Finding their feet on the other side


There is a dialogue in NH10: “Yeh sheher badhta bachcha hai ji. Kood toh lagayega hi [This city is a growing child. It will leap and bound]”. These pains of growing up best sum up the rather infantile relationship between Pakistani and Indian talent appearing in the “other’s” popular culture. We have had ghazal icons Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh and playback singer Sukhbir appearing at private parties in Pakistan while Indian actors, who had to previously be satisfied with appearing on pirated VHS tapes and DVDs in the neighbouring country, can now see themselves on the big screen alongside their Pakistani counterparts. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, there has always been hurt, resentment and anger regarding Pakistani participation in Indian cinema. This till Ali Zafar and Fawad Khan appeared on the scene. So, are the Indian film industry and audiences finally maturing when it comes to offering a just platform to Pakistani talent? Or are Pakistani artistes more sure-footed now?

It has been easier to explain the popularity of musicians such as Ghulam Ali, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan as they could claim the Sufiana/ Ganga-Jamuni sensibility space between the two countries. But what about Zafar and Khan?

Earlier resentment

The crucial year was 1989: it marked the appearance of Mohammad Ali and Zeba, the doyens of Pakistani cinema (the equivalent of Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu) in Manoj Kumar’s Clerk. But such was the fate of the film at the box office and Ali’s own dismay at how the couple’s roles panned out in the film that Pakistani talent became very wary of the Indian film industry. There was resentment and embarrassment about how Pakistani icons had been reduced to glorified extras in the film. Then we had starlets like Zeba Bakhtiar, Salma Agha and Somy Ali, but they were a part of the ‘Pakistani with foreign passport’ contingent. Then Talat Hussein, Nadeem, Salman Shahid and more recently Javed Sheikh effortlessly slipped into the Saeed Jaffrey-esque character artiste slot in Hindi films. But people had to be nudged to see these Pakistani presences on screen. 

Humaima Malick, Sana, Humayun Saeed, Imran Abbas and others were also part of ensemble casts but their presence was as unremarkable as the fortunes of their films. Meanwhile, we have also had the curious case of cricketer Mohsin Khan who married Indian actress Reena Roy, had a short stint in Bollywood, divorced Roy, and then went back to Karachi for good.

An Anita Ayub earlier, a Veena later, and a Meera in the middle became titillatory objects in front of a probing Indian camera. You found them sprawled on voyeuristic centrefolds and they became part of a paternalistic debate back home: “Now what have our girls done in India?”

For long, India has held the promise of better opportunities and a bigger audience for Pakistani artistes, but they have also been fearful of burning their Pakistani bridges and being left rootless due to boycott. To top this paranoia is the historical burden of a nationalism built on hatred of the other.

Zafar and Khan’s presence in films marks a step forward. They have also been very intelligent in keeping the attention sharply focussed on their talent and craft (and a trademark non-threatening Pakistani masculinity). Hopefully, the audiences on both sides of the divide will enjoy the new creative synergy across the border.


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