Ae dil hai mushkil: Finding out the cost of hostility from artistes on both sides of the border

Traditionally, India and Pakistan have kept their cultural exchanges alive through wars and deep sulks. But now, political pressure forces Indian filmmakers to take hardened positions.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul | Updated: October 23, 2016 12:26 pm
ae dil hai mushkil, ae dil hai mushkil release. ae dil hai mushkil ban, fawad khan, pakistani actors, pak actors, india pakistan, pak actor ban, india news,pakistan news “We understand that Indians are angry that their soldiers were killed in Uri but why target artistes for it? We don’t support terrorism,” says Usman Peerzada, a prominent theatre figure in Pakistan who has visited India several times (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Clogged roads during rush-hour, the mad frenzy of an urban city, a vibrant street food culture and a rich dose of glamour. When Nasir Khan was in Mumbai this February for the sound-mix and colour-grading of his film, Bachaana, the city felt no different from Karachi, which the Lahore resident often visits. Conversations with locals during the long hours spent at the studio and the rickshaw rides back to his hotel lent a certain intimacy to his 17-day stay in Mumbai. In short, Khan felt “at home”.

Today, back in Pakistan, the filmmaker is struggling to explain to his friends that the India they hear about, which had overnight labelled him an “outsider”, is not what it really is. “Until now, people on both the sides of the border knew that differences between the two countries were largely political. But this ban by the Indian film industry (where they have pledged not to work with any Pakistani actor) has made Pakistanis feel unwelcome,” he says, adding that heated debates on news channels and fast-spreading rumours about the treatment of their artistes are all deeply disturbing to most Pakistanis.

In the wake of the nationalistic fervour triggered by the terrorist attack in Uri this September, the Indian film and entertainment industry has been subjected to intense pressure and, as many allege, succumbed without a fight.

It began late last month, when the Zee Group announced that they would stop airing syndicated Pakistani dramas on their channel, Zindagi. The network’s head, Subhash Chandra, said in one of his tweets: “Zee has been the only supporter of Pak artists. They either condemn terrorist acts, if they cannot do that, leave.”

This sentiment gathered force when the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association (IMPPA) called for a ban on working with Pakistani artistes. Pushed against the wall by threats from Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India (COEAI) went a step further and asked its members to boycott the release of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which has Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in a key role. The situation has been on a downward spiral ever since. On Saturday, the MNS rolled back its threat of blocking the film following a “deal” with the producers that they would not engage Pakistani actors in the future and pay Rs 5 crore as “penance” to the Army welfare fund. But it’s not over yet. The cinema owners’ association is still to end its boycott of the film.

Cinema owners in Pakistan have retaliated by taking off all Indian films playing in their theatres and announced an indefinite ban. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), too, has asked all TV and radio channels to stop airing Indian content.

This severing of cultural ties between the two countries is bound to cause a dent in the revenues of the entertainment industry. A number of films with Pakistani artistes as part of their crew are currently in production. After Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Johar’s mega Diwali release, Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees, with Pakistani actor Mahira Khan playing the leading role, is lined up for release. The production of a film, with actress Sridevi in the lead and two Pakistani actors in key roles, has been halted for now. There is one film with a music director from across the border and several others that have recorded songs with Pakistani singers.

Though the stand-off between the MNS and film industry has been resolved for now, the exhibitors continue to be defiant.

According to Mukesh Bhatt, head of The Film & Television Producers’ Guild of India, if the problems continue, Bollywood stands to lose over Rs 300 crore. If COEAI and its nearly 700 theatres go ahead with their boycott call, Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil can suffer a loss of up to over Rs 75 crore this festive season.

The damage, however, isn’t limited to India. Trade pandits point to a larger figure when they take into account the ban on Indian content in Pakistan. Zain Wali, a distributor of Indian films in Pakistan, says the country is the third largest territory — after US-UK and UAE — for Hindi films. According to figures, close to 20 Hindi films release in Pakistan every year, raking in revenues of Rs 100-200 crore. Big-budget Indian films make as much money as Pakistan’s highest grossers. In July, the Salman Khan-starrer Sultan earned over Rs 30 crore in Pakistan.

Most of these films eventually air on TV networks, further adding to the revenue. Popular Indian film stars have a strong following in small towns and rural areas of Pakistan. However, the TV viewership is chiefly geared towards Indian TV soaps, which are syndicated and aired on Pakistani networks. “The social demographic in both the countries is similar, therefore the tear-jerker shows work as well in Pakistan as they do in India,” explains an official from an Indian TV network who does not wish to be identified.

Each episode of an Indian serial can rake in anything between US $700 and $1,500, depending on the popularity of the show. “With reality shows, we buy the rights to entire seasons,” Mohammad Jerjes Seja, the CEO of Pakistan’s ARY Digital Network, which has aired seven seasons of Bigg Boss so far. “We were to launch the ongoing season last week but had to replace it with local content after PEMRA issued the order. So we too stand to lose,” he explains.

Experts, however, say that it would be misleading to evaluate the damage purely in terms of numbers. The greater damage, they say, is the loss of goodwill.

Much like Bachaana director Nasir Khan, several Pakistani artistes, especially those who have had a long-standing relationship with India, are disappointed at the recent statements made by members of the Indian film industry. They believe it has been unfair on India’s part to sacrifice cultural exchanges at the altar of nationalistic sentiment.

“India and Pakistan have always shared a troubled relationship but the cultural exchange never stopped. Even during difficult times, we continued to screen Indian films in theatres and TV shows on our channels. India, too, didn’t shut its doors on Pakistani artistes this way. We understand both the sentiment of the people and the possible pressure the industry is faced with, but we do feel hurt at this penalising of our artistes,” says Parvez Karim, a screenwriter in Pakistan.

Usman Peerzada, a prominent theatre figure in Pakistan, points out that Indian artistes have regularly visited Pakistan and been welcomed there. “A few years ago, we brought a group that performed the Mahabharata. We were initially unsure about the possible response but people loved it and the shows were packed. We have welcomed a variety of artistes in the past and never have we closed our doors on them because of what was happening at the border. This is the only way to keep alive the goodwill between people,” says Peerzada, who has been invited to the National School of Drama several times. “We understand that Indians are angry that their soldiers were killed in Uri but why target artistes for it? We don’t support terrorism. In fact, people in Pakistan are as much the victims of terrorism as Indians. We, too, are losing our people in blasts and attacks aimed at civilians,” he says.

Peerzada confesses that he too had to bend “in these circumstances” and cancel the Pakistan tour of a couple of Indian theatre groups. “I can promise their safety here but I cannot guarantee what they may face back home,” he says.

While the two countries have always had cultural exchanges, the trend of Bollywood engaging Pakistani artistes began in the early 2000s. Bhatt was among the first filmmakers to use talent from across the border. In fact, his production house, Vishesh Films, introduced Rahat Fateh Ali Khan as a playback singer in Paap in the early 2000s. In the years that followed, Atif Aslam made a debut in India with Onir’s Bas Ek Pal (2006) and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy introduced Shafqat Amanat Ali with Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (2006).

“When the UPA government came into power with Manmohan Singh, they launched an initiative that encouraged cultural exchange as a means of building bridges between the two countries. Bollywood has since worked extensively with artistes from Pakistan,” says Bhatt.

Pakistan, too, has often used talent from India, with 10-12 filmmakers flying to Mumbai for post-production and editing of their films. “Pakistanis use Dubai, Thailand or India as their post-production destination. India works best for us because our cinemas share the same language,” explains director Reema Kahan, who first came to India in 2005 to work on her film, Koi Tujh Sa Kahaan. In the years since, she has brought three of her films to India for sound mixing and colour grading, spending close to US $50,000 on each project.

For his debut, Bachaana, a love story between an Indian and a Pakistani that Nasir Khan shot in Mauritius, he hired half his crew from India for their “technical prowess”. The filmmaker also screened his documentary, Made in Pakistan, at the 2010 edition of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image’s Mumbai Film Festival. So it “pains him” to see that a classic from his country, Jago Hua Savera, was excluded from the ongoing edition of the festival. “Isn’t cinema supposed to cut across boundaries?” he asks. But as Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif, in his recent column for The New York Times, wrote, “being a peacenik has become unfashionable”.

So even those who had once stood up to talk peace are now speaking another language.

After back-to-back meetings with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Bhatt pledged that the Producers’ Guild would not work with or sign any Pakistani talent in the future.

He now says that the move follows a long period of “tolerance”. “The Pakistani artistes need to put pressure on their government to take action against terrorists and ask them to stop harbouring them. Until that happens or unless Pakistan takes concrete steps to curb terrorism, we will not work with artistes from across the border,” he asserts.

The video by Karan Johar, released earlier this week, where he “assured the people of India” that he will not work with any Pakistani artiste in future, has further hurt sentiments. While the liberals in India view the video as feeble kowtowing under sustained pressure from the MNS and other such outfits, their counterparts in Pakistan see in Johar’s video a breach of the unspoken contract between the artistes of the two countries to use culture as a means to build bridges.

“We can see Karan Johar took this extreme step under political pressure. But we also know that Indian political parties often resort to Pakistan-bashing whenever an election is nearing, and people fall for it. In contrast, Pakistani parties don’t fall back on anti-India rhetoric for votes,” says an artiste who has worked in Bollywood but does not wish to be named.

Maharashtra, in particular, has witnessed several anti-Pakistan waves, with the Shiv Sena and the MNS fuelling such sentiments. In the past, they have forced the cancellation of several shows by Pakistani artistes, including one by the popular band Junoon. The Pakistani cricket team has not played in Maharashtra since 1987. Recently, their kabaddi team could not participate in the World Cup finals in Mumbai.

Randhir Roy of Panache Media, which brings international artistes to India for live shows, says that with a single cancellation, the loss to the organisers can run into lakhs. He says when ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali’s shows last year were called off under threats from the Shiv Sena, they had sold out all tickets for Rs 22 lakh. “When the shows were cancelled, we returned the money to the audience but the organisers lost the money they had spent on the set-up, lighting etc.”

Roy recounts how pained Ali had been by the incident. “We were sitting in Delhi the following morning and Ghulam Ali sahab turned to me and asked, ‘Why is there such hatred towards me in the hearts of people here?’ It was very sad to see him this disturbed, and it took some amount of explaining that the cancellation of shows was a practical decision, and not because his fans had turned haters. I could console him then but I know that Maharashtra will never see Ghulam Ali perform live again. And that’s the bigger loss.”