Throwing Away Soft Power

India has chosen its enemy and become like it.

Written by Khaled Ahmed | Published:October 29, 2016 12:52 am
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India’s street has decreed that Pakistani actors will not act in Indian movies. In reaction, Pakistan has taken down all the Indian movies and the cinema halls are getting ready to become shopping plazas once again.

Warmongers are happy in Pakistan. Indian movies were creating good bilateral vibes while offering entertainment that Pakistani movies couldn’t provide. There’s nothing to moan about the decline of film-making in Pakistan. Globalisation tends to squeeze less efficient markets. Decades ago, Hollywood made European film-making redundant by importing European actors, just like India.

What Indian mobs and government are killing is the “soft power” of India. The Indian film industry was India’s power because Mumbai saw Pakistan not as an enemy state but as a market and made flicks that won the hearts and minds of Pakistan. Absent the market, Indian movies will go back to pandering to nationalism and lose in quality.

After the cinema halls vanish in Pakistan, hard Islam will make it even more dangerous for India.

The book to read on this is Filming the Line of Control: The Indo-Pak Relationship through the Cinematic Lens, edited by Meenakshi Bharat and Nirmal Kumar (Routledge 2008). The movies not allowed into Pakistan but watched on smuggled video cassettes featured Indian commandos defeating the Pakistan army and carrying away Muslim beauties helplessly in love with their derring-do. The content made you hate India. Veer Zaara (2004) was friendly but contained the insult that no Pakistani could have missed: A Hindu hero (Shah Rukh Khan) ensnares a Muslim beauty (Preity Zinta). It recalled Henna (1991) which had caused Pakistan’s state-owned TV to react, which produced something containing the fervent attraction of Hindu beauties to the charms of Lashkar-e-Taiba warriors who despise them till suddenly everything changes upon the heroine seeing the light of Islam and converting to “the only true faith”.

In 2002, Pakistan was traumatised when the ruling clerical alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, closed down its cinema houses. All musicians and makers of musical instruments — for centuries a part of the Pushtun culture — either accepted their pauperised new state or ran down to Punjab.

Pakistan TV stepped into the vacuum, its war dramas showing the routine nubile Kashmiri Hindu girl smitten with the mujahideen-type Pakistani warrior who shows sexual restraint contrasting starkly with the base cunning of her “bodi”-sporting Brahmin father. Pakistani films too did this including one in which veteran actor Yusuf Khan slaughters hundreds of Hindus and covers the screen with gore. Result? Pakistani film went down in the 1980s and never got up again.

The conversation on TV channels on both sides threatens to overtake the cinema. As the book says: “Right wing politics has always seen mass media as propagating conservative ideas of nationalism and patriotism. And Pratibha Advani, daughter of BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani, did produce the documentary, Ananya Bharati, stressing the role of Hindi films in promoting patriotism.”

In Pakistan, the feature film can’t make a comeback because of the tightening of the ideological noose, not so much by the state as by the aggressive clergy and their non-state killers. Pakistani actors fired by India will not find a niche back home because the cinema-houses will convert to plazas. With loudspeakers blaring the latest doomsday warning from the clergy, people will claw at entertainment and find only contraband CDs of dubious content.

India has chosen its enemy and has become like him. By throwing away its soft power in favour of religion and nationalism it has lost something that the BJP’s man in the street can’t realise. The consequences have been spelled out by many good Indians who can foresee the coming spiritual blight. Democracy and India’s constitution will finally suggest self-correction; Pakistan is feeling the bite of correction administered by global reaction. Maybe the good days will return.

Shekhar Gupta in Business Standard mourned India’s old “soft power”: “The night before Atal Bihari Vajpayee was to leave for Lahore in February 1999, his office was frantic. How to reach film star Dev Anand in the middle of the night? Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif was a pucca Dev Anand fan. Anyway, another Dev Saab fan was roused to reach him and ask if he could reach in time to travel with Vajpayee on the bus, which he cheerfully did. Sure enough, his arrival became the highlight of that visit. The showman charmed politicians, elites, common Pakistani media, and took TV cameras to the exact spot in his college where he (supposedly) kissed a girl for the first time: in the conservative early-1940s, of course.”

 

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek’ Pakistan