India-Pakistan ‘dosti’ in our films

The ban on Pakistani talent, and the argument against nationalist sentiments based on the idea that art should remain untouched by politics, are both utterly naïve ideas


Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in ‘Khoobsurat’.
Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in ‘Khoobsurat’.

Fawadists are under attack.

Anodyne, happy people on my FB timeline are suddenly opinionated—how can we be crazy about Fawad Khan, a Pakistani hero? Indian Fawadists happen to include mothers of 40-year-olds; they find him elegantly old-world, like a romantic hero from the 1950s. They are a subculture, you could say.

Khan looked good in Khoobsurat (2014) as the repressed scion of a dysfunctional royal family. He is not a great actor; in my eyes, not even that beautiful. Making much of his work in Hindi movies does not make sense. How much nationalism can you extract out of banning a mediocre actor from working in Hindi films?

Nationalists have targeted actors for all the wrong reasons. Most famously, in the 1990s, the Shiv Sena accused Dilip Kumar of being a Pakistani spy after he accepted that country’s highest honour, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz. He was in his 70s then, and unwilling to fight. Dilip Kumar was already a pan-Indian hero by then, an Indian in every possible sense. But Pakistani artistes work in India to make money, and to find wide audiences. Indian film lovers embrace them. The argument should end there.

Hindi cinema’s insensitivity towards the India-Pakistan conflict lies elsewhere.

Actors and directors like Raj Kapoor, who flourished in Bombay (now Mumbai) just after independence had emotional ties to Pakistan. Like the other two famous Nehruvian heroes, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand, Kapoor had personal connections to what became Pakistan after Partition. Henna (1991), a love story between an Indian boy and a Pakistani girl, was his dream film, completed after his death. Their films evoked the romantic idea that people of the two nations could love, cry for each other, connect with each other and overcome the geopolitical border.

Hindi cinema depends excessively on formula. Long after the 1950s, screenwriters and directors continued to write cross-border love stories—most of which were schmaltz. Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara (2004) had the weakest Yash-Chopraesque happy ending. In 2015, the exaggerated Hindu character played by Salman Khan in Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan crosses the border between India and Pakistan using childish persuasion. All of Pakistan loves him. Characters playing Indian Army officials flash torchlights at Bhaijaan’s eyes, looking brutal.

And then there are films that rouse hatred. Like Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), which was a blockbuster.

The ban on Pakistani talent, and the argument against nationalist sentiments based on the idea that art should remain untouched by politics, are both utterly naïve ideas. Cinema, like all art, is irrelevant if all of it shuns politics. We need films that go past that lovely rosiness of Nehruvian heroes. We need a Hindi film that acknowledges the India-Pakistan morass, and the tragic unlikelihood of its resolution. A screenplay needs to imagine the tragedy that we have not yet seen.

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