Films of Pakistan and India wage war by celluloid
for decades, Indian and Pakistani movie audiences have demanded basically one kind of film: sweet, song-and-dance tales of star-crossed lovers who somehow live happily ever after.
But there has been a noticeably darker movie formula in recent years, and two of the biggest films in each country today speak volumes about how these South Asian neighbors see each other.
Consider the current Indian blockbuster "Gadar: Ek Prem Katha" (literally, "Commotion: a Love Story"). It's a Romeo-and-Juliet tale of a Sikh boy and a Muslim girl who fall in love in India during the bloody Partition period of 1947, a time when Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan were separated by the stroke of a British pen. The Muslim girl travels to Pakistan to visit her parents, and her Sikh husband follows her there and fights off the Pakistani Army to get her back.
In Pakistan, meanwhile, the latest hit is "Tere Pyar Main" ("Your Love is Mine"). In its plot, set in modern times, a Muslim boy falls for a Sikh girl who is visiting Lahore. He follows her back to India, but is branded a Pakistani spy and must fight off the entire Indian Army to bring his girl back to Pakistan.
Two films don't make a trend, of course, especially if they are flops. But films that make the amount of money these two have - Gadar could become the top-grossing Indian film of all time - can be indicators of public attitudes on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border.
Some film critics say audiences in both India and Pakistan are simply hungry for something more meaningful than the usual syrupy romance. Others say filmgoers are seeking a kind of catharsis, particularly at a time when the decade-long Muslim separatist movement in Kashmir has killed 34,000 and brought India and Pakistan repeatedly to the brink of war. But whatever the reasons, film buffs from Karachi to Calcutta are likely to see many more war films in coming months.
"Patriotism was always there in the movies, but even 15 years ago, you could not name Pakistan as the enemy. It was always the neighboring country that was the one causing trouble," says Shubhra Gupta, a film critic for the Indian Express newspaper in New Delhi.
Censorship rules have loosened over the years, allowing many Indian films to specifically name Pakistan as an instigator. But the driving force for the current spate of political movies is the changing public mood, says Ms. Gupta.
"People have grown away from these bubble-gum romances that were dreamed up by some airhead," she says. "What do the people of India see in everyday life? They fight wars, they don't have enough to eat. So the mainstream movie industry is being forced to look into more meaningful subjects."
Such meaningful movie subjects can spark occasional communal unrest, including riots inside and outside of cinema halls. But filmmakers in the Pakistani cultural capital of Lahore argue that their movies simply provide what people have always wanted: entertainment.
It is in Lahore, jokingly called "Lollywood," where the virulently patriotic film "Tere Pyar Main" was produced. While the 200 million rupee ($3,123,000) Pakistani film industry is dwarfed by the 2 billion rupee ($42,500,000) Indian film industry, Lollywood still has a powerful effect on Pakistani society, particularly on the working-class folks who fill this country's run-down cinema halls.
Sajjad Gul, owner of Pakistan's largest film studio, Evernew, in Lahore, says that no film could make money if it were simply political.
"Ever since the inception of the film industry in Lahore, there have been only three subjects: women, money, and land," says Mr. Gul, whose company released the political thriller, "Tere Pyar Main."
"I think the reason 'Gadar' is doing so well is because it was a good movie," says Gul. "Even 'Tere Pyar Main,' it's an excellent movie by our standards. And it is essentially a love story."
Indeed, the most striking difference between "Gadar" and "Tere Pyar Main" is not just their respective budgets and song-and-dance sequences, but their tone. In the Indian film "Gadar," the only positive Muslim character is a longtime friend of the hero; all others, including the heroine's Muslim family in Pakistan, are stridently anti-Indian. The Pakistani film "Tere Pyar Main," is tame by comparison. Most of the Indian characters are sympathetic. The lone exception is Narayan, a jealous childhood friend of the heroine who is now an Indian soldier based in - surprise! - Kashmir.
On a dusty backlot at Bahri Studios in Lahore, director Syed Noor admits that Pakistani audiences are demanding more films that paint India in a negative light. But he explains that Pakistani censorship rules specifically forbid Pakistan-based filmmakers from making anti-Indian films.
"I'm going to make movies about India and Pakistan, and also love stories, but I try to give a solution. Why this hesitation and bad reaction about each other?" says Mr. Noor, taking a break from filming "Behram Daku" (Behram the Thug), a low-budget action movie about a criminal gang in the wilds of Pakistan.
Babar Ali, a handsome young superstar with a sinister role in Noor's film, says he has seen a change in the kinds of movies being made in Pakistan. Whereas he once used to get many romantic leading roles, lately it's been thugs, ne'er-do-wells, and scoundrels.
"I'd say 98 percent of the movies are based on action these days," he sighs, while pasting on a Pancho-Villa-style mustache before his next scene.
But most Pakistani film critics note that the Pakistani film industry will always exist under the shadow of the larger Indian film industry, where the average cost of a single song-and-dance scene can be twice the budget of an entire Pakistani film. Indeed, even though Indian films are banned from being shown in Pakistan - as a way to protect the struggling Pakistani film industry - most Pakistanis end up seeing the latest Indian hits on pirated videotapes, which are often available the same week of their release in India.
"There once was a time when the Indian film industry stood for nonviolence, for secularism, peace and love; they stood for song and dance," says Pakistani film critic Sarwat Ali. But ever since the situation in Kashmir deteriorated, he says, the tone has changed.
India has made a string of blockbuster war films, from 'Border' to 'Refugee' to 'Mission Kashmir,' and now 'Gadar.' And Pakistan has responded with movies like 'International Guerrilla' and 'Tere Pyar Main.' "Some of them were rank propaganda, and very badly made. But I don't think any of these films did badly."