There’s something farcical about the brouhaha over whether Pakistani “artistes” should be allowed to work in Bollywood. Ever since the terrorist strike on the Army camp at Uri, in Jammu & Kashmir, a fortnight ago, newspapers and news telly have been obsessed with this issue with big and small names pitching in with their tuppence worth of “opinion” — everybody seems to have one, few are willing to keep it to themselves.
So let’s cut through the clutter. It’s downright silly and offensive to artistes of merit to describe pretty faces from foreign shores as “artistes” or the films they work in as works of art on celluloid. The last we had a burst of art films was in the late-1970s and early-1980s; the directors, scriptwriters, actors and musicians were Indians. Like a meteor they blazed a trail and disappeared.
Pakistani actors looking for jobs in Mumbai, or Indian producers and directors hiring them, has nothing to do with bunk like “people-to-people contact”. It’s about commerce and the new economics of the film industry. With the rise of regional movies, and the uneven, fast-changing fads of young India, Hindi films need an expanding market to recover costs, if not make profits.
Circumstances in Pakistan, entirely the creation of Pakistanis, have prevented the growth of a robust entertainment industry over there. That creates a vacuum which is filled by Bollywood movies; the box office pickings are better if the cast includes Pakistani actors or singers. So let’s not indulge in bogus talk of subtle messaging and winning hearts. It does not happen that way.
It would be instructive to take note of the fact that there’s no outcry in Pakistan against the Pakistani government’s decision to stop the screening of Indian films and block Indian TV channels after the surgical strike by the Indian Army across the Line of Control. Just as Indians are rooting for India, Pakistanis are rooting for their country.
Flag-waving patriotism at times of hostilities has no space for treacly concerns that transcend borders and national identities. Which also explains why none of the Pakistanis who make a living in Mumbai, and have returned home ever since relations between India and Pakistan turned from bitter to hostile, has uttered a word of criticism directed at the Pakistani government or army. At the end of the day their loyalty lies with Pakistan. At a non-ideological level, they need to be mindful of their welfare and that of their families.
What all this means is that no purpose is served by posing with placards scribbled with foolish messages calling for peace and brotherhood, as some of our windbag Bollywood directors and actors have been doing, or airing views that are at best infantile and at worst ignorant. Trying to bully the government into changing track at this point of time when it has got India’s relentless tormentor in a corner, or heckling the masses who would like to see Pakistan’s bluff called and bluster challenged, is entirely misplaced. The government does not tell directors and actors how to make movies; they should desist from telling the government how to run foreign policy or mind India’s national security.
There have been strident suggestions by the comprador intelligentsia that India should desist from projecting “hard power” in its dealing with Pakistan and persist with the use of “soft power”. For some strange reason we have come to believe that soft power essentially means Bollywood films, music and associated entertainment. The Indian diaspora loves it; politicians looking for their votes pretend to love it; neighbours and friends suffer it lest they be accused of racial prejudice. In Pakistan, it’s the forbidden fruit that Pakistanis lust after but whose seeds they would never plant in their own barren garden.
We are also told that the path to big powerdom lies through the projection of soft power. That’s hogwash. The United States rose to its pre-eminent position, and China has come to dominate the world, not through films, music, burgers, pizza or chow mein and Peking duck. Their velvet glove of culture always hid an iron fist that was used, and continues to be used, whenever and wherever required.
Whenever I hear otherwise intelligent people talk about soft power and why India should opt for it over hard power, I am reminded of the tragicomic scene from Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi which shows Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan played the role) dancing with ankle bells, to the tune of a ghazal composed by him, late into the night as John Company plotted the smash and grab of Awadh. One doesn’t have to be a warmonger to laugh at those who believe ghungroos, gajras and ghazals can turn ghazis into friends.
The real world is vastly different from the make-believe reel world of clapboard sets. Those in Bollywood pleading the case for Pakistani actors and singers under the guise of promoting cross-border friendship should be more honest than that and admit that banishing them would be bad for business. Or are we to believe that their hearts beat for Pakistan, a terror-sponsoring State which makes no attempt to hide that it is India’s implacable enemy?
Kanchan Gupta is a senior journalist
The views expressed are personal