The release on 13 July of Indian director Mahesh Bhatt’s film Awarapan (roughly translated as ‘Wanderlust’) in 22 cities in Pakistan was no ordinary event. There had been little hope that the Censor Board of Pakistan would issue a certificate to the film’s co-producer, Sohail Khan, to allow the film’s public screening. Even once that certificate was obtained, religious fundamentalist forces and associations of local film directors and producers issued multiple warnings against Awarapan’s Pakistan release.
A strict warning against screening this “un-Islamic” film had also been issued by the leaders of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, where state security forces launched their early-July Operation Silence, to end the siege of the mosque by radical students and clerics. The clerics’ opposition to the film was due to its depiction of a Hindu boy and Muslim girl falling in love, even though Islamic diktat prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men. The warning was issued by Maulana Abdur Rashid Ghazi, a hardliner who had in the past conducted public burnings of DVDs of Indian films. (Ghazi was subsequently killed in Operation Silence.)
For their part, objections from the local film producers were based on economy rather than ideology. Awarapan was produced jointly by Bhatt and Khan. The director and most of the cast of the film is Indian, while Pakistani artistes have rendered its songs. Pakistani film producers argued that the Pakistani screenings of films that feature Indian casts and Indian technical input would mean a loss of jobs and business for locals.
Conversely, the greatest support for Awarapan came from Pakistani cinema owners, also based on economics. Under the banner of the Film Exhibitors’ Association of Pakistan, many cinema proprietors have for years been demanding the opportunity to screen Bollywood films. According to the association, films produced domestically are substandard, which they say has resulted in a downswing in audiences, in turn leading to a decline in the country’s film industry in general.
The ban on the public screening of Indian films in Pakistan has been in force since the two countries went to war in 1965. Though there have been some exceptions – such as in the cases of epics like Mughal-e-Azam, where special permission was awarded from the highest levels in the Islamabad government – the ban has generally been enforced relatively effectively. Of course, this does not mean that Pakistanis have not been able to view films from across the border: observe the volume of pirated DVDs of Indian films available in the Pakistani market.
A few years ago, when Pakistani actors started to be seen in Indian films, it seemed that things were finally changing. While performers such as Moammar Rana and Javed Sheikh had clearly received tacit approval from Islamabad to act in Bollywood, the government never issued a blanket go-ahead. Nonetheless, suddenly every Pakistani actor and actress began trying their luck in Bollywood. Not everyone enjoyed the new fusion. The actress Meera, for instance, received death threats after appearing in a scene in which she shared a kiss with an Indian actor.
Indeed, the relatively uneventful release of Awarapan in Pakistan seems to indicate a departure. It also illustrates the obvious fact that people want to see quality films, regardless of point of origin. Pervez Musharraf’s administration has been more alert to this fact than many previous regimes. It was under his watch that, in recent years, the words ‘Indian artiste’ and ‘Indian director’ were removed from censorship strictures, thereby paving the way for joint, crossborder film ventures including mixed casts and investments. Difficulties do remain, however, and Pakistani Censor Board officials have repeatedly stated that they would permit the screening of only those films made by Pakistani producers and directors with foreign technology.
Nasir Ismail, the owner of Prince Cinema in Gujranwala city and a member of the Film Exhibitors’ Association, says that Pakistani film producers in search of better quality and expertise are already crossing the border to do post-production work in Indian studios. “I can’t figure out why these people are wary of the idea of joint productions,” he says. “They shouldn’t be afraid of competition; they should gear up for it.” Ismail claims that if the recent permission to screen Indian films in Pakistan had been granted years ago, Pakistani cinemas would have done much better over the past few decades. The number of cinema houses across Pakistan has fallen from some 800 in the 1980s to around 200 today. Everywhere, cinema halls are being torn down to make way for shopping centres, plazas and even gas stations.
While Ismail feels that the government should allow film exhibitors the choice of screening non-Pakistani productions, he fully understands that the government is not the only hurdle to his freedom. He recalls receiving a phone call from an angry militant immediately after a bomb exploded in his cinema about a decade ago. “I was warned of dire consequences if I did not stop spreading ‘vulgarity’ by showing ‘indecent’ movies in my cinema,” he recalls. “Even a film showing a woman with her head uncovered is unacceptable to them. These people have their own definitions of morality.”
No joint venture?
Still, important figures in the Pakistani film industry are worried about the government’s new permissiveness in allowing crossborder joint ventures. One Pakistani director (who wishes not to be named) alleges that, once the door to joint production is opened, Indian producers will flood the market on the basis of Pakistani front men. The director worries about the eventual capture of the Pakistani market by Indian players, at the cost of the domestic film industry.
During the last week of June, film producer Younas Malik filed a petition in the Lahore High Court against the screening of Awarapan. He contended that the film is not truly a joint venture, and that it violates sections of both Pakistan’s Constitution and Film Censorship Act, which proscribes anything “derogatory to the moral standards of Pakistani society”. Ghous Qadri, a Pakistani producer and a close associate of Sohail Khan, dismisses Malik’s contention that there is anything wrong with the values expressed in Awarapan. The film, he says, is about a person who initially does not believe in God, but comes to do so over time. Moreover, he points out that all of the singers involved are Pakistani, and that the film was shot in Bangkok, Moscow, Hong Kong and around Pakistan – not a single scene was filmed in India. “How can one say it’s not a joint venture?” he asks. The High Court has now asked the Censor Board chairman to appear before it, to explain the grounds on which the film was cleared for public exhibition. “We are hopeful that the court will dismiss the petition,” says Qadri.
Critics say that the Censor Board’s policies are too vague and all-inclusive. The Board’s codes stipulate that no material will be allowed that:
glorifies adultery, promiscuousness, lustful passion, lewdness or excessive drinking; presents scenes of rape, sexual acts, perversion, abortion, childbirth and surgical operation, beyond the limits of decency and the unavoidable demands of the plot; contains dialogues, songs, speeches, dances, jokes or gestures that are obviously vulgar, obscene or indecent; displays the living human figure in the nude or indecorous clothing in an obviously licentious manner with the intent to provoke lustful passion; displays dances showing indecent or vulgar movements or passions; glorifies vice, crime, violence, black-marketing, smuggling, bribery, corruption or any other social evil.
These stipulations can be interpreted in a number of ways. The problem arises when extremists (in or out of the government) attempt to impose their own definitions of morality on them. When this happens, next to anything can be declared against Islam, national security or foreign policy. (Ammtoje Mann’s Kaafila, a film about human smuggling, has recently been denied approval for release by the Censor Board. There are rumours that the Pakistani military had declared the film ‘anti-national’, and pressured the Board’s members. For its part, the Censor Board contends that the film showed a Pakistani general in a negative light.)
The debate about Awarapan was also not restricted to Pakistan, however. Protests unexpectedly broke out against the film in Pune on 7 July. Members of some Muslim groups condemned the scene in which the Muslim heroine embraces the Hindu hero immediately after saying her prayers. One of the songs in the film also raised hackles – a line from which may be translated as “you are like a temple and a mosque to me.” In Pakistan, however, where public protests were most expected, there were none. This was probably in part due to the fact that much extremist attention was diverted from the film to the operation at the Lal Masjid.
Fortuitousness of its timing or otherwise, the fact remains that an India-Pakistan joint production was successfully released in Pakistan this July. The operational ease with which screenings of Awarapan have proceeded has been encouraging to producers of other joint-venture films currently in the making. For his part, Mahesh Bhatt is on his way to make a film based on Pakistani author Fauzia Saeed’s book Taboo, about the red-light area of Lahore. Indeed, there is now real hope that the door to filmi cooperation, shut for too long, will hereafter remain open.