The South Asian cinema, more so the Indian cinema, despite the criticism that it is formula-based, has been one of the most powerful media in articulating the quest for a democratic, secular and an egalitarian society. It is this larger ideational world that the Hindi cinema has succeeded in presenting. With its robust financial background, it has attracted geniuses from various social and cultural forces within the country and also the region, including Pakistan. The greater global reach the Indian cinema acquires, the more the creative talents would like to be part of it. Curbing their entry would impair the logic of the cinema’s own message as well as its ability to draw diverse people.
What provides an understanding of the creativity of the Hindi cinema has been its historical evolution in which the regions of the subcontinent provided it their geniuses over the last century. Significantly, it is Punjab and the northwest that had given, since the 1930s, the largest pool of talent and glamour as well as the audience. Only the partition in 1947 put a temporary brake as far as the audience was concerned. Lahore, the fashion capital of the country, in pre-partition days, remained so for the Punjabi upper classes. The film industry that developed there comprised Urdu and Panjabi films with depleted talents, curtailed themes and an audience yet to get attuned to a regional language and a sectarian universe. Talents coming from eastern Bengal kept up the momentum but official restrictions on importing Indian films made the Bengali audience and talents there revolt in 1953-56. The separation of Bangladesh left the already fledgling industry further depleted of its talent pool and it was therefore no match for the fast-evolving television media with a low budget but powerful themes.
It is in this context that one could posit the responses of the Pakistani cinema and the Pakistan state towards the Indian cinema. The Indian cinema was banned in Pakistan in 1965. This coincided with the Ayub Khan regime’s sustained campaign against India, portraying the country as one that ‘victimised Indian Muslims’. This continued through the decades. Though he displayed bonhomie with the Hindi cinema’s actors like Dilip Kumar and Shatrughan Sinha, General Zia-ul Haq institutionalised a process of Islamisation in the 1980s. There was an inherent contradiction in the world-views of the Wahabi puritanical elements who were the core of this process and the Indian cinema. Sensing this, the Pakistan film industry later demanded Hindi movies be shown in Pakistan. Now even in small cities, three Hindi and one Pakistani film in a month is the norm. In the absence of other cultural and social spheres in a rapidly Islamised society and the introduction of a larger number of foreign refugees changing the demographic and cultural profile of the country, the cinema in general and Hindi cinema in particular are more than a matter of aesthetic taste. They meet the social and cultural needs of the poor, the women and the young adults in cities that are vulnerable to the Islamic forces. The minorities too see a portrayal of their aspirations and anger in Hindi movies.
In India, on the other hand, since independence there have been demands for censorship. People who spoke in favour of censorship got film music banned on radio in the early 1950s and, as a result of this, Hindi film music found its way to Radio Ceylon or Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. However, films faced no such hurdle. In fact, Hindi films were part of the nation-building agenda and actors were in the forefront of mobilising resources during the war against China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965, in an intensely communal atmosphere. But as they were not able to disrupt the national mood and that of the film industry, there was no such demand for banning Muslim actors or Pakistani movies. Muhammad Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Balraj Sahni, Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor, etc. provided the industry a moral leadership. Thus, when in 1971, in the wake of the Bangladesh war, Pakistani actor Mohammad Ali demanded a boycott of Indian films at the Moscow film festival, no such negative expression was articulated in India.
Even in the 1980s, when the Wahabi Islamic undertone of the Pakistan establishment was taking a devious turn, relations between the two countries were working well as regards films. Salma Agha, Nazia Hasan and Zeba Bakhtiar and Ghulam Ali became household names in India. But, on the contrary, in Zia-ul Haq’s Pakistan, Indian performers were not allowed to perform even outside the Indian High Commission.
The destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 provided fodder to the theory of ‘victimisation of Indian Muslims’. This gave an opportunity to the Wahabi elements to position themselves as a mainstream force and demand cultural purity by banning Hindi films. On the other hand, the Shiv Sena developed an anti-Muslim rhetoric with the desire to be part of the larger Hindu mobilisation taking place. The Babri Masjid destruction provided it an opportunity to come out as the face of the Hindu muscular face against the ‘Muslim underworld, Pakistan establishment nexus’. Digging up cricket pitches, attacking Pakistani invitees and demanding banning Pakistan actors and professionals working in the film Bombay industry became the metaphor and symbol around which it tried to position itself as a nationalist force.
With the gradual erosion of the older progressive views of the Hindi cinema, the film world lost its moral standing vis-a-vis the political class. The local politics of Maharashtra now sets limits to its reach. Thus, while there was no demand for banning Pakistani movies or music in 1965 and 1971, we find the demand came in 1991.
Those who want to live in a world that is democratic, secular and equal see in Hindi films a powerful expression of their universe. A large population of Pakistan has become a partner in that dialogue through the Hindi cinema. We should be wise enough not to lose this in a fit of nationalistic impulse.
Rakesh Batabyal is with the Centre for Media Studies, JNU
The views expressed are personal