EARLIER this month, nearly a decade after lifting a 40-year-long embargo on Bollywood films, Pakistan reintroduced the ban. The announcement came on the heels of a move by Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association (IMPPA), a trade organisation, to ban Pakistani actors and technicians from working in India.
The last few weeks have been particularly tense between the two nuclear-armed nations. On September 19th, 19 soldiers were killed at an Indian army base in Uri, some 6km from the “line of control”, the de facto border between the two countries in Kashmir. The Indian government claimed that the attackers crossed over from Pakistan. In response, it carried out strikes against militants in Pakistani Kashmir. India has also boycotted a regional summit scheduled to be held in Pakistan and threatened to review a 65-year-old water-sharing agreement with its neighbour.
Caught in the cross-fire are those from the Indian film fraternity who have spoken against IMPPA’s decision to ban Pakistani artistes. Protesters in Uttar Pradesh burned an effigy of Salman Khan, Bollywood’s brawny superstar, for saying that “Pakistani artistes are just artistes and not terrorists”. MNS, a thuggish nativist political party in Mumbai threatened violent attacks on film-makers who hire Pakistanis. On September 23rd it gave Pakistani actors 48 hours to leave the country.
For nearly two decades, since the 1999 Kargil war, a familiar script has played out in India every time tensions rise between the countries. A toxic political climate surrounds so-called “anti-national” behaviour, which in this case includes striking a conciliatory tone towards Pakistani movie professionals. In August Divya Spandana (also known as “Ramya”), a south-Indian actress, was threatened by a lawyer with charges of sedition under a colonial-era law after she remarked that Pakistan was “a good country, not hell”.
Yet beneath the political grandstanding, actors and musicians from the two countries are respected and sometimes revered on both sides of the border. In India, songs from the 1970s by the late Pakistani legend, Shamshad Begum, continue to be remixed; concerts featuring Ustad Ghulam Ali, a 75-year-old Ghazal singer from Pakistan, sell out fast. Pakistani actors such as Fawad Khan and Ali Zafar have earned dedicated fans in India. Bollywood stars are household names in Pakistan and their movies open to packed houses.
Yet if Bollywood films are a mainstay of entertainment in India, so too are 24-hour cable news channels, the most popular of which serve up a populist fare of nationalism and Pakistan-bashing. News anchors encourage shrill, one-sided debates in which guests—anywhere from six to well over a dozen—shout over each other. Last week Arnab Goswami, India’s most popular news host, demanded that a Bollywood actress leave his show failing “to talk with respect” with the father of a soldier who had been killed in action; she had opposed the decision to cut ties with Pakistani artistes.
Unsurprisingly, the Indian government, led by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has kept mum. Within hours of the reported strikes across the border, billboards congratulating prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his defence minister popped up in Uttar Pradesh, where state elections are round the corner. The ban on Pakistani artistes burnishes the party’s appeal among voters in India’s most populous state, but only serves as a minor distraction from the more pressing issue of rising cross-border terrorism.
Until the ban is revoked, however, Pakistan’s domestic film industry, which produces fewer than a dozen titles each year, will have more to lose than its neighbour. More than 50 Bollywood films are released in Pakistan every year and rake in more than half of the box-office revenues. Distributors fear that an outright ban may cause irreparable damage. Last week Pakistan’s media regulator also took Indian shows off air, which were previously restricted to just 86 minutes a day.
Meanwhile, as politicians and celebrities bicker, two superstar playback singers—India’s Sonu Nigam and Pakistan’s Atif Aslam—are performing together to packed audiences at neutral venues in America and Canada. Officials and public figures in both countries could do well to sing to the same tune.