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The power of Bollywood

The Hindu (India)
Syed Munir Khasru
October 26, 2016


The India-Pakistan conflict has sadly spilled into the cultural realm, attenuating forces that provide the little glimmer of hope for an integrated, peaceful and prosperous South Asia: culture, arts, music, movies, and people-to-people relations. Art and culture have no nation, no boundaries, and no religion. Works of art are priceless treasures of the world regardless of where they originate. The recent farcical fiasco over the release of Karan Johar’s new movie Ae Dil Hai Mushkil has shown how India’s short-sighted politicians either fail to see art that way, or how they see it that way and fail to take a stand. In India, hateful, jingoist, chest-thumping rhetoric seems to successfully muffle voices of reason, love, and compassion.

Realising the South Asian dream

South Asia, home to 1.7 billion people, has been the least integrated region in the world, with India-Pakistan relations being the biggest hurdle in the way of realising the South Asian dream. So when India-Pakistan relations reach a standstill, the ones who stand to lose are not only Indians and Pakistanis but all South Asians of eight different nationalities. As a non-Indian representing the South Asian population, I am perturbed by the recent developments. Bollywood may belong to Indians nationally, but it belongs to all South Asians emotionally.
Some have questioned the inability or unwillingness of the state to assert its authority and stand up against hooliganism and extra-constitutional threats, pointing out how the Maharashtra Chief Minister’s Office’s role has been similar to that of a school principal deciding to side with a school bully who is taking on a soft target. The clarion call for banning Pakistani actors, technicians, and musicians from working in India came from the far-right political party, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) headed by Raj Thackeray, a rebellious Shiv Sena offshoot. Both the MNS and the Shiv Sena have a long history of preaching hatred and jingoistic ideologies, and launching political attacks, threats, and even violence against soft targets such as movie stars and cricket teams, and north Indians. The MNS threatened to not only vandalise theatres on the opening day of the film’s release but also beat up filmmakers who star Pakistanis in their movies (for example, Mr. Johar). They also threatened Pakistani actors working in Bollywood and Indian actors who took a stand against the call for a ban; in other words, they threatened anyone who was not ready to dance to their tunes.
To say that the MNS’s allegations against Mr. Johar are nonsensical is an understatement. First, when the production of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was in progress, India-Pakistan political relations were normal. When the Uri attack broke out, there was no going back as the production was over, and replacing an actor in the film would have meant redoing the entire movie. Even if Mr. Johar wanted to comply with the outrageous demand of the MNS, it was too late. Yet, the cowering reaction from Mr. Johar, the walking embodiment of liberal suavity, is a disappointment as well. Yes, by not taking a stand he may have protected his hard work and hard cash, but it puts into question his own commitment to liberal values and standing up for what is right, which has a certain price tag. The scoreboard reads: jingoism-1; liberal values and freedom of speech-0.

Thanks to Bollywood, India has enormous soft power on the world stage, even more than neighbouring China which is much stronger both militarily and economically. Indian movies and songs are extremely popular even in Pakistan, where millions laugh and cry, revelling not only in movies like Bajrangi Bhaijaan or PK , but also Bollywood movies that have nothing to do with Pakistan. Bollywood represents the perfect medium for India to win the hearts and minds of millions throughout the world, including Pakistan and other parts of South Asia. By banning a handful of Pakistani actors, and musicians, and taking the hostility to a cultural level, India elicited the Pakistani response of a ban on Indian movies as well as content. As a result, India actually closed a frontier of influence where it had a natural advantage over Pakistan, which had none. Even for the jingoist chest-thumpers, this is a strategic blunder.

Movies as scapegoats

The positive power of cultural exchange in easing political tensions can hardly be overemphasised. When India-Bangladesh relations became tense in the 1980s over the Farakka Barrage dispute, there was a popular saying in Delhi and Dhaka that if Bangladesh was willing to trade Runa Laila, the Bangladeshi singer who was very popular in India, for water, India would remove the dam. While the statement has no official value, it shows the power of cultural exchanges in building bridges, and normalising strained diplomatic relationships.
India has pointed out several times that it did not forgo its long-term vision of a well-functioning South Asia. Neither did it withdraw itself from regional projects involving both India and Pakistan (namely, the TAPI gas pipeline connecting Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and the IPI pipeline connecting Iran, Pakistan and India), nor did it cut off official diplomatic ties with Pakistan. If diplomatic relationships can survive amidst conflict, why should innocuous things like movies and cultures be scapegoats?

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