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Once more, Bollywood is caught up in a Kashmir crisis

Tauseef Mustafa, AFP

Following the recent escalation of tensions over Kashmir, Pakistan has banned Indian films – which are very popular in the country – in a familiar reaction to a crisis that has pitched the two countries into conventional and cultural wars.

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The crisis over the disputed region of Kashmir reached Pakistani cinemas last month when Islamabad banned the screening of Indian films after New Delhi conducted air raids into Pakistani territory.

“No Indian film will be broadcast in Pakistan,” the country’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry announced on Twitter weeks ago, before Pakistan’s Film Exhibitors Association confirmed the boycott of all Indian productions.

Then on Twitter, the famous Indian actor Ajay Devgan announced that “in light of the current situation”, his latest blockbuster, “Total Dhamaal”, will not be released in Pakistan.

Nevertheless, India’s Hindi-language movies -- dubbed “Bollywood” films -- are extremely popular in Pakistan. “India produces the largest number of films in the world and people in all South Asian countries are watching Bollywood productions, especially in Pakistan because Hindi and Urdu are so closely related as to be mutually intelligible,” said Ingrid Therwath, an India specialist and journalist at French weekly, Le Courrier International.

Bollywood productions comprise 60 percent of the films watched in Pakistan, according to Rafay Mahmood, a journalist for the Pakistani daily, The Express Tribune.

‘Bollywood cinema can sometimes be ultra-nationalist’

To fill the vacuum generated by the boycott of Bollywood films – which Pakistan’s cinema sector relies on for 70 percent of its income – Cinepax, Pakistan’s largest network of cinemas, was forced to screen old Pakistani films while selling tickets at discounted prices to attract audiences.

This boycott of Indian films in Pakistan is nothing new, Therwath noted. A similar boycott was put in place after the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. It lasted for four decades – and the upshot was that many of the country’s cinemas ended up being turned into shopping centres or wedding halls.

“Bollywood cinema can sometimes be ultra-nationalist or anti-Pakistani,” said Therwath, referring in particular to the 1997 war film “Border”, which focuses on the battle of Longewala in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.

The roots of this tendency date back to the nation’s independence from colonial rule, when British India was split between a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan, suggested film scholar Carlo Celli in the study “National Identity in Global Cinema”. “In the early post-British period…the tensions surrounding identity were enormous,” noted Celli, and Bollywood films “tended to promote a Hindu nationalist message.”

A ‘surgical strike’ up the top grossing list

As fiction mirrors reality, Kashmir -- a region claimed by both India and Pakistan and the cause of several conflicts and skirmishes since 1947 -- has frequently been a subject for Bollywood film-makers.

The latest such film, “Uri: The Surgical Strike,” tells the story of a 2016 Indian military raid in Pakistani-administered Kashmir in retaliation for an attack on an Indian military base, which killed 19 soldiers. The movie was released in January 2019, just weeks before a February 14 attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed 40 Indian security officials -- a timing that contributed to the film’s rapid rise up the highest grossing Bollywood films list.

For his part, it seems that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who has been accused of politicising the recent Kashmir crisis – is keen to instrumentalise the popularity of this film as his Hindu nationalist BJP party prepares for general elections to be held between April 11 and May 19.

On Wednesday morning, he tagged Bollywood actors Ranveer Singh and Vicky Kaushal in a tweet, using dialogue from “Uri: The Surgical Strike” to implore them to encourage young people to vote: "It is time to tell them [the youth]: Apna Time Aa Gaya Hai [our time has come] and that it is time to turn up with high Josh [fervour] to a voting centre near you."

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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