Facebook is full of photographs where the Indian actor, Om Puri, is regaling drawing rooms in Pakistan with his thoughts on culture. He had the masterly knack of advocating his country in a milieu permeated with the venom of anti-India nationalism. He was familiar, not because he was photogenic like Salman Khan and Aamir Khan, but because he was a natural actor who invited focus.
There is genuine pain in the way Pakistanis talk about him now. They recount how he flew off the handle when India’s new street power forced a ban on Pakistani actors. He confronted India’s new nationalism on TV — and seemed taken aback by the assault from those who once loved him. Everyone else publicly ate the words they had spoken earlier against it. India suddenly seemed like Pakistan, accusing an admired public figure like Imran Khan of blaspheming against the Prophet (peace be upon him); there is nothing to do but apologise and save your life.
Needless to say, when I met Om Puri last year at a friend’s house in the Lahore Cantonment — where Indians are not allowed to enter — I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what I said as I gushed, naming the films and TV serials I had seen featuring him. He was surprised by this sudden affection and didn’t know how to respond. But soon, he was mobbed by other guests with questions more searching than the normal curiosity about India’s film icons. He kept reminding them of what is taboo in Pakistan: We are all one people, belonging to the same civilisation, tragically divided through Partition. The Pakistani orthodoxy hates this “invitation” to “reunion”, even though they religiously watch Indian movies — while calling them India’s “cultural invasion”.
The brutal fact is that through Om Puri, India projected its “soft power” over Pakistan more effectively than any “surgical strike”.
Pakistan was always vulnerable because of pre-Partition film culture when, like anywhere else, actors from Punjab gravitated to Bombay, adopting names like Santosh Kumar and Sudhir. After 1947, these two Muslim boys dominated cinema in Pakistan; there were Muslim actresses with names like Swaran Lata, competing with imported Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor films. Lahore was the centre of filmmaking parallel to Bombay, its great writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, preferring to do his scripts in the latter city, writing imperishable sketches of Indian actors like Shyam and Nargis.
Mushtaq Gazdar, in his book on Pakistani cinema, notes that Lahore was always eclipsed by Bombay. Films in Lahore never took off financially. After 1947, however, the government didn’t think it should ban Indian movies in the 1950s, although some straitlaced ministers thought Muslims shouldn’t be doing films at all. But Indian films kept dominating cinema till the big Indo-Pak war of 1965 when they were banned. Still, the magic didn’t fade; people shifted to cassette players and watched Indian films smuggled from Dubai. And the songs — always more Urdu than Hindi — could never be banned!
It should be a measure of how deep India’s soft power penetrated that Pakistan allowed the import of Indian films again in 2008, ignoring local filmmakers’ protests that an already declining Pakistani film industry wouldn’t survive. The ideological state didn’t want to admit that its straitjacket of the mind had killed films and entertainment could only come, not from Hollywood, but Bollywood, where actors like Om Puri did what a million-strong Indian army couldn’t do. The studios in Lahore closed down; the cinema in Pakistan took off after a 43-year decline. Indian producers obliged by switching off scripts that showed Pakistan in a bad light and the middle class was sent right back to the matinee show, kids in tow.
After the Modi government heated up the Line of Control in Kashmir, anti-India passions were aroused once again. The importers got together with cinema owners to impose a voluntary ban on Indian movies; they had to relent soon enough, saying thousands of people attached to the cinema were unemployed and had nowhere to go in a declining economy. India’s soft power had won where the shelling across the Line of Control got nowhere.
But India killed an asset in the process of becoming like Pakistan. Om Puri was a true Indian, whom India will have to own one day when it awakens from its current stupor.
The day he died, Pakistanis voted overwhelmingly in favour of “normalisation of relations” with India in a Gallup poll, knowing that prime ministers had lost their jobs trying to do this.