Bollywood ordered to write reconciliation into the script

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 May, 2004, 12:00am

Not so long ago, there was one sure way to have a big box office hit in India: produce a film that demonised neighbouring Pakistan as a land of bloodthirsty terrorists or Islamic chauvinists.

Mumbai's film factory, known as Bollywood, churned out film after film that trawled a deep distrust that has taken the two countries to outright war three times in 56 years of independence.

Jingoistic scripts that mirrored the political rhetoric of the day brought one side's version of the tragedy of war-torn Kashmir to cinema screens, a cheap and popular form of entertainment in India.

The bloody history of Partition in 1947, when millions died in orgies of killing as Muslims headed west to the new state of Pakistan and Hindus headed east, was rewritten time and again.

But it appears the days of bloody caricature are over. Filmmakers and movie stars from the two countries are now co-operating rather than confronting and, in the process, bolstering a peace process initiated by India's former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee last April, and eventually favourably received by Pakistan's ruler, President Pervez Musharraf.

Since then, the first ceasefire in 14 years has taken hold in Kashmir, diplomats have begun to talk and the Indian cricket team has completed a successful and peaceful tour of Pakistan. Now the film industry is doing its bit, reacting to calls from both nations' leaders to halt the flow of hate movies.

Already separated by a brutal birth, two nations drifted further apart in the 1960s as their armies fought for a second time and their governments slapped bans on cultural and trade links.

But it wasn't until the 1990s that Bollywood really got in the mood for some serious character assassination, taking its lead from an increasingly violent insurgency in divided Kashmir that Indians saw as the handiwork of Pakistan.

'In the 1970s and early '80s, the movies rarely mentioned Pakistan,' says Saleem Mobhani, co-founder of the leading Indiafm entertainment portal. The major films of the time, like Ramesh Sippy's 1975 mega-hit Sholay and its now cult-status, James Bond-style follow-up Shaan, released in 1980, had as their villains home-grown, rapacious bandits and conmen.

But just as the march of communal politics gathered pace steadily throughout the '90s, culminating in grim massacres and BJP-led governments, and the Kashmir body count rose, so the celluloid bad guys began to change their motives, and their faith.

The patriotic rabble-rouser Karma, released in 1986, had already zeroed in on state-sponsored terrorism and the impact it was having on India. It was re-released in October 2001 to steel the country, its distributors said, against an increasing threat of terror attacks on Indian soil - presumably carried out by the Pakistan-sponsored Muslim militants Delhi claims are behind much of the killing in Kashmir. By the '90s, films portraying Pakistan as the devil incarnate and the evil force behind all India's woes were flying off the production line.

But recently, the bodies overseeing the film industries in both countries have signed a written commitment not to produce movies 'which promote hatred'. 'Let's bury the past and start afresh, was the commitment,' says Amjad Farzand, chairman of the Pakistan Film Producers' Association.

'There is a whole slate of movies coming out focusing on the need to make peace with Pakistan and hold out the hand of friendship,' says Mr Mobhani.

Films already out like Main Hoon Na (I'll be there for you), and future releases such as Lakshya (Aim) and Deewaar (The Wall) still take the troubled history with Pakistan as their backdrop but without the Muslim-bashing and patriotic zeal of the past. They have, in effect, anti-war, anti-terrorism plots based around the misery of fighting and the hoped-for return of prisoners. All with the usual masala mix of college romance, lip-quivering intensity and song and dance, of course. And Amitabh Bachchan. This is Bollywood, after all.

Pakistani stars are also being snapped up for roles in Bollywood productions and a handful of co-productions are in the pipeline. Plans for expensive war movies have been shelved.

Pakistan's highest paid actress, Meera, will be appearing in two Indian films later this year, including Lal Haveli (Red Mansion), the story of a Muslim prostitute and a Hindu barrister set just after independence. The film will be directed by one of Bollywood's stars, Mahesh Bhatt, born to a Muslim mother and Hindu father in 1949, and a leading advocate of the new mood.

But while directors like Mr Bhatt may be on a peace crusade, Bollywood's younger directors are being driven more by the bottom line than any historic mission of reconciliation, industry experts say.

'They hope to kill three birds with one stone,' one says. 'They may get access to the Pakistani market [if the current ban is lifted]. That will bring in money at the cinemas but also cut down on piracy. All the money is going to the black market. But also by co-opting Pakistani stars they hope to cut down on the resentment the Pakistan film industry will feel. 'And besides, there are only so many times you can tell the same story.'

Today, while Indian movies are officially banned in Pakistan they remain hugely popular and are widely available on pirated video and DVD. But whether it's for dollars or duty, the fact that Indians and Pakistanis are now meeting, working and playing together whether in films or on the cricket pitch, will keep the pressure on the politicians who will in the end decide the pace of normalisation.

Regional analyst Uday Bhaskar has no doubts over the significance of the cricket matches played earlier this year. 'This is a really big ticket,' he says. 'The people of India and Pakistan have three religions: Hindu, Muslim and cricket.'

With thousands of Indians travelling to Karachi, Lahore, Multan and Rawalpindi for the series, a blow has been struck against decades of enforced isolation. 'I think [the impact felt will] be more acute in Pakistan,' Mr Bhaskar says. 'In India not everybody thinks about Pakistan. A Muslim is not an oddity here but in Pakistan the Hindu is an oddball. When you first meet Pakistanis they often say things like: 'You are a Hindu but you don't have horns'.'

Perhaps sashaying movie sirens and a handful of screen hits can succeed where leaders have so often failed - and help leave a destructive hostility, which has in recent years represented one of the world's most worrying nuclear flashpoints, on the cutting room floor.