In a 2005 posting on the BBC website, actress Preity Zinta describes an encounter with death that could be straight out of a blockbuster. She was five minutes from closing a Bollywood revue at a Colombo cricket stadium filled with 10,000 people when a bomb blast brought the evening to a bloody end. Her account reflects how cultural exchanges in the Saarc region are fraught with explosive possibilities, both good and bad.
From cricket to cuisine, fashion to films, our tastes in life can be in profound harmony. These commonalities suggest that the vision of a South Asia cordially bartering culture and customs is realistic rather than simply romantic. On the flip side, the conflicts that stifle artistic expression also generate state policies that willfully thwart free cultural exchange.
Certainly neither the Pakistani ban on Indian films nor the Bangladeshi ban on Hindi and Urdu films is grounded in the real demands of the market. In fact the indigenous industries, instead of being fortified by protectionist policies, find themselves in a dismal state.
The Bangladesh Film Directors’ Association reports that government revenue from cinemas has dropped by nearly 60 percent since 2002, causing over 200,000 people to lose their jobs and rendering over 23 per cent of Bangladeshi cinema halls defunct. Veteran Bangladeshi actor and producer Alamgir is not alone in arguing that film industries cannot thrive without legitimate competition. In Pakistan, the Film Exhibitors’ Association actually went on strike last year, demanding a lifting of the Bollywood ban to ease the crisis facing cinema hall owners.
Nepal’s Film Development Board reports that more than a decade of “people’s war” has shut down over 62 per cent of the cinema halls across the country and reduced production to around 15 movies a year. Kathmandu multiplexes offer an upbeat counterpoint in this depressed environment and there are no prizes for guessing their most popular offering!
Munish Tamang, the general secretary of the Bharatiya Gorkha Parisangha, points out that cultural consumption in his community transcends the Indo-Nepal border. He elaborates: “Bhanubhakta Acharya is celebrated as the father of Nepali poetry on both sides of the India-Nepal border.” Further, CD sales of Nepali pop and VCD sales of Nepali movies channel back significant revenues from the Indian bazaars to the Kathmandu producers. The broader point here is that the present cultural traffic does not flow only in one direction (from India) or one language (Hindi).
Consider Pakistani pop, whose fan base extends all the way from Dhaka to Kabul. While his band was touring India, Fuzon’s Shafqat Ali said: “This place, the people, the weather – everything’s just the same. I feel like we never left home.” Consider also the South Indian broadcasts that have ably serviced the needs of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.
Great artists like Lata Mangeshkar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan create an enchantment that crosses man-made barriers. And as Film Information’s editor Komal Nahta argues, “people should be free to enjoy the songs and films of their choice in this age of globalisation and the Internet.”