Conflict over Kashmir: Indian films banned, Pakistani actors ejected
Islamabad, Pakistan ( Theguardian + DIPLOMAT.SO) – A dark cloud has hung over Delhi these past few weeks, and it isn’t just the pollution. Ever since a September attack by militants in Kashmir killed 19 Indian soldiers, war has been in the air. And, as with the pollution, no part of life here is unaffected. A 65-year-old water-sharing pact between India and Pakistan is apparently being reconsidered. The famous Wagah checkpoint – where audiences watch Indian and Pakistani border guards trade high kicks and handshakes – was briefly shut to the public, reportedly after Pakistani revellers pelted the Indian side with stones.
And last week, after India announced its troops had launched “surgical strikes” in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, the Indian Motion Picture Producers Association said it, too, was on a war footing. The legion of Pakistani actors and technicians in Bollywood, and other Indian cinema hubs, would be banned from working “until normalcy returns”, it said. The organisation’s president, TP Aggarwal, went even further, saying Pakistanis would be banned from the industry “for ever”, and asking the Indian government to boot them from the country.
Fawad Khan, a meticulously bearded leading man from Lahore, is the ban’s most famous victim. Khan planned to return to India later this month to promote his Diwali holiday blockbuster, the romantic drama Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Instead he will stay put in Pakistan, while plans for the film’s debut languish after threats by ultra-nationalist MNS party in Mumbai to disrupt screenings and promotional events.
Two Pakistani singers have also cancelled their Indian concerts after the same far-right party ordered Pakistani artists to leave the country within two days – or face being “pushed out”.
Even Indians have been caught in the crossfire. On Friday, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui dropped out of a Hindu theatre festival, forgoing a role that had been his “childhood dream”, after objections by another nationalist party, the Shiv Sena. Party member Mukesh Sharma told the Times of India: “In the 50- to 60-year history of the Budhana Ramlila, no Muslim artist has set foot on the stage. We couldn’t allow that now. It’s about tradition.”
The line between art and politics in India is already blurry. Actors regularly swan into parliamentary seats and lend their colossal fame to one candidate or another. Inevitably, politics intrudes the other way. But the cold shoulder shown to Khan and other Pakistanis has kicked off a spirited debate in the Indian media and among Bollywood’s brightest stars.
Karan Johar, the director of Fawad Khan’s upcoming release, said his “heart bleeds for the lost lives” among India’s soldiers, but insisted a ban “is not a solution”. Indian Salman Khan, one of world’s highest-paid actors, said his Pakistani colleagues had all been cleared for entry by the Indian government, and in any case, were “artistes not terrorists”. Others have walked a finer line. Veteran actor Anupam Kher said Pakistani artists needed to publicly denounce the attacks on Indian soldiers – as some, but not Khan, have done.
The irascible Nana Patekar thinks Bollywood ought to simply shut up about the matter: “Artistes are small insects in front of the nation, we are nothing compared to the country. I don’t want to know what Bollywood says,” he said.
This treatment of Indian Muslim and Pakistani actors takes place against the backdrop of increasing threats to free speech in the world’s largest democracy, according to human rights groups.
Divya Spandana (also known as Ramya), another Indian actor turned politician, was threatened with a civil sedition charge after visiting Pakistan in August. Her crime? Saying India’s rival was “a good country, not hell”. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s cinema lobby has called the restriction on its nationals “deeply regrettable”, and announced its own embargo, pulling all Indian films from Pakistani screens. Indian cinema was already banned in Pakistan for 43 years, after the second Kashmir war between the countries, and only permitted again in 1998. On Thursday, Indian sitcoms and soap operas – already restricted on Pakistani television to 86 minutes a day – were also completely banned by the country’s media regulator.
It is a predictable response, but presents a conundrum for the Pakistani cinemas. “The lifespan of any film is one week; a blockbuster, two weeks. There were a total of 15 Pakistani films released last year,” Khorem Gultasab, the general manager of cinema chain SuperCinema, told the Dawn newspaper.
“Even if you double the amount of each film’s run time, with the few films released, you’re still left with 40-42 weeks of empty screens. What will cinemas do for those weeks?”