By 2016, Pakistan emerged among the top five overseas markets for Bollywood films, which fuelled a multiplex boom in that country and also helped revive a comatose Pakistani movie industry
Indian films remained a forbidden fruit for Bollywood-hungry Pakistani fans for 42 years before Pakistan bowed to public pressure and lifted a ban on them in 2006. Almost two generations grew up without watching Indian films legally in that country after they were banned in the aftermath of the 1965 India-Pakistan war.
Pakistan hoped the ban would be a win-win situation and benefit the local industry. It, though, turned out to be a double-edged sword. The ban set a rot in the Pakistani film industry, which began making rip-offs of Bollywood films in the absence of any serious competition.
The quality of local films continued to dip. A lack of originality would eventually put off the middle classes while ingenious Pakistanis found ways of getting around the ban.
The introduction of VHS tapes in the 1980s sounded a death knell for the Pakistani film industry. Pakistan would soon become a thriving market for pirated Bollywood films. The middle classes now watched better-quality Indian films within the comforts of their homes.
For Pakistani journalist Farah Zia, the VCR was almost ‘a revolutionary statement against the state-owned censored PTV—an open secret of the entire society.’ She wrote the privileged owned it, the less privileged rented it over weekends and holidays, and those like them who could not do both went secretly to people’s houses and watched Indian films mostly.
It was a lose-lose situation for both countries. Pakistan lost a major chunk of potential tax revenue and Bollywood perhaps potentially its second-largest market.
Military ruler General Pervez Musharraf realised the futility of the ban in the noughties and saw the dual benefit of overturning it. It would strengthen a peace process he helmed with India and provide a much-needed revenue source, which was otherwise lost to underground piracy.
Rather than insist on implementing the United Nations resolutions for a referendum in Kashmir, Musharraf was at the time proposing a withdrawal of troops and joint control of the contested territory.
The general, who has been seen dancing to the tunes of Bollywood films, chose to earn some brownie points and ordered the long-overdue lifting of the ban on Indian films in 2006.
Pakistan’s biggest film distributor, Satish Anand, was roped in to set the ball rolling. Anand, a close relative of Bollywood actor Juhi Chawla was quoted saying that he was told Musharraf was committed to rescinding the ban, which was also expected to ‘create a conducive environment for confidence-building measures with India.’
Desired results followed. Indian films turned out to be a magnet that drew Pakistani middle classes back to cinema halls. Bollywood films revived the cinema-going culture, bringing in revenue, and increasing the demand for better content.
A multiplex boom followed. A part of the proceeds went into reviving a comatose Pakistani cinema industry. For once, the two countries built a symbiotic relationship.
Numbers spoke for themselves. By 2016, Pakistan emerged among the top five overseas Bollywood markets. A record 200 Indian movies were screened in the country that year. From none in 2007, the number of multiplexes went up to 100 in 2016.
Actor Sanjay Dutt’s 2018 biopic Sanju grossed more (Rs 66 crore) in Pakistan than the country’s highest-earning 2017 film Punjab Nahi Jaungi (Rs 51.65 crore).
2013 was a great year for Bollywood films in Pakistan. Their success along with that of local movies proved they could coexist on screen. Pakistani censors cleared Dhoom 3 in 2013 without cuts and the film smashed all box-office records. It turned out to be the biggest Bollywood release in Pakistan ever, collecting a record Rs 1.90 crore on the first day of screening.
Chennai Express, the last major release before Dhoom 3, earned Rs 90 lakh while Waar, then Pakistan’s most successful film, earned Rs 1.1 crore at the box office on day one.
Cable networks earlier would, in any case, show Bollywood films; their DVDs flooded Pakistani markets as soon as they were released. Piracy is banned in Pakistan but the law against it has never been implemented strictly.
Authorities saw no reason for a crackdown; the piracy appeared only to hurt Indian business interests, at least on the surface. The underground market was, however, eating into the revenue; a part of which should have gone into Pakistani coffers.
A jointly produced cross-border film, Nazar, in 2005 contributed to positive atmospherics to pave the way for the release of the first Indian movie in four decades, Mughal-e-Azam, the following year.
Indian culture minister Ambika Soni led a delegation of Indian actors such as Shatrughan Sinha, who attended the film’s premieres in Lahore and Karachi, which got wall-to-wall media coverage. Local TV networks vied to interview the Indian stars flown in for the premieres.
The Pakistan Film Producers Association and the Cinema Owners Association were the prime movers in building pressure on the government to overturn the ban on Bollywood films as running cinemas was no longer a viable business option.
The cinemas before the revival of cine-going culture were being razed and converted into shopping malls. As many as 1,300 cinema halls screened 300 movies in the 1970s. The number was down to 270 in 2005.
Back To Square One
Just 18 locally-made films were produced in 2004. They were not enough to keep the cinemas functional and the industry afloat. It was a matter of survival. The ban on Bollywood films had to be overturned only to be rescinded as tensions between the two countries spills over into the arts again over a decade later.
Blockbuster Pakistani movie The Legend of Maula Jatt was set to become the first Pakistani movie to be released in India in over a decade on December 30, 2022, raising hopes of resumption of cultural exchanges between the two countries. But it was not to be. The release was indefinitely postponed in the face of threats from far-right groups.