The image of Pakistan in Indian popular cinema has changed with the state of our politics, says Shirsho Dasgupta.
Like art and literature, cinema is a reflection of life and society. It’s little wonder, then, that Bollywood films over the years have reflected the state of our politics. The Indian view of Pakistan has changed over the years since independence, a fact that is apparent in the country’s portrayal in Bollywood.
Post-independence Bollywood films, while promoting national unity, maintained a strict silence on the question of Partition. This was possibly due to the fact that many in the film industry had their roots in or directly hailed from the newly-formed state of Pakistan. Yash Chopra’s 1959 directorial debut Dhool Ka Phool tells the story of a Muslim who brings up an illegitimate Hindu child who was abandoned. The film has the classic Hindi song: “Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega/Insaan ki aulaad hai, insaan banega”. His next film, Dharmputra (1961) was possibly the first Bollywood production to deal directly with the growing religious fundamentalism in the subcontinent. These films, along with Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1962), were the first Indian films to confront the trauma of Partition. However, while these films focused on the growing religious bigotry and sectarian divide in India, none of them addressed the question of Pakistan as a nation.
The Sixties witnessed the decline of the post-independence euphoria, and Indian society looked for new issues to build a sense of unity around, leading to the emergence of jingoistic nationalist films. Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat (1964), made in the aftermath of India’s humiliating defeat to China, portrayed Chinese soldiers as brutal, inhuman barbarians. In 1965, India fought another war, this time with Pakistan. Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (1967) made oblique references to Pakistan—it is about a malicious younger brother who takes advantage of the meekness and sense of morality of his older brother, tellingly named Bharat, and asks for the family property to be divided between them.
Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (1967) made oblique references to Pakistan—it is about a malicious younger brother who takes advantage of the meekness and sense of morality of his older brother and asks for the family property to be divided between them.
The first unambiguous references to Pakistan entered Indian cinema only after the decisive victory in the 1971 war. Chetan Anand’s Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973) portrayed the neighbouring country as a malevolent presence lurking just beyond India’s borders. The political turmoil of the next two decades, including the rise of armed militancy in Kashmir and the rise of Sikh nationalism in Punjab, as well as the nuclear tests of 1998 and the Kargil war of 1999, saw the hardening of this image of Pakistan.
This period saw the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers who were born after Independence and had not had to bear the burden of Partition. This, coupled with the political unrest in the region, led to a slew of overtly nationalistic films with Pakistan as a clear-cut villain. The most popular among these films is J.P. Dutta’s multi-star blockbuster Border (1997), based on the Battle of Longewala in the 1971 war. Six years later, Dutta used the same formula and produced another war film LOC Kargil, this time based on the Indian armed forces’ Operation Vijay in Kargil in 1999.
Releasing in 2002, at a time when tensions between India and Pakistan were running high, Tinu Verma’s Maa Tujhe Salaam tells the story of an Indian Army officer foiling the plans of a Kashmiri who is an Pakistani agent and aids insurgency in the region, directly reflecting the accusations regarding Pakistan’s involvement in the attack on the Indian Parliament the previous year. In addition to depicting morally upright Indians battling against the evils committed by sinful Pakistanis, films like Sarfarosh (1999) also showed Indian Muslims as somehow superior to Pakistani Muslims.
The Nineties saw the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers who were born after Independence and had not had to bear the burden of Partition. This, coupled with the political unrest in the region, led to a slew of overtly nationalistic films with Pakistan as a clear-cut villain.
In 2001, Gadar: Ek Prem Katha clashed with Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan at the box office. Where the latter depicted an idyllic 19th-century Indian village resisting the British Raj through a game of cricket against the English officials of the local government whereas Gadar, set during and just after the Partition, indulged in blatant Pakistan-bashing. While Lagaan drew great acclaim worldwide and a rare Oscar nomination, it was handily beaten in the domestic box office by the Sunny Deol epic, which sold more tickets than any Hindi film that is not Sholay.
In 2004, after a change in the government in New Delhi, India and Pakistan undertook a series of programmes to decrease tensions between the two states. Both countries signed ceasefire agreements, extended a ban on nuclear testing and established a hotline between the foreign secretaries of the two states to prevent misunderstandings that might lead to a nuclear war. The two countries also re-opened several transportation services across their borders, eased visa restrictions and restarted cricket tours between each other.
Films like Veer-Zaara (2004) and Farah Khan’s directorial debut Main Hoon Na (2004) reflected the changing times and the thawing of tensions between the two states. While Veer-Zaara told the touching love-story between a Pakistani girl and an Indian Air Force pilot who is framed as a spy and arrested in Pakistan and is eventually successfully defended by an idealistic Pakistani lawyer in court, the main idea that drives the plot of Main Hoon Na is “Operation Milaap”, a project launched by the governments of the two states to exchange prisoners of war.
Anyone having a Muslim name or hailing from the Middle East or the subcontinent is viewed with suspicion and hostility in Europe and America. India and Pakistan thus found common ground in the discrimination against them.
Following 9/11 and the subsequent NATO wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the western world witnessed a rising tide of Islamophobia and xenophobia. In this world anyone having a Muslim name or hailing from the Middle East or the subcontinent is viewed with suspicion and hostility in Europe and America. India and Pakistan thus found common ground in the discrimination against them. The Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol starrer, My Name is Khan (2010), with its statement “My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist”, resonated with the citizens of both the countries, especially with the diaspora settled abroad.
After the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, however, the ideological antagonist in Bollywood changed from Pakistan to Islamist fundamentalism at large. The 2012 film Agent Vinod showed peace efforts between the two countries being undermined by radical hardliners in Pakistan.
Since the two states achieved their respective sovereign independence in 1947, the depiction of Pakistan through the gaze of the Indian lens has changed, according to the political scenario of the subcontinent over the years, from a state of non-existence through an evil, malevolent presence to finally a country which shares a lot in common with India but is deeply troubled by religious fundamentalism and terrorism. An important reason behind the villainisation of both countries in each other’s eyes is the refusal to acknowledge that citizens of both states both committed and suffered atrocities during the Partition.
However, the new generation of filmmakers and audience are far removed from Partition and are not afraid to confront the trauma and acknowledge that evils were committed by both sides. More recently, Bollywood films like Tere Bin Laden (2010), Kabul Express (2006) and Total Siyaapa (2014) has shifted the gaze from the military aspects of the states to a more cultural depiction enabling viewers from both countries to glimpse into the real lives of the people of the two countries who are not so very different from each other. Perhaps, where political diplomacy has repeatedly failed, celluloid will be able to unite the two countries and bring about a reconciliation the troubled subcontinent has long deserved.