IN a perfect world, art should know no borders and boundaries. Indeed, Bollywood productions enjoy equal popularity both sides of Wagah. But last fortnight, when the Indian actor Dilip Kumar (aka Yusuf Khan) was honoured with one of Pakistan's highest civilian awards, the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, there was high-pitched protest, especially from right-wing organisations.
The Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, went so far as to threaten Dilip Kumar, saying: "He should protect himself, as we will not tolerate this when people are being killed by the Indian government in Kashmir." Protesters alleged that the Peshawar-born Kumar is a traitor who adopted a Hindu name and preferred to settle in an "enemy country". Some went the whole hog and branded him a RAW agent.
Events followed logically. Zia Shahid, editor of the daily Khabrain, filed a writ in the Lahore High Court against the government's decision to award the Nishan-e-Imtiaz to Kumar. Zia said in his petition that Kumar has not done anything for Pakistan to merit such a prestigious award. The court, however, dismissed the petition.
But Dilip Kumar's popularity in Pakistan is beyond doubt. And as if to prove that, hundreds of fans and admirers thronged Karachi Quaid-e-Azam International Airport to welcome the actor and wife Saira Bano. In fact, some political analysts are even describing it as a laudable diplomatic move by the Pakistan government. "One can debate the merits of giving this award to Dilip Kumar, but it's a good initiative by Pakistan. But they have given the award to a person who is a champion of secularism in India, so we will have to wait and see how the BJP government responds to that," said Moonis Ahmer, professor of international relations at the University of Karachi.
Ahmer stressed that gestures like these can go a long way in creating an atmosphere of goodwill and added that it is significant that even in the congratulatory letter to Indian premier Atal Behari Vajpayee, Nawaz Sharif did not mention anything about India exporting terrorism to Pakistan. Allegations which both countries have traditionally traded.
Though officially Dilip Kumar has been awarded the Nishan-e-Imtiaz for his contribution to cinema, many top government officials conceded that it was awarded because he has played a leading role among India's Muslims. Pakistani interior minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain recently said that Dilip Kumar had especially helped the cause of Muslims during the Ayodhya crisis.
PHOTOGRAPHS of chief of army staff Jehangir Karamat shaking hands with Kumar while his wife looked on fondly were reminiscent of General Zia-ul-Haq's regular, much publicised invitations to Indian movie stars. Sharif too extended a hospitable welcome to the film legend and hosted a lunch for him and his wife.
Meanwhile, ethnic divisions are also being blamed for the controversy. Commenting on the barrage of adverse reaction to the award in the Punjabi press, Barristar Baacha, a renowned intellectual from Peshawar, said: "Having been steeped in prejudice in the past weeks against the Pakhtun nation, its elders and leaders, Punjab's gutter press has now turned its guns of venomous insults against Yusuf Khan. Yusuf is universally acknowledged as the greatest artiste not only of India, but of the entire subcontinent and it was for his matchless contribution to the film media that the government of Pakistan bestowed the award on him."
Baacha said the Punjabi gutter press was livid for the simple reason that the national honour had been bestowed on an artiste who had links with Peshawar. "Had Dilip Kumar hailed from Punjab, the same gutter press would have hailed him as the pride of the Muslim world and brought out supplements in his honour".
Referring to a report in a Punjabi newspaper which said that when Kumar's name was announced by President Rafique Tarar at the ceremony, "the heads of all those present hung in shame", Baacha demanded why the "same heads were held high" when the award was conferred on a female singer with dubious antecedents. The reason according to him: "The gutter press was drawing a distinction between the two because the great artiste had links with Peshawar and the singer was from Punjab."
Adds social worker Nishat Kazmi: "Why was there no opposition when Zia-ul-Haq used to invite Shatrughan Sinha or when Morarji Desai was given a similar award by Zia? Because these fundamentalists were supporting the dictator. And when Dilip Kumar came to Pakistan twice before to help raise funds for an organisation helping the poor, nobody objected. Why now?"
Predictably, this hue and cry put the actor on the defensive when he started explaining his role in the 1965 Indo-Pak war in an interview to Pakistan television. "Artistes are messengers of peace. They want to promote peace rather than war," he said. "During the 1965 war, I was the president of the Film Producers Guild. There was a campaign to collect funds for the Indian army. I took a stand that we would collect funds but not for the army to buy tanks. We would use the funds to help the victims of war, the families of soldiers and widows and orphans."
Dilip Kumar first came to Pakistan more than 30 years ago in 1965. He made a short halt in Karachi en route from Bombay to London. Recalls a journalist: "For the hour or so the aircraft was in Karachi, Dilip Kumar, who had been brought to the VIP lounge, was literally mobbed."
And for years Pakistanis visiting India urged him to make a trip across the border. "Once sitting on the sets of Shakti in 1978, Dilip Kumar told me that he would like to visit his ancestral home in Peshawar and meet his old and ailing aunt in Bannu who just couldn't understand why he didn't return to Peshawar," remembers journalist Asif Noorani. In fact, the aunt is said to have told a relative: "All those who go out of town to earn money come back one day, but Yusuf is a strange person—he never bothered to return. I am told that he has earned a lot of money. He should come back now."
Over the years, Kumar has also actively helped a host of Pakistani charities. In 1987, he along with Saira and his brother Ahsan Khan visited all the major cities in Pakistan to help the Fatimid Blood Foundation. This time he made a two-day trip to Lahore and Karachi to raise funds at charity dinners for Imran Khan's cancer hospital. And when he went to another charity dinner for Al-Shifa Eye Hospital, more than 100 tables costing Rs 100,000 each were sold out in no time. And that, say Dilip Kumar fans, should be enough proof to his critics that he is not a traitor.