incidents of terror attacks in India and Pakistan. Since nothing hurts more than a hole in the pocket, even a temporary ban is likely to shake up the ideological posturing of the glitterati in both countries. While Indian artistes have been vocal in condemning the bloodbaths scripted across the border, not a single prominent Pak actor, singer or entrepreneur took a strong stand against terror noire. On the other hand, they have been visiting India and raking in the moolah from music concerts, acting roles and business deals. Filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar echoed Bollywood’s sentiments, saying, “Definitely artists are not terrorists. When you see our soldiers have been killed, and the whole scenario... I feel a lot of Pakistani artists who work here, they should have condemned the attacks on India over the years. When they can condemn the US attack, Istanbul, Paris (attacks), then why not India? When Peshawar (attack) happened, everybody in India condemned it. So, if the Pakistani actors feel it is happening over here, they should at least tweet about it.”
What aggravates a large section of tinseltown is the frequent clampdown by Pak agencies on Indian films screened there. During the past decade, over two dozen films have suffered temporary or permanent bans. Even movies starring popular actors such as Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan and Farhan Akhtar have fallen victim to the anti-India hysteria in the Pak establishment. The Saif-starrer Agent Vinod was found unsuitable for viewers because it hinted that a section of the Pak ruling class was sympathetic to the Taliban. Other films which faced Pak ire were Tere Bin Laden, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Neerja, Phantom, Calendar Girls, The Dirty Picture, Khiladi 786, M.S. Dhoni: An Untold Story, Delhi Belly etc. Was it a coincidence that Pakistan imposed prohibition on Indian films after it suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1965 war? It took over four decades to lift the embargo in 2008.
In the interim, none of the rich and mighty in Pakistan rose in favour of Indian cinema. B-town liberals and their media mavens maintained a cryptic silence because the proscription wasn’t hitting them at home. Their films flourished in Pakistan’s celluloid black market. In fact, Indian films are a greater source of income for the Pak cine industry, which produces just about 20 films a year as against 1,500-2,000 made in Mumbai. The Indian film industry is worth $10 billion and rakes in over `14,000 crore by selling tickets and other exhibition rights.
What has angered a large section of the establishment in Delhi is the growing tendency of the Bollywood leadership to give increasing opportunities to singers and actors from Pakistan at the cost of Indian talent. Film icons such as Priyanka Chopra, Amitabh Bachchan and Anupam Kher are in great demand worldwide. Even B-Town GenNext is prodigiously popular with Indian and foreign audiences alike, but hasn’t been given enough opportunities by a cartel of film producers who prefer Pak artistes. With the rising acceptability of the Modi brand of nationalism, even the most liberal face of the Indian glamour industry has realised that dumping anti-India and Made in Pakistan products makes good economics and even better patriotism. After all, the box office is nothing more than just another word for ballot box in the world of cinema.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla