From Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor to Shah Rukh Khan and Ranveer Singh, Indian film stars have ruled hearts in both India and Pakistan but only a handful enjoyed the level of adulation that Madhuri Dixit did across the divide
Blockbuster Pakistani movie The Legend of Maula Jatt’s screening has been indefinitely postponed in India in the face of threats from far-right groups. It was set to become the first Pakistani movie to be released in India in over a decade on December 30, raising hopes of resumption of cultural exchanges between the two countries after years of hostile ties.
Director Bilal Lashari’s movie, which has become the highest-grossing Pakistani film ever and amassed over $10 million since its worldwide release in October, was set to be screened in Indian Punjab and Delhi, Indian multiplexes chain INOX Leisure announced.
Another multiplex chain PVR Cinemas, too, announced the release of the movie before taking down the announcement from its website.
The film features Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan, whose Bol was the last Pakistani movie to be released in India in 2011. The two worked in Indian films before tensions escalated between the two countries and Pakistani stars stopped getting roles in India.
Ameya Khopkar, a leader of the Hindu nationalist Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, called Fawad Khan’s Indian fans traitors and said they may go to Pakistan and watch his film while vowing to stall its screening in India
Pakistani films, dramas, and music have remained popular in India. But cultural exchanges have become increasingly difficult since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) returned to power in 2014.
Pakistani singers Ali Sethi and Shae Gill’s song Pasoorion on the Coke Studio platform was among the most streamed songs on Spotify India. Joyland, Pakistan’s latest nomination for the Oscars, was successfully screened at India’s Dharamshala International Film Festival in November, highlighting the continuing potential of art as a unifier.
Art has been among the few common grounds between the two countries; a glue that bound them together even in the worst of times. From Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor to Shah Rukh Khan and Ranveer Singh, Indian film stars have ruled hearts on both sides of the border.
Pakistani melody queen Noor Jahan was loved in India as much as she was feted in Pakistan. Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hasan, Nazia Hasan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Fawad Khan, and Mahira Khan followed in her footsteps to prove that art knows no boundaries.
Only a handful, however, enjoyed the level of adulation that Madhuri Dixit did across both sides of the divide. Madhuri first smiled her way into millions of hearts in the 1980s. Her first film, Abodh, was a disaster. The trend continued.
Madhuri’s next seven movies tanked at the box office. The tide began to turn for her with Tezaab, the highest-grossing film of 1988. There was no looking back after that. Madhuri went from strength to strength to grow in stature which not many have achieved.
Her salary equaled that of her male colleagues. Filmmakers could risk making female-centric movies revolving around her. Her USP: success did not shake her strong middle-class moorings. Madhuri’s image as a grounded, graceful and level-headed star persisted.
She continues to rule hearts long after fading away from the silver screen. Her popularity in Pakistan too remains undiminished. In a June 2013 article, one of Pakistan’s best-known newspapers, Dawn, gushed about Madhuri’s ‘dazzling and disarming smile’, which she ‘quite literally patented’ and honed ‘into an art form.’
Her appeal, the article concluded, ‘spans across geographical boundaries and multiple generations in South Asia and in South Asian communities abroad. Immortalized in celluloid, Madhuri’s timeless beauty and charm will resonate with her fans as long as films continue to grab the public’s imagination.’
Express Tribune, another Pakistani daily, carried a special feature on Madhuri’s 47th birthday in May 2014. It recalled how she took Bollywood by storm. ‘The viewers were smitten by her elegance, her unparalleled dancing skills and most of all, her beauty.’
Madhuri remains the girl next door Pakistanis can identify with. Her simplicity, charm, modesty, and natural beauty dovetailed with the traditional gender norms and inspired a generation of actors. For Mahira Khan, Pakistan’s best-known actress, Madhuri is her devi or goddess. She began eating, sleeping, and breathing, acting as a child after seeing Madhuri in her movie, Ram Lakhan (1989).
Such remains the Indian diva’s popularity that Pakistani filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat asked Mahira not to return home without meeting Madhuri when she first visited India.
Madhuri managed to unite India and Pakistan in the middle of one of the worst phases in their ties. Her wedding in November 1999 perhaps got more media coverage than any of her superhits ever did. It hit international headlines; virtually no report about the wedding missed the perspective on Madhuri’s fan following in Pakistan.
The nuptials were the closest to an up in a series of downs in India–Pakistan ties. Just six months prior to the event, in May 1999, Pakistani incursions into the strategic Himalayan heights in Kargil sparked a war and global concerns about a possible nuclear conflagration.
Prime Minister Vajpayee saw the incursion as a ‘personal betrayal’, having invested much political capital in his engagement with Pakistan. Madhuri’s wedding, however, was a betrayal of a different kind. It was made of the stuff of a peacenik’s dreams; it united.
In The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg wrote that ‘a sense of betrayal to millions of South Asian men’ was so great ‘that it was as if they had been jilted at the altar.’
An editorial in the Times of India echoed Goldenberg: ‘To say Ms Dixit has broken every male heart in the country—not to mention Pakistan and the South Asian diaspora—is to render prosaic an attachment so profound that it is at once real and imaginary, intimate and public.’
Goldenberg provided the context. She wrote Madhuri was ‘equally beloved by Pakistani fans, who used to joke that they would willingly give up their claim on Kashmir in return for Madhuri.’
In the middle of the Kargil war, the story goes, a Pakistani soldier shouted at the top of his voice. He sought the attention of the Indian soldiers he was in the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with amid artillery barrages. They will leave Kashmir, the Pakistani soldier offered, but only ‘if Indians give them Madhuri’.
It turned out to be a dying wish. Far from responding in kind, the Indian soldiers shot him dead. ‘With love, from Madhuri.’
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide