Pakistanis are among the biggest fans of Indian films but their feelings towards Bollywood productions that feature their country are a little more complicated. Most Indian films depicting Pakistan or featuring Pakistani characters are usually banned outright, as happened with Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider or Bajrangi Bhaijaan director Kabir Khan’s earlier film Ek Tha Tiger.
The traditional tensions between India and Pakistan – where even the fluttering in of pigeons from one side to the other sparks security alerts – mean little to Kabir Khan, who makes top ISI and IB spies fall in love (Ek Tha Tiger), give the top agencies the slip and live happily ever after (and hopefully add to the endangered Indo-Pak species).
In his latest offering, Kabir Khan lets Salman Khan, the biggest Bhai of Bollywood, perpetually high on oxytocin, cross over to enemy land while bypassing the rule book, only worrying over meaty matters such as what does one eat in a meat-eating country.
Bursting with empathy, Bajrangi, the quintessential Hanuman Bakht, finds himself on the other side of the Rajasthan border to help a speech-impaired Pakistani girl, who got left behind in India, reunite with her family.
It’s a dream crossover. Unlike lesser mortals, Bhai doesn’t have to spend sleepless nights worrying over the fate of his visa application – “will they, won’t they” – or having to encounter spy types to answer uncomfortable questions that could hurt his patriotism quotient, or having to bother about getting exemption from police reporting and wasting time at police stations on arrival and departure.
Of course, one has to ignore simple things, such as the little girl could have been handed over to the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi (after it had reopened) and the Being Human Bhaijaan could have been spared the ordeal of visiting a meat-eating land, or that if Bhai did not trust the Indo-Pakistan diplomats, he could have taken to the hyper-active social media.
Yet the spirit behind the movie, of peace, love and friendship, encouraging people to meet, makes you want to ignore the intrinsic flaws. Bhai rules supreme. If Bhai can cross over and melt people with his truthfulness and convictions, we too can dream of a dream cross over some day, maybe for a Lahori breakfast, or a peek into the Other Kashmir.
Realistic or not, the ever-optimistic Haider Khan, a chartered accountant in Lahore, loved the film.
“For a change Bajrangi Bhaijaan showed the humane side of Pakistanis. Ordinary people with real life problems and emotions. Not all are angry jihadi,” he said.
“For the conspiratorially minded, there was a message for the Pakistani masses to rise up and challenge the anti-India policies imposed by the military. People-power is stronger than the establishment,” he added.
Aneela Z Babar, who once called Pakistan home, and now divides her time working on gender, religion and popular culture, watched the first-day, first-show of “Calling Agent Hanuman Khan”.
Noting that she isn’t a member of “Team Salman”, she wrote in her review of the film, “Jo kaam Madhuri na kar saki in all her Madhuri de do Kashmir le lo years, wo saala ye Bhaijaan ne kar dhikaya.”
She batted for director Kabir Khan. “He has been sensitive enough not to be too patronising of the Pakistanis our Bhaijaan encounters. Bhaijaan is content in his bajrangi-ness, the Pakistanis in their salaam-dua. And sometimes the twain may meet. Though the Kashmiri girl’s first words when she is reunited with her parents are Jai Shri Ram Mama, and the look the parents’ exchange!”
She recalled an old Pashtun joke of her generation. “Perhaps Hanuman too may have been Pashtun—kisi aur ki biwi ko milwane ke liye apni poonch par aag – to put yourself on fire to keep your word of reuniting a couple.”
Bollywood fanatic Nargis Khan, a housewife in Islamabad, is celebrating the asides.
“Indians seem to admit that Pakistanis are better looking – fair complexion has to be either upper caste Brahmins or Pakistanis,” she said. She is also happy that “not all Pakistanis are bearded angry men with a keffiyeh-like scarf on the shoulders and that they do not say 'janab' and greet each other with the inverted hand gesture while saying asalam-o-alaikum.”
Khan took in the flaws as well. “Police Station Sindh is like saying Police Station Bihar. It would have felt more authentic with a local town’s name like Bahawalpur (next to Rajasthan). Also, urban Karachiwallas do not patrol the border. So what’s with the accent of the soldiers?”
India and Pakistan have a complicated film history. Before the 1965 war, Indian films played across Pakistan while Punjabi films from Pakistan were very popular across north India. After the war, Pakistan banned Indian films and the move dealt a death blow to cinema halls after the proliferation of pirated DVDs, being sold for as little as Rs 50 (Indian), and internet downloads in the 2000s.
Former President Pervez Musharraf eased the ban in early 2006 and Indian films returned with the release of the colourised version of Mughal-e-Azam. Sholay finally played in Pakistani theatres this year, four decades after it was released in India.
Beena Sarwar, the editor of Aman ki Asha (hope for peace), an initiative launched in 2010 to encourage Indians and Pakistanis to meet, is booked to watch Bajrangi Salman in Boston.
Even as the film runs to packed houses in Pakistan, she is not one to be taken in by this super-simplistic crossover.
“The premise that an Indian or Pakistani can cross over on a whim or for a good deed is the kind of wishful thinking you see only in films such as Veer Zara, or feel good ads, like the Google ‘Reunion’ ad, or now this film,” said Sarwar, who is part of a campaign called “Milne Do” to encourage friendships between Indians and Pakistanis.
“In real life, the governments refuse to reflect the people's aspirations, to allow them to live in peace, trade, travel and meet. They signed an agreement to ease visa restrictions in 2012 that they still haven't honoured,” she pointed out.
“As a result, thousands, if not millions, are denied the opportunity to meet, travel and trade with their neighbours. The Indian government requires a ‘No Objection Certificate’ to be signed and stamped by a first class gazetted officer to endorse visa applications from Pakistanis. This is not easy for most people to obtain. Once you get the visa, you can only visit the city or cities you have the visa for,” she said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently broke the ice with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in the Russian city of Ufa, their tete-a-tete laying the grounds for a rapprochement before a pesky plastic drone on the LoC sent things plummeting again.
Mehmal Sarfraz, a Lahore-based journalist who crosses over to India several times a year (albeit with a visa), says the movie’s message is important. “Bajrangi Bhaijaan seems like a usual fun Sallubhai movie but one with an important message: Indo-Pak peace, a message that is close to every peacenik's heart,” she said.
“Tensions between these two nuclear neighbours were at an all-time high just recently so this movie's release is quite timely. With Prime Minister Sharif and Prime Minister Modi trying to build bridges after the recent war of words, such a movie will play a good role in improving ties.”
Sarwar is not too sure. She pointed out that Indians and Pakistanis still have to report to the police within 24 hours of their arrival and before departure from each city they have a visa for, unless this requirement is waived.
“The stringent visa regime is a major factor in disrupting family ties. In Boston this week, I met an uncle, a doctor who lives in Aligarh, after 35 years. My mother met her cousin last year after 50 years, whom she had not seen since her girlhood in Pratapgarh.”
Bureaucratic delays make it difficult for even well-connected people to make the trip. “Last year, I was invited to a conference in Pune. The organisers didn't know that if they invite foreign guests, particularly Pakistanis, the entire conference has to receive clearance from the home ministry. They finally got the permission but by the time the home ministry sent the paperwork to the consulate in Karachi, it was too late. I got my passport back with the visa stamped, and with police reporting kindly waived – on the day of the conference,” Sarwar said.
Another time when she was applying for a visa, a senior official in the external affairs ministry said they could meet if she also came to Delhi. “I replied I had only applied for Bombay and Pune, and asked if Delhi could be added on. That would be impossible, came the response.”
Murtaza Solangi, an avowed peacenik and former head of Radio Pakistan, said he’d always bat for kindness and humanity on both sides of the border and applauded the role of artists in showcasing the goodness in us. “Sixty-seven years after Partition, we still have fires of hatred burning and those working with buckets of water extinguishing them are the people who help humanity and restore our faith,” said Solangi.
"Besides countless acts of barbarism and brutality, there are many instances of kindness and humanity on both sides. People have helped each other in terrible conditions in the past and will do so in future. Artists have to do their bid to pass the goodness amongst us. When he presents evil, he does so in order to make us fight against it. When he presents good deeds, he does so to inspire us to do more…"
The moot question: Will the real Salman Khan be allowed a real cross-over to promote his films and maybe meet his millions of Pakistani fans?