Feature: India Vs Pakistan – Friendly (Media) Fire

The post is the unedited copy of the feature published in MAG the Weekly, on the 15th of October, 2016. Published copy below.

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India Vs Pakistan: Friendly Fire – Why Bollywood Will Always Sell, and Why We Can Never Be ‘Reel’ (and Real) Friends

By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid

Flashback: 1997. I was young, and incurably enamored by Bollywood (after Hollywood, of course); the Pakistani film industry was near comatose – done in by its own hands. Across the border, there was mesmerizing music, lush cinematography (that is, frames of high-contrast and brighter colors), and star-power. Cable television and unauthorized Indian television channels assisted in the familiarization process, and, personally speaking, as a consequence, I knew more about Indian political shenanigans than meeker upheavals at home.

It was a sad dilemma; but then again, it always has been. We’d been perpetually struck bad by the Bollywood-bug. It is the kind of sparkly-tailed insect one finds flying around in fantasy video games or anime. Superficially attractive, but still a pest. Like in video-games, one of two out of hundreds leaves behind some meaningful bounty.

However, for the young, that revelation mattered zilch.

One of the more prominent feature films of that year was the patriotic-hurrah-fest Border, directed by J.P. Dutta; Mr. Dutta’s films were star-studded affairs, had rousing nationalistic speeches (the dialogues were by his father O.P. Dutta), and fantastic music (by Anu Malik, with the-then rising sensation Sonu Nigam singing a singer-studded hit song) – it was the embodiment of the winning combination.

Border came out a while before my visit to India that year. Watching Bollywood movies on the big-screen had always been an incentive – and Border was no different. The problem was, it was such a phenomenon that we couldn’t even find tickets in black. (Black is an antiquated concept of poaching, where the “seller”, a scrupulous fellow, would bulk-buy and sell them for inflated prices). One of the shows were in a grand old cinema called Metro at Marine Lines, and the rush swept out to the main-road – I remember that they had a promotional tank stationed at the cross-roads. It helped sell the feeling.

A few days later, we reached our home-town, and I was, again, adamant to watch the film as soon as possible. However, the town-folk, some very good people, knew we were from Pakistan, and amicably, told me to skip the movie. “People say bad things about Pakistan”, some said.

To me, though, the prospect of hearing hate-speeches against Pakistan wasn’t a deterrent; it was, rather, about seeing a spectacular motion picture (the spectacular-ness is defined by the mind of a fifteen year old, might I add). Irrespective of the forewarnings, I saw the movie in the local cinema – and sure enough, the Pakistani in me felt miserable at times.

Border was banned in Pakistan, as one may guess, and I failed to understand the significance of stopping a motion picture from exhibition – especially because we had yet to reestablish film-trade between the countries. (Yes, our government banned a pirate print from video rental shops; it, furtively, came out anyway). Border wasn’t the first to have been banned for harrowing speeches (and bomb-hurling) against Pakistan (the movie was about the 1971 war; there was bound to be bomb-hurling and gunfire) – but, politically, it makes sense.

No matter how much the media “parchaar’s” the artists-without-borders notion – and for some reason, Indian celebrities (some, if not all, seem to side with most of the sane everyday people) – the truth of the matter is, there has always been one-sided media trade between two countries.

It is, however, a queer case of intricacies and perplexities: Indian distributors do not pick-up Pakistani motion pictures, and Indian television channels – with one or two slight exceptions – have always preferred to import talent, but not the productions (until, of course, it became a good money making move).

It is, I believe, a good-natured way to boost ratings – like showcasing exotics one couldn’t afford to produce on its own. Take Sunny Leone, for instance. An adult film star of Indian heritage, given instant celebrity-status. (Let me clarify, that I do not harbor any ill-will for Ms. Leone; just making a point). Even with fifteen Bollywood films to her credit, (including titles where she played herself), Ms. Leone can’t act – not that it matters; her career upgrade is a significant win, at least for her.

The Indian media, of course, is happy to help by over-exaggerating newsbytes and headlines: screaming promotions – read: sansani – is the only way to get attention in a market overflowing with capital, channels, content and citizens. Flashy. Steamy. Dangerous. Agitated. Uproarious. Impulses far from reality wholesales.

In a way, our talent is akin Ms. Leone – exotic, maybe even erotic to the imagination (re: the fascination with Fawad Khan and Ali Zafar, for instance), and peculiar.

Given the restrictions, and the general difference between countries (for which I am, personally, very thankful), we have a separate brand identity. Our music is different, as is our acting and direction. Some of it isn’t as refined as Bollywood – but then again, we are – were – a fledging market.

It took a good while, and false starts though. Domestic television, which at one time, was heavily influenced by “saas-bahu” farces are not so much in vogue today. The swish-zoom tactics, aren’t favorable, or artistically pleasing (they do still offer a cringe-worthy sensation, mind you, no matter how familiar one is of them), but people into daily soaps don’t mind…too much.

The problem is, and forever will be, is that we are still swept away by the glamor of Indian content. Syndicated Indian television content is still a preference, because it is cheap to acquire and has a pre-established following (ergo: an unending bulk of commercials). This is also one of the reasons why we see Indian actors selling us everything from ice cream sticks to cell phones to washing powder.

Although, yes, there is a temporary ban on the amount of content we can import, it is not a legitimate riposte; the case homogeneously applies to motion pictures as well. The question isn’t about banning media – as we can guesstimate from the slyly worded statements by known film distributors; it is about how long we can refrain from doing so.

Let’s face cold, hard, unyielding, facts: Multiplex boom owes much to Bollywood content – and it is still the chief mass-market driving force. Our motion pictures sell, yes, but their incentive is liable to lose its gleam in the long-run, without the sustaining push of Bollywood star-power. A total of sixteen Pakistani films came out in 2016. Only five were successful. Ho Mann Jahaan, Bachaana, Janaan, Actor in Law and Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai. Of the lot, these offered the tang of mass-market appeal the audience wants (I am not talking about creative and technical shortfalls here).

In October, we would prospectively see diminished ticket sales; the cinemas – or more appropriately exhibitors (and not distributors, who already have much stake in Bollywood dealings), are showing temporary solidarity for showing Pakistani movies in retaliation to IMPPA’s banning of our talent. But for how long? Hollywood motion pictures have a smaller market stake and Pakistani movies with enough vehemence to clamp and drag the audience over exclusively come out at Eid, summer or winter vacations.

Do we really have a choice in the matter? Not for the next five years, at least. And besides, would legally putting a cork on Indian media really stop its tendency to overflow from other sources? Internet servers and cable operators will still upload and air them. Torrents are a plenty. The DVD market – all of it illegal, mind you – will sigh in relief as sales would go up. Everyone watched Bollywood in the VCR days, as they would today. It is a form of escape – and the masses like glitzy star-studded affairs.

However, unlike our neighbors, we are not as swayed by the amplified, hyperbolic aggression one sees in their news presentations. Our belligerence is likely to be limited to facebook cry-outs and “some” militaristic mindsets. We, in general (though not wholly), do not employ amateur, biased, debates in our political talk shows, or use impatient tactics to overwhelm our neighbor guests – but we do, at times scream more or less the same.

Still, to yell and dictate news feels like an overtaxing exercise. In Indian media, the more one rams stress one on vocal cords, the more convincing it seems. We’re beyond that. We don’t really care for that kind of sensationalized entertainment. That’s why, watching Border – or other, shabbier, motion pictures against Pakistan – would stay that: a past time, whose most provoking comment would be “abay yaar, buri film thi”.

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