The Asian Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2001
Culture & Thought -- Culture Clash Two Countries, One Film Industry ---
Winning Wars Is Easy on the
By Salil Tripathi
The Asian Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
Even a Bollywood scriptwriter with an overactive imagination could not have
thought of a plot like this: A boy is born in India and at the tender age
of four finds the country torn apart. He moves with his family to the new
nation of Pakistan, and after many years rises to become the chief of its
Cut to 1999, as he cunningly deploys his troops into Indian Kashmir risking
a nuclear war, even as his elected prime minister is hosting his Indian counterpart
in Lahore. Months later he stages a coup and takes over as the leader of
First he becomes chief executive but later settles for the more conventional
title of president. Towards the climax, he embarks on a make-or-break summit
meeting with the same Indian prime minister in Agra, the romantic city of
Taj Mahal, home of the famous marble mausoleum built by a Muslim emperor
for his dead wife.
The Taj Mahal's symbolism is important. Princess Diana, that astute judge
of tabloid sensibilities, understood that when she posed looking forlorn
and brooding at the monument, sending home the message that her marriage
with Prince Charles was faltering. As the leaders of India and Pakistan sat
down to discuss their differences in the glow of the Taj, they wanted some
of its romantic symbolism to rub off on them. Indian Prime Minister Atal
Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan's self-appointed President Gen. Pervez Musharaff
(the four-year-old boy who left India and rose to lead Pakistan in our story),
wanted to send a different message to their people: that they can work together.
Political pundits analyzed each gesture and nuance, and dissected each word
said and unsaid at the
summit. But if matters had been left in the hands of Bollywood, perhaps the
only business loved by -- and
financed by -- the people of both countries, the two leaders would have found
that they were long-lost
brothers and broken into a melodious song with the Taj as the backdrop amid
hugs, tears and smiles.
The reality, as the bloody history of the two countries shows, is sadder,
incomplete and more complicated. But since when has Bollywood had anything
to do with reality? Bollywood is popular
cinema at its best, and it is remarkably accurate in measuring the mood of
the subcontinent's masses. In
fact it is no stranger in exploiting the emotive appeal of the Taj Mahal.
In the current superhit running to packed houses in India, "Gadar Ek Prem
Katha," set during the tumultuous period of the Partition, a small model
of the Taj Mahal unites the star-crossed lovers, a Sikh driver named Tara
Singh and a Muslim girl called Sakina.
The Partition is the burden the two countries must carry; it is the period
of madness in which about a million people may have died and another 12 million
displaced. It tore apart neighborhoods, communities,
relationships and families, including those of Gen. Musharaff and India's
hawkish home minister, Lal
Krishna Advani, who found themselves on the wrong side of the border. A way
of life ended.
Over the past half century, textbooks in Pakistan have emphasized the impossibility
of Muslims living
peacefully in a Hindu-dominated India. Textbooks in India glossed over India's
admittedly poor record of
protecting the minorities. In the last four years, in that vacuum, where
many uncomfortable truths remained unsaid, Bollywood has stepped in. Since
1997, the year India and Pakistan celebrated their
50th anniversary, Bollywood's producers have consciously turned to films
dealing with Pakistan.
"Refugee" dealt with lovers caught on the wrong side of the fence. "Border"
was about a war in which,
naturally, a small platoon of Indian soldiers pushed back a massive force
of Pakistani aggressors, and
won. In "Mission Kashmir," Indian security forces battled hardened, cynical
extremist forces bent upon
destroying India's unity. "Sarfarosh" tackled the growing problem of arms
smuggling from Pakistan and
the ensuing terrorism in India, and how an honest police officer dealt with
the mayhem. "Hey Ram!" was
about the communal violence around the Partition and the assassination of
India's founding father,
In each of these films, Pakistan, the politicians that championed its creation,
and the political class that now rules that country are demonized. Aamer
Husain, a London-based, Pakistan-born novelist who recently saw "Gadar Ek
Prem Katha," hoping to see sensitive treatment of the Partition, came away
disappointed. He said: "It has actually got about as much to do with history
as the Indiana Jones
But the masses that throng the cinema halls in India don't seem to care.
Shobha De, the popular
Bombay-based novelist and social commentator, points out: "After Kargil the
mood is definitely belligerent; the period of bhai-bhai (brotherhood) is
over." The zeitgeist in India, in fact, is arrogant and assertive, proud
and nationalistic, thumping to a loud, jingoistic beat. And the films present
unidimensional caricatures and a comic-book version of a far more complicated
reality. Suketu Mehta, a New York-based author who co-wrote "Mission Kashmir,"
acknowledged as one of the subtler films, says, "Bollywood has a very keen
barometer of the national mood. It follows the headlines. When there is hope
in the air between the two countries, when Vajpayee has just hopped on a
bus to Lahore or Musharaff is about to return to the havel (mansion) where
he was born, you'll see filmmakers rushing to put out products that can tap
into the great nostalgia all of us have for an undivided India. But when
there are terrorist outrages, when the normal border clashes escalate into
war, the theaters show films like `Sarfarosh.'"
Such jingoistic films were simply not possible a generation ago, even though
the Partition, and the
emotions it aroused were more fresh in the 1950s and 1960s. Popular films
from that era dealt with the
communal situation only by mouthing platitudes of Hindu-Muslim unity, often
scripted by leftist
screenwriters. Many of the filmmakers were refugees themselves but they were
unwilling or unable to
articulate their feelings about the horrors they had experienced.
Partition brought memories of shame and stirred recent wounds which hadn't
yet healed. The communal
issue was suppressed as India fought three wars with India in its first 25
years. Some Muslim actors who
remained in India -- Dilip Kumar and Jayant are the most famous examples
-- changed their names to Hindu names to gain wider acceptance in India.
The filmmakers in the early years of India's independence sought the romance
of love stories and
family dramas. As Urvashi Butalia, the social historian, notes in "The Other
Side of Silence," an
excellent collection of memories of that period, most of those who suffered
during the Partition found it impossible to confront their feelings. Few
mainstream films dealt with any of that.
One reason the older filmmakers could not take on the Partition was because
they were too close to the
events, according to Bapsi Sidhwa, the Pakistan-born American writer whose
novel "The Ice-Candy Man"
(published as "Cracking India" in America) inspired the film "Earth" by the
Canadian filmmaker Deepa
Mehta. Mr. Sidhwa explains that, "The older filmmakers were too awed by the
events to feel they could do justice. Many of them were directly affected
by the massive migrations and loss of property. The events surrounding Partition,
the greed, the kidnapping of women and the terrible vendettas it unleashed,
were food for much soul-searching and debate. Partition affected them too
deeply to subject to simplistic and partisan Bollywood representations."
But Bollywood has changed with India. The new generation is confident and
assertive; its swagger
comes from India's relative economic success and its emergence as a nuclear
power. Indians are able to
face up to their multicultural reality. Muslim actors now don't hide their
names. In fact, three of the biggest heartthrobs on the silver screen are
Muslims: Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan.
As this new post-independent Indian identity gains confidence, it wants to
win back what was lost. Mr.
Mehta adds: "Perhaps the younger generation wants to explore their parents'
trauma, redress historical
wrongs, take back the land that was lost." It is much harder to do so in
real life, as the negotiations between Gen. Musharaff and Mr. Vajpayee have
shown. So why not win the war clearly, simply and decisively on the silver
Mr. Tripathi, a former Southeast Asia correspondent at the Far Eastern Economic
Review, writes from