By Minu Jain*
One man, seven, maybe eight minutes of screen time and a society in thrall. It is a measure of the fraught equation between two neighbouring nations, bound by history, culture and animus, that Pakistani actor Fawad Khan and his very brief role in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil should have become the touchstone of frenzied patriotism for self-proclaimed nationalists on the Indian side of the border.
That the actor’s fleeting presence in the film, which released this week and is reportedly well on its way to becoming a hit, evoked barely any response from audiences other than a stupefied “is that it?” is further evidence of the Kafkaesque edge to anything, even the most minor of issues, related to India and Pakistan.
Because the clamour for action against the film – along with the still-in-the-making Raees starring another Pakistani actor Mahira Khan – should be as minor an issue as it can get given the troubled trough that the two countries again find themselves in. With LoC strikes, civilians being killed, allegations of soldiers being mutilated and six Pakistan High Commission staffers, including at least four diplomats, being recalled, this is a treadmill of ceaseless tension from which there’s no getting off.
Incidentally, and unnoticed by those same self-proclaimed nationalists, another Pakistani actor, Imran Abbas, slipped scrutiny with a brief role in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Clearly, some more homework needed to be done!
So, Lahore became Lucknow, the roles of DJ Ali (Fawad Khan) and Dr Faisal Ali (Imran Abbas) were cut to size, references to some of the main characters being Pakistani were reportedly edited out and the film began with filmmaker Karan Johar putting in a disclaimer honouring the Indian soldier.
Finally, however, it’s not just about Johar’s entreaties, his promise that “going forward” he will not work with Pakistani artistes or Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis intervening to broker peace with the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) that had threatened to stall the screening, it’s about how tenuous the relationship actually is. And how quick we are to attack the cultural cement that keeps it together. Cultural contacts have been outsourced to right-wing groups on both sides with the state looking on mutely or, as in Fadnavis’s case, actively aiding and abetting them.
Quite like a crème brulee, with a hard crust that cracks open at the touch of a spoon to reveal the trembling custard underneath, peace between India-Pakistan is an uneasy, brittle affair, carefully built over decades of hostility and multiple wars and giving way far too easily to expose tensions and dissensions.
The attack on the Indian Army camp in Uri that killed 18 soldiers, followed by India’s surgical strikes, which triggered this latest crisis is but one chapter in the continual chafing that has eroded any and all attempts at stability and lasting peace between the nuclear armed neighbours.
The cultural core should be the quiet centre, one that should be maintained given the high stakes involved and the millions of people on either side. Instead, it is the softest target for bullies like the MNS and their like who conflate patriotism with heightened jingoism. Johar agreeing to pay Rs.5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund might be a noble gesture but nothing can hide the fact that he was coerced into making it to ensure a hassle-free release of his film – being shot last year just about when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dropped in unannounced to Raiwind to greet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday.
That things could have gone from that bonhomie to this in the space of just a few months is indicative of the Pakistan-India equation itself. It’s always been a yin and yang, of bewildering contrasts and mood swings. The distinction between the state and the people, between terrorists and the people, between jingoistic right-wing groups and the people must be made.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ghulam Ali, Saadat Hasan Manto here and Lata Mangeshkar, Dilip Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan there… the cultural pulls of language, cinema and music are too many and too varied to be controlled. But this is one connect that is constantly being undermined. If the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) banned Indian television shows, Pakistani singers Atif Aslam and Shafqat Amanat Ali cancelled their concerts, Zindagi, a channel showing hugely popular Pakistani serials shifted track to Indian soaps only, Mumbai’s MAMI festival dropped the Pakistani film Jaago Hua Savera and the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) this year apparently has not a single entry from Pakistan.
Of course, this is an internet-abled world of Whatsapp, YouTube and Facebook. There is little to stop you from tuning into Coke Studio Pakistan, watching the latest Pakistani serial or a Ghulam Ali concert. The cultural browbeaters might do well to note this.
In all this, Pakistan and India quietly played a Champions Trophy hockey match in Malaysia last week, though Pakistani umpire Aleem Dar was withdrawn from ICC’s panel on security grounds ahead of the Test series with England in India.
Curiously, business ties have stayed untouched. India continues to give Pakistan ‘most favoured nation’ status though it has not got that in return (a change in the otherwise tit-for-tat relationship); and neither the 2001 Parliament attack nor the 26/11 terror strike hindered trade – India’s exports to Pakistan are valued at an impressive $2.17 billion.
And, of course, the Samjhauta Express continues as does the Lahore-Delhi bus as families split during Partition continue to reach out to each other, for weddings and funerals, festivals and pilgrimages.
In this fractured, difficult to assemble jigsaw, the Fawad Khans of the subcontinent must be encouraged not shunned. For peace, prosperity and understanding. That is the reality of India-Pakistan, forever connected in a hyphenated relationship, as neighbours through a shared past and present. The hyphen really can’t go anywhere.
*Minu Jain is a senior journalist and commentator. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]