The curtain lifts for Bollywood in
Pakistan By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Amid the spate of doom and
gloom stories that Pakistanis have to contend with
daily comes some news to lighten their mood. The
Pakistan government is poised to lift a 43-year
ban on the import of movies from India. This will
mean that some time soon Pakistanis will be able
to watch the latest Bollywood movies on the big
Late last month, Pakistan's
parliamentary committee on culture recommended the
lifting of the ban on Hindi films. "We have
devised a mechanism for allowing the import of
Indian films for a period of one year, after which
the arrangements can be reviewed," Senator Zafar
Iqbal Chaudhry, who heads the committee, said. The
recommendation now awaits cabinet
approval, which is expected
to come soon.
Details are unclear, but it
appears the import of Bollywood movies is
conditional on India importing an equal number of
The ban on Bollywood
movies was imposed in 1965, following the
India-Pakistan war that year. But movies continued
to be smuggled into Pakistan. Video parlors and
shops stocked pirated DVDs and CDs, catering to
the massive appetite of Pakistanis for Bollywood
films. They could watch the latest movie less than
a week after its release in India.
they had to make do with watching pirated CDs and
VCDs of Bollywood films at home. That meant
missing out on the full experience of Bollywood
are three-hour extravaganzas. Songs and dances are
mandatory. Dialogues are dramatic, often poetic.
Plots are sometimes absurd, but these are flights
into fantasy, providing the viewer with escape
from the drudgery of the real world. It's not
uncommon, for example, for a beautiful heiress to
fall in love with a poor but gallant laborer.
Watching it on the big screen in a cinema
hall in South Asia is another experience all
together. Viewers - especially those in the front
rows - sing and shake a leg along with the heroes
and heroines, whistle and even throw money on the
screen in appreciation of a dance or a dialogue.
When the movie has a little bit of everything -
romance, drama and dance - the audience goes home
content. It is paisa vasool (value for
It is this experience of Bollywood
masala that Pakistanis have missed for four
In 2006, they were treated to a
bit of an appetizer. The government allowed the
screening of the old classic Mughal-e-Azam,
and of Taj Mahal even though the ban
remained in place. Both were period films set
against the Mughal period.
The decision to
lift the ban indicates how far the normalization
of the India-Pakistan bilateral relationship has
moved. But also, it is an attempt that recognizes
the situation on the ground. It puts the stamp of
legitimacy on a trade that has flourished
illegally for decades.
The lifting appears
to have come on the urging of a section of
Pakistan's film industry. Film distributors and
cinema owners have been calling on the government
to allow Bollywood to breathe new life into their
comatose industry. Pakistan had 1,300 cinema halls
in the 1970s. Today, there are barely 275 halls,
many of them in poor condition. The return of
Bollywood to the cinema halls, distributors hope,
will revive their fading fortunes and provide a
shot in the arm to business.
everyone is putting out the welcome mat.
Bollywood's less well-known cousin across the
border, Lollywood, Pakistan's Lahore-based film
industry, is apprehensive.
which has languished for years as Bollywood has
grown into a multi-billion dollar industry with
fans across continents, fears it will be wiped out
completely when its Indian rival invades.
Even less welcoming will be Pakistan's
jihadis and religious conservatives, who frown on
Bollywood's song-dance culture. Pakistan's
religious conservatives have even opposed the
sari, not only because it is regarded as "Hindu"
but also because it - in their eyes at least -
reveals too much of a woman's body. These
apprehensions resulted in the sari being banned
during the military dictatorship of General Zia
ul-Haq in the 1980s.
conservatives will have to contend with more -
Bollywood's rain-drenched women in see-through
saris, the "item numbers" and so on.
question is whether Pakistan's jihadis will allow
Bollywood's screening in cinema halls. They have
burned shops selling CDs and VCDs in the recent
past. They could carry out attacks on cinema halls
Kanchan Lakshman, noted Pakistan
analyst and research fellow at the New Delhi-based
Institute for Conflict Management, says that while
there is a possibility of such attacks, these are
unlikely. He said the movies will not be screened
in Balochistan province or North-West Frontier
Province - the most restive in the country - but
in Punjab and Rawalpindi. "There is much money
riding on the screening of Bollywood films in
Pakistan," he told Asia Times Online. "It has
state support and cinema halls will be provided
tight security," he pointed out.
the experience of the Indian states of Jammu and
Kashmir with the jihadi ban on Bollywood will prey
on the minds of cinema owners. In the early 1990s,
when the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley took on
an Islamist color, Pakistan-backed Islamist
militant groups like the Allah Tigers banned the
screening of movies in Srinagar, the state's
capital. Movie halls in the Kashmir Valley were
burnt down and cable networks were forbidden from
telecasting Bollywood movies or MTV.
Kashmiris who once watched as Bollywood
romances were filmed in their famed gardens and
mountains had to make do with watching movies at
home. Today, despite "normalcy" returning to the
Valley, only a couple of movie theatres function
in Srinagar under tight security. The average
Kashmiri would rather watch Bollywood in the
relative safety of his home than suffer the wrath
of the jihadi.
The experience of Pakistani
singer Ali Haider should provide some pointers of
what theater owners can expect. Haider was to act
in a Bollywood movie called Osama – based
not on Osama bin Laden but about a Kashmiri boy.
He was forced to pull out of the project after
Haider and his family received threatening calls.
Reports indicate the movies will be
heavily censored. Those Pakistanis who go to
cinema halls for the full Bollywood "experience"
might be a bit disappointed. They will have to
watch over their shoulders for signs of jihadi
wrath as they sing and dance along with their
Sudha Ramachandran is an
independent journalist/researcher based in