It is no coincidence that in the year of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Pakistan’s Diwali gift to India is the return of Geeta, a deaf-mute girl who has been stranded there for over a decade. In the 13 years since she was discovered, alone and in distress by Pakistan Rangers in Lahore, Geeta has been looked after by philanthropist Bilquis Edhi, who runs the Edhi Foundation. Now, thanks to the efforts of both the Indian and the Pakistani governments, the young girl has returned to her country– to be reunited with her family.
This is pretty much what happens in Bajrangi Bhaijaan too, although the nationalities of the protagonists are switched. In the movie it is a Pakistani girl who gets lost in India and the person who comes to her rescue is a large-hearted Indian, a Hanuman bhakt, played by Salman Khan.
Let’s contrast these gestures – the real life and the filmi – with what happened in Mumbai earlier this month. Pakistani ghazal maestro, Ghulam Ali, was to have performed in Mumbai on October 9 at a tribute concert for the late Jagjit Singh. The Shiv Sena, through its film wing the Chitrapat Sena, sent a letter to the organizers asking them to cancel the concert. The Sena’s argument was that it is unpatriotic to host Pakistani artistes since their compatriots are killing Indian soldiers at the border — that all cultural ties with the neighbouring country should be cut off. Under the threat of a “Shiv Sena-style protest” and all the violence and destruction it implies, the organizers caved in and cancelled the event.
The Sena could have learned something from the lessons provided by Bajrangi Bhaijaan. There is a very good reason why Bajrangi Bhaijaan earned as much at the box office as it did and is a hit in Pakistan too – this is a movie that holds out hope and which tells us that Pakistan may be more like India than we had imagined. And moviegoers loved this gesture of hope.
Perhaps the Shiv Sena, and others who share its opinions, have forgotten to taken into account that India has changed. This is no longer the country that made the jingoistic, Pakistan-bashing Gadar: Ek Prem Katha such a hit – a movie in which Sunny Deol was on the war path whereas in Bajrangi, Salman Khan (normally cast in violent roles himself) seeks the path of peace. Gadar, incidentally, was released in 2001, just two years before Geeta got stranded in Pakistan.
Much water has passed under the bridge since then; now Bollywood, instead of expressing its patriotism through beating up Pakistanis, has evolved enough to suggest a more nuanced look at our neighbour. The year of Bajrangi Bhaijaan and #GeetaComesHome indicate that soft power can work and the two governments can have an equally mature approach to outstanding issues.