—by Khaled Ahmed (Daily Times)

Filming the Line of Control: the Indo-Pak Relationship through the Cinematic Lens; Edited by Meenakshi Bharat & Nirmal Kumar;
Routledge 2008; Pp239;
Price Rs 650 Indian; Available in bookstores in Pakistan

If you have been put off by Indian films featuring Indian commandos defeating Pakistan Army and carrying away Muslim beauties helplessly in love with their derring-do from across the border, read this book to see how the Indian intellectual too has been put off by Bollywood’s anti-Pakistan blockbusters.

One hopes that not too many Indians have watched old PTV war dramas showing nubile Kashmiri Hindu girls smitten with the mujahideen-type Pakistani warriors whose honesty and sexual constraint contrast starkly with the base cunning of their ugly bodi-sporting Brahman fathers. Pakistani films too did this but one can’t recall too many of them, except one in which veteran actor Yusuf Khan meaninglessly slaughters hundreds of Hindus and covers the screen with gore.
There is a sexual insult involved in getting girls from the other side of the border to fall in love with Hindu men. Indian films want the audiences to feel as if their nation-state was a highly sexed male taking to bed the female enemy nation-state to re-enact what used to happen when the Mongols depredated the world and applied rape to the nations they conquered. Nirmal Kumar defines this tendency in the Indian films when he says:

“The underlying discourse is that the Indian-Hindu-male sexuality must appropriate the Pakistani-Muslim-female sexuality. This narrative attempts to echo the military conquest of Pakistan where India came out victorious every time, and such stories thus became an extension of the military engagements between die two countries. Anil Sharma’s Gadar (‘Revolution’, 2001) was the crudest and most emphatic assertion of this military-culture continuum. Here, male Indian protagonist plays the macho lover-rescuer to the beleaguered Pakistani female protagonist. The working assumption is that the predominant Indian-Hindu audience in India would not be able to accept a story where the Pakistani-Muslim man sexually annexes an Indian woman. Since Hindi films are made primarily for an Indian audience, they can ill-afford to reverse this chauvinistic storyline and male-female equation”. (p.131)

Sexual debasement is unconsciously intended in moments of nationalism. And nationalism gets its tumescence when rightwing politics gets the upper hand. The Indian film industry sees itself firmly embedded in the ideology of the nation-state. In his excellent opening article, Kishore Budha makes the following observation: “Right wing politics has always seen mass media as propagating conservative ideas of nationalism and patriotism. Their arguments stem from the belief in media effects as well as the soft power of Hindi cinema in creating and sustaining imagery, myths and legends about the nation. Pratibha Advani, daughter of BJP leader Lal Krishan Advani, produced a documentary on the ‘essence of patriotism in Hindi films’. The documentary, Ananya Bharati, stressed the role of Hindi films in promoting patriotism”. (p.6)

Prime Minister Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani actually turned up to see the premiere of LOC Kargil (2003). The film was released earlier in the presence of the Indian officers who had taken part in the Kargil war. It was a clear victory and a clear defeat of the Pakistan Army which then damaged Pakistan’s political system. The hate fever was at its highest, helping the war films to record crowds and unheard-of earnings at the box office with Shiv Sena in Bombay digging up the cricket pitch in 2002. Hollywood had done it before with war films in which the Germans were portrayed as bumbling buffoons who did know not how to fight. Later the military defeat of Vietnam too was transformed into a humanistic triumph. Why shouldn’t Bollywood do it too?

The backlash was not long in coming. The cinemagoers cloyed and India and Pakistan began talking peace. Movie-makers like Mahesh Bhatt who had resisted the rightwing onslaught of nationalism were proved right as the big moviemakers sustained losses: “Director Farhan took pains to clarify that Lakshya (The Objective, 2004) merely used the war as a backdrop to explore struggles of individuality. The failure of Maa Tujhe Salaam (Salute to my Motherland, 2006) led Sunny Deol to distance himself from patriotism and stick to straightforward dramas” (p11). But ‘multi-starrers’ like Border and Refugee had made record big money.

But the good feeling for Pakistan permeated in Main Hoon Na (2004) in which the good Indian warrior (Shahrukh Khan) was all for releasing Pakistani prisoners while the bad guys were trying to thwart him. This was just after Vajpayee had signed a peace deal with Musharraf in 2003. But the prisoners were never an India strong point. Charu Gupta and Mukul Sharma in Contested Coastlines: Fisherfolk, Nations and Borders in South Asia (Routledge 2008) tell us India is keeping untold numbers of prisoners from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh whom they fish out of the uncharted waters. But then films are not supposed to depict the warts.

Veer Zaara (2004) was friendly too but contained the insult that no Pakistani could have missed: the irreducible condition of having a Hindu hero (Shahrukh Khan) ensnare a Muslim beauty (Preity Zinta). The insult was felt by the fictive family of the heroine, but the Pakistani audience reeling under the impact of a tough Islam couldn’t have helped wincing after realising that a Muslim girl could get close to a Hindu man only after converting him to Islam; otherwise, it is zina, and these days stoning to death is the only way to affirm Islam in places like Iran and Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Veer Zaara recalled Henna (1991), which had caused Pakistan’s state-owned TV to react. The Pakistani retaliation was of course contained in the almost diseased attraction of Hindu beauties to the charms of Lashkar-e Tayba warriors who actually despise them till suddenly everything changes upon the heroine seeing the light of Islam and converting to the only true faith. Deep down, both sides were using sex to do each other down. There is something primal about this kind of violence and it recalls ancient conflicts where warriors ravaged, pillaged and raped to break the spirit of the enemy hordes. The Indian intellectual has revealed the dark side of Bollywood in this book; no one has done that to Lollywood in Pakistan. *