By Taha Kehar
Any violations along the Line of Control and the raw hostilities associated with escalating tensions between India and Pakistan have a direct impact on the glamour business. It would be futile to probe deeper and analyse this trend as it can be easily explained without anyone having to scratch their heads. Unless the governments of India and Pakistan chalk out a concrete strategy to address the crisis emanating from Kashmir atrocities, proxy attacks and the threat of war, hysteria will continue to prevail. As a result, the Pakistani actors will continue to bear the brunt of a dangerous brand of nationalism that pits neighbours against each other and sets the stage for a brutal conflict.
Mahira Khan, Ali Zafar and Fawad Khan, who have ventured into foreign territory with the intention of carving out new prospects for themselves, now find themselves in a quagmire. At this critical juncture, their presence on the rough terrain that India has become is bound to create ripples. News anchors and right-wing activists have not hesitated from picking sides and playing a senseless blame game. The film fraternity, on the other hand, has offered a diverse spectrum of reactions. The wave of schizophrenic responses from the entertainment industry have served as chilling reminders of how nationalism can meddle with the human conscience. As expected, the mixed reactions have revived questions on why Pakistani actors feel the compelling need to cultivate dreams of achieving stardom across the border. Why can’t they respect the restrictions created by barbed wires along the LoC and stay on their side of the fence? Is the grass really green on the other side? Or, do the arclights and fame of Bollywood create a magnetic field that simultaneously attracts and repels these Pakistani actors?
There is nothing scientific about a Pakistani actor’s unbridled obsession with Bollywood. Any attempt to plot a Pakistani actor’s career graph in the realm of India’s film industry presents conflicting results. The roots of the matter are firmly embedded in history instead of the natural sciences. This explains the varying degrees of unpredictability and, of course, the political dimensions of the subject. It is difficult to negate the influence of Partition in the entire equation. How can we ignore this facet of the past? After all, the dawn of a new nation adversely impacted the nexus between film centres in Bombay and Lahore.
What had begun as a healthy competition between these film centres eventually spiralled into a jingoistic spree to thwart each other’s influence. The battle lines had been drawn. But the war did not end so easily. With time, it was dressed up as a matter of identity and continued to resurface in some form or the other. As Pakistan continued to be swayed by anti-Indian sentiments, attempts by actors to try their luck in the film industry of another country triggered a wave of disapproval. Most of these were knee-jerk reactions that did little to dissuade actors who were curious about exploring possibilities in a new territory. Many of them knew that blurring boundaries would not be an easy undertaking.
Nadeem – who, at one point, enjoyed celebrity in Pakistan’s film circuit – was seen as an antagonist in the Raj Babbar starrer Dor Desh. Earlier, Salma Agha’s spellbinding performance in Nikaah was another feat that brought Pakistan into the Bollywood mainstream. This, in itself, was a watershed moment that radically altered the perception of Pakistani actors. There were quite a few anomalies that threatened to undermine the importance of this special phase. For instance, Muhammad Ali and Zeba’s wasted potential in the 1989 film Clerk offers a shimmering example of how Pakistan’s actors were brushed under the carpet across the border. Zeba Bakhtiar’s brief career in Bollywood also brought a new wave of optimism. Henna was billed as Raj Kapoor’s dream project. After his death, the film became the measure of his son’s imagination.
Randhir Kapoor amalgamated his father’s vision with his own insights and made silver screen history. Bakhtiar became part of this collective vision and added a much-needed layer of authenticity to her role. The outcome was undoubtedly brilliant and drew a favourable response from the media. However, Bakhtiar’s stint in the Indian film industry was short-lived and, to a large extent, remains stowed away in a neglected crevice of the industry’s memory. The actor pursued other ventures after her brief flirtation with Bollywood.
Subsequently, Meera and Veena Malik were seen in Indian movies. However, their talent was not part of the media hype. To the contrary, both actors found fame by riding on the crest of controversy. Their respective love affairs with the film fraternity in India were, at best, forgettable. Those who remember them cannot shrug aside the looming shadow of media wrangling that accompanied their rise to success. The dramatic confrontations, celebrity neuroses and occasional foibles aren’t just mere appendages to their careers. At times, they overshadows Meera and Veena’s careers. The rest, as they say, is history.
It is often difficult to cast aside the impact of gender on the prospects of Pakistani male actors. Ali Zafar, a singer and actor, has managed to carve a niche for himself in Bollywood. Fawad Khan is another suspect we can add to this list. Imran Abbas, whose debut in an Indian movie wasn’t a smash hit, was also seen on the silver screen. Interestingly, there is little or no gossip attached to these ‘heroes’ that seeps through the Pakistani media.
As luck would have it, Pakistani viewers are most interested in women actors and the scandals that surround them. Men, it appears, are presented in a favourable light, as if the pedestal they are placed on by the media is a throne. These gender issues do not surface on an obtrusive level. Subtlety is one aspect that we can’t always credit entertainment sections of newspapers and TV outlets for. Although Mahira Khan is an exception to the rule, it is far too early to gauge the impact of her media trial and misjudgement. But is history the only lens through which we can explain the grand exodus of actors to India (if not, their untimely return)? The question cannot be answered until we take a trip down memory lane and understand how the collapse of the film industry in Pakistan was driven by politics. General Ziaul Haq’s rule silenced the sounds of ghungroos and stunted the growth of the film industry.
What remained for many years was a warped gandasa culture that did more harm than one can imagine. In a stifling atmosphere that suppressed all forms of artistic expressions that did not conform to a stereotypical mould, actors founds themselves in a compromising position. Although Pakistan’s film industry has been revived and the clean distinction between film and TV actors appears to have come to naught, the allure of Bombay films continues to thrive. It is widely believed that this has more to do with psychology than history. Extremism and radicalism have spread like wildfire in Pakistan. The voices of a few bigots are echoing over the whispers and murmurs of sane minds with visions of progress. At this critical juncture, artistes have turned their attention to the global sphere. If their work is well-received in any other country, success in Pakistan will come easily. Although not everyone operates on this mantra, it has helped many writers, actors, playwrights and journalists in the country achieve international acclaim. Most Pakistani fiction is published in India and little has been done to stop this process.
As a writer, my two poetry anthologies and novel has received a better response in India than it has in Pakistan. Moreover, any success I have gained as a writer in Pakistan springs from encouragement received from my publishers and editors across the border. This is invariably an outcome of people’s mindsets and is often unconnected to talent. At a time when the spectre of war looms over both countries, the fate of actors from Pakistan remains uncertain in India. While many actors have vociferously expressed their reluctance to work with Pakistani actors, others – including big-time directors – are more concerned about keeping their films afloat. As a result, many of them have been caught between the truth and the rhetoric. There is a need to understand why Pakistani actors prefer these “cross-border film ventures”. Is this a problem with the local industry? Are we prisoners of a historical mindset? Can we change the course of the future? The list of questions goes on. But the answers are never satisfactory.
Taha Kehar is a freelance writer. He Studied Law at The School of Oriental and African Studies and is the Former Assistant Editor at Slogan Magazine.