Pakistan and Bollywood: A broken bond

The Indian film industry’s lurch to the right has done what wars couldn’t — alienated millions of Pakistani fans.

Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi during the premiere of the film PM Narendra Modi in Ahmadabad, India, May 21, 2019
Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi poses for photographs during the premiere of the film PM Narendra Modi, based on the life of the Indian prime minister, in Ahmadabad, India, May 21, 2019 [File: Ajit Solanki/AP Photo]

Bollywood, India’s Hindi language cinema, has millions of ardent fans across the world. Among them are the people of Pakistan. People like me.

Now that love affair is souring.

Unlike a lot of other Pakistanis, my interest in Bollywood developed much later in life. I was already in my late 20s when I took the time to watch a complete Bollywood movie. I initially watched Bollywood for the melodies of the master Indian playback singers from yesteryear, such as the great Kishore Kumar, Mohammad Rafi and Mukesh.

That morphed into an interest in old Bollywood movies — from the golden and classic ages of the industry, spanning a period from the late 1940s through the 80s. Watching these films was a regular weekend night affair for me.

This Bollywood was a melting pot of riveting stories and even better acting. Awaara (1951) carried socialist themes and became wildly popular in China and the former Soviet Union as well. The 1960s and 1970s had trend-setting movies such as the iconic Mughal-e-Azam and Ganga Jumna. Movies such as Kaala Pathar, Zanjeer and Deewar had superstar Amitabh Bachchan in his genre-defining angry young man persona, providing poignant commentary on the disillusionment within Indian society over corruption and inequality. Values — not wealth — were the virtues to aspire to. Then there was Mandi, which touched on themes of prostitution, offering biting political satire.

As the years passed by, Bollywood movies became more extravagant, reliant on glitz and glamour, exotic foreign locations and bombastic dance numbers. Stories revolving around average working-class issues are few and far between.

But with the rise of current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), I have noticed another more sinister shift in storytelling towards the right.

From an industry that celebrated religious tolerance in films such as the cult classic Amar Akbar Anthony — where the three heroes are Hindu, Muslim and Christian — mainstream Bollywood is now far too often a mouthpiece for the BJP and its idea of India. The secular ideals of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, are dead. The narrative is simple – India is Hindu, and other religions are foreign and responsible for the ravages suffered by the motherland.

This vision of India reflects in society and in Bollywood.

Moviemakers who do not subscribe to the narrative of this muscular, uber-nationalist Hindu India are at the receiving end of vicious criticism from the BJP’s support base. Actors Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan raised concerns over growing intolerance in India in 2015. Since then, there are regular calls for their movies to be boycotted.

Muslim characters are either nonexistent in Bollywood films or are used to fan stereotypes of the community as villains or as closet Pakistan sympathisers.

Meanwhile, many leading figures within Bollywood have become enthusiastic cheerleaders of this toxicity. There are over-the-top supporters of the BJP government, such as Anupam Kher, Kangana Ranaut and Akshay Kumar. Actor Vivek Oberoi released a thinly veiled promotional movie on the life of Modi in 2019 to coincide with the general elections that year.

Others have queued up for selfies and hugs with Modi. Even the Khans who have long dominated Bollywood — Aamir, Salman and Shah Rukh — have largely stayed quiet of late. They have likely learned their lesson: Speaking up has consequences.

At the same time, Pakistani actors and actresses have effectively been banned from the industry. Raees in 2017, featuring Mahira Khan opposite Shah Rukh, was the last major Bollywood movie to feature someone from Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistani movies face hurdles in being released in India. The Legend of Maula Jutt, already considered one of the biggest movies in Pakistan’s history, was set for a December 30, 2022 release in India, only for that to be postponed indefinitely.

There are also subtle linguistic changes that are noticeable in Bollywood. The opening titles in earlier generations of movies contained text in Hindi, English, and Urdu regularly. Dialogues and lyrics had a significant dose of Urdu, a language that was popular across faiths in northern India. That has now switched to limited — if any — use of Urdu in Bollywood, and a much heavier focus on Hindi. That shift started before Modi came to power, but the BJP’s portrayal of Urdu speakers as being anti-India and pro-Pakistani has made it hard to revive a language that was crucial to Bollywood in its ground-breaking decades.

As someone who has enjoyed Bollywood over the years, its current state as a propaganda tool makes for painful viewing. To be sure, there are exceptions. Shoojit Sircar’s Piku for example, featuring Deepika Padukone, Bachchan and the late Irrfan Khan, is Bollywood at its best – progressive in thought with an everyday theme that people can relate to. The 2015 comedy revolves around a cantankerous old man, played by Bachchan, and his relationship with his daughter and others, and is narrated through a laugh-a-minute road trip.

Then there is Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi from 2022, a crime biography of epic proportions that has done well across borders.

But for the most part, Pakistanis like me who idolised Indian movie stars now feel that their relationship with this once brilliant industry is fractured. The love and adulation that Bollywood celebrities enjoyed in Pakistan were almost similar to the craze of their fandom in India. That is not the case any more, unfortunately.

Back in 2008, the star-studded Firaaq was released, based on the lives of people following the bloody Gujarat riots in 2002, when Modi was the state’s chief minister. The questions over Modi’s role in those killings even led to an entry ban imposed on him by the United States until he became prime minister.

It is impossible to imagine India’s film censors allowing such a movie to release today.

Meanwhile, films such as Kashmir Files that inflame Islamophobia are receiving official government support.

Pakistan’s own movie industry went through a long period of decline before its recent revival. That is one of the reasons why the connection Pakistanis felt towards Bollywood was so strong, that too, across multiple generations.

For decades, political differences did not matter to Pakistanis when they watched a Bollywood movie. There was a wholesome warmth to it. From language to culture, Bollywood never felt alien. Even wars and near-permanent tensions between India and Pakistan could not change that. Sadly, the rise of Modi and the BJP has — perhaps irreparably.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.