India and Pakistan may be intransigently hostile nuclear-armed enemies, but their peoples tend to enjoy some of the same cultural pursuits. For one thing, Pakistanis have an insatiable appetite for Bollywood films, those frothy, romantic musicals with happy endings that have hundreds of millions of Indians in a vise grip.
Bollywood Life reported that a new film called “Dhoom 3” from India is breaking box-office records across the border in Pakistan, setting a new peak for the highest gross receipts on its opening day last month. Starring Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan (a Muslim with a large following in Pakistan), “Dhoom 3,” a crime caper, racked up ticket sales of 20 million Pakistani rupees across more than 50 screens in the city of Karachi alone on its opening day. Some theaters and multiplexes in Pakistan are showing the film five times daily to meet the huge demand from the public. (These figures may not sound impressive to Americans, but the average price of a movie ticket in Pakistan ranges from Rs150 to Rs350).
The Indian film has replaced Pakistan’s own popular “Waar,” last year’s blockbuster, for having the biggest opening week in the country. ("Dhoom 3" has since become the highest-grossing Indian film in history, with a worldwide box office of at least $81.8 million, $56.8 million of that in India itself, reported Variety). The film also set opening records for an Indian film in the U.S., U.K. and Australia.
“Waar grossed 11.4 million [Pakistani rupees] on its opening day, but Dhoom 3 has surpassed that by a large margin,” said Nadeem Mandviwalla, a top Pakistani exhibitor and distributor. “There is no doubt that Dhoom 3 has been a massive hit, and the reason for this is clearly Aamir Khan and the pre-release publicity for the film.” Abdul Haq, manager of the Capri Cinema in Karachi, gushed: “There is great interest in the film and we are getting audiences of all ages and sexes.”
Pakistan's theater owners are likely wondering if Dhoom 3 can break the all-time record for aggregate box-office takings – currently held by "Chennai Express" (an Indian romantic comedy), which has so far grossed at least 100 million Pakistani rupees.
According to Indian media, Dhoom 3 was cleared by the Pakistani censor board without a single cut before its official release in the country, a good sign for Mumbai-based filmmakers. Pakistani Internet users also have a voracious appetite for Indian entertainment news. India Times reported that Google users in Pakistan seek out an enormous amount of information on Indian film and television content, according to the top search terms detected in the country in 2013.
Irfan Ashraf, a Pakistani-based journalist, said he is not surprised by the popularity of Indian movies in the country, given the similarities in culture and language. “[The] common man in Pakistan wants entertainment and, therefore, Indian movies provide them with a source of getting away from the [mundane] routines of life,” he said in an interview. “Cinema owners in Pakistan understand this aspect of the political economy of [the] media and therefore [most of these] owners wants Indian movies, although a few among the local movie producers, directors would always be resist [Indian content].”
However, the release of "Dhoom 3" (or any such product from India) in Pakistan raises a raft of thorny and confusing legal questions. Consider that last month, the Lahore High Court prohibited the exhibition of “illegally” imported films, a ruling that applied to Bollywood fare. Lahore High Court Justice Khalid Mahmood Khan ruled that Indian films and television programs were included in the “negative list” for products that cannot be traded under the two nations' bilateral trade regime. The Lahore Court actually reinstated a ban on Indian films and TV programs that has been lifted in 2006 by former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf.
But, in the same court, a petition filed by Pakistani television talk-show host named Mubashir Lucman seeking to ban Indian films was withdrawn last month, according to the DNA news agency of India. Lucman, himself a former film producer and a controversial figure in Pakistan for his stridently anti-Indian views, cited that the importation of Indian films and TV serials violated Pakistani laws and regulations. Lucman's attorneys also argued that the exhibition of Indian films violated the rules of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority. According to Rashed Rahman, editor of the Pakistani Daily Times in Lahore, Lucman agreed to withdraw the petition after he reached a compromise with the Pakistan Cinema Owners’ Association and film distributors under which cinemas in Pakistan must share screen time for both Indian and Pakistani films equally.
Bollywood producer Mahesh Bhatt told Indian media that the Lahore petition invoked an old law from 1965 that essentially banned films produced in India from being screened anywhere in Pakistan. “When General Pervez Musharraf came to power, he took a soft line and did not insist on strict implementation of the law [as a result of] which Hindi [language] films were shown in Pakistani cinema halls,” Bhatt told DNA. “I am planning to ask the Indian film producers guild to write to [Pakistan's current] Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to take a liberal stand and ensure that Hindi [language] films are allowed a free run in his country. Sharif himself loves Hindi films.”
Still, the legality of publicly showing Indian films in Pakistan remains cloudy. The Hollywood Reporter noted that some kind of ban or other on Indian films has been in place since 1965 (in the wake of an Indo-Pakistani war); however, Pakistanis eagerly consume Bollywood content via pirated videos. Musharraf eased such restrictions in 2006, allowing for a boom in film rentals, although the prohibition remained in the books. Since 2007, when a sports caper movie called "Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal" was officially released in Pakistan, Bollywood has rung up hit after hit in the country – including even the 2010 comedy "Tere Bin Laden" ("Without You, Bin Laden"), which took a light-hearted look at the search for the al Qaeda chief (obviously, an extremely controversial and sensitive topic in Pakistan).
However, one Indian movie that did roil Pakistani censors and government officials was "Agent Vinod," a spy thriller that depicted Pakistanis helping the Taliban in Afghanistan and even concocting a plot to detonate a nuclear bomb in Delhi. (It was quickly banned by authorities.) “'Agent Vinod' is for Indians, but it is not against Pakistanis,” the film’s lead actor and co-producer, Saif Ali Khan, said at the time. “But I understand if they [Pakistan] get upset because we are beating them up quite often in the film.”
Bollywood, of course, has its own incentives for seeking to expand the Pakistani entertainment market to allow more Indian product, but producer Bhatt noted that given the widespread popularity of Indian films and movies in Pakistan, complete export legality would destroy the smuggling industry in videos and DVDs and benefit both nations.
But other voices in Pakistan object to the exhibition of Indian movies in the country for reasons that have nothing to do with trade. The Daily Bhaskar newspaper of India reported that some Pakistani military figures worry that the popularity of Bollywood films – particularly those that advocate friendship and warmth between Hindus and Muslims – threaten Pakistan’s stability.
The so-called Secret Green Book, an apparently classified publication designed for the operational commanders of the Pakistani Army, claimed that the Indian government is using Bollywood films as a form of “psychological warfare” against Pakistan by, among other things, undermining the "Two Nation Theory" proposed by Pakistani’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Major-General Shaukat Iqbal of Pakistan’s army wrote in 2011 that this is a form of propaganda which is related to India’s close ties to the U.S. – i.e., that Bollywood films are designed to "tame" and "weaken" Pakistan, rendering the Islamic nation as a “colonized state” serving the interests and dictates of both Delhi and Washington.
Meanwhile, since the ban on Indian films in Pakistan remains ambiguous, piracy of Bollywood videos will likely continue, given the huge demand in the country. “Piracy will become even more rampant in Pakistan, with the banning of Bollywood,” the chief executive officer of Indian production house Balaji Telefilms, Tanuj Garg, tweeted. “Look at the irony. Pakistani talent aspire to be in our movies. The very movies that are a banned commodity in their country.”
Of course, Bollywood would clearly love to show more movies in Pakistan, a country with a large population that already has a great fondness for its product. With 1,000 films produced annually (about double Hollywood’s output), Bollywood is the world’s most prolific cinema factory. According to the DI International Business Development (DIBD), a consulting unit of the Confederation of Danish Industry, Bollywood generated revenues of $3-billion in 2011 – this figure has been growing by 10 percent a year. By 2016, revenue is expected to reach $4.5 billion. Bollywood gross receipts have almost tripled since 2004.
Ashraf holds out hope that India and Pakistan may find some common ground by enjoying the same forms of entertainment. “I believe that culture is the only ground on which both the countries can work together to defeat the hawks and extremist elements and build a bridge of long lasting relationship,” he said. “Bollywood so far has served this cause very well and hope that [any] political confrontation between Pakistan and India would be minimized in the future due to cultural cooperation.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.