“It’s that time of the year when India wants to know what Pakistanis make of what Hindi cinema is talking about when it talks about Pakistanis.” It’s with this good-natured, long-winded sarcasm that a Pakistani friend in Delhi introduces me to the viewers of Bajrangi Bhaijaan across the border. As for her own response to the film, Aneela Zeb Babar tells me that she cried. “Then I felt embarrassed. And then cried some more.” Similar conversations on social media confirm that BB (a simply told story about Indian-Hindu Pavan Kumar Chaturvedi taking Pakistani-Muslim Shahida back to her home in Pakistani Kashmir) has effortlessly pushed the right emotional buttons, set tears flowing and won over many hearts in Pakistan. “People clapped, cheered and whistled at the high points,” recalls Khizra Munir, a Karachi-based creative consultant. “Everyone was so invested.” The film for her was a total “paisa vasool, seeti lazmi (money well-spent, whistle mandatory)” affair.
Id-ul-Fitr this year has marked a good run for films in Pakistan. According to Pakistani daily The Express Tribune, of the two new Pakistani releases, Wrong No. amassed Rs 25 million, and Bin Roye notched Rs 20 million in the three days of Id holidays. But Id-eve release Bhaijaan walked away the richest, a neat Rs 45 million in its kitty.
BB, however, is more than just numbers. Salman Khan’s latest blockbuster has become the new, unforeseen milestone in the ever-evolving portrayal of Pakistan and its people in Hindi cinema. This, when there were cross-border violations in the days leading up to its release, and the thaw between prime ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif at Ufa in Russia at the BRICS meeting quickly turned frosty.
BB has given a new turn to the way Pakistan has been perceived and presented in Bollywood films over the years. Fakhr-e-Alam, chairman of the Sindh censor board, calls it “a fresh breath of air” in his e-mail exchange with Outlook. “Bajrangi is a right step taken by Bollywood,” he affirms. “We hope Salman has set a precedent for others to follow.”
So what is it that has been so right and worth emulating in BB? If you are seeking a layered, radical, logical narrative and characters, well, then look elsewhere. Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a completely self-aware, hardcore mainstream film that never strays from regular masala, abundant instead in all the time-worn cliches. In fact, it derives its appeal and strength from its deliberately simplistic, overly emotional and highly manipulative brushstrokes. Alongside, it casts a hitherto rare, culturally sensitive glance at Pakistan, something that the Pakistani aam aadmi has wholeheartedly lapped up and embraced. “It is a refreshing change from a RAW vs ISI narrative and also reassuring to see the effort made to show Pakistanis as helpful, moderate (like the character Maulana played by Om Puri) and open-minded (Chand Nawab and Munni bowing to the monkey god, Hanuman, when Salman does),” says Khizra. “The filmmaker has been very generous in how he has depicted Pakistani people,” adds Reema Omer, a human rights lawyer from Lahore who saw the film in Oxford. “The characters on this side of the border have been shown to possess even greater humanity and compassion than we perhaps deserve.” For her, the most powerful moment in the film is when Pakistani cop Hamid Khan says that although he has been in the service of Pakistan his whole life, he finds putting an innocent Indian into a Pakistani prison against the glory of his country.
It’s a character you wouldn’t have found in the Hindi film of yore where Pakistanis have long been the villains of the piece. In the Bollywood cinemascape, India’s relationship with Pakistan has been typically blow hot-blow cold (see infographic). From oblique reference in a handful of Partition films, Pakistan has endlessly played the role of Enemy No. 1 in rabidly jingoistic film after another. If a war film like Border was all about loving India by hating Pakistan, a love saga like Gadar glorified the Indian man taking over the Pakistani woman and hence the nation.
The tide has turned recently with films like PK and Total Siyapaa, where the Indian girl falls for the Pakistani guy. You could perhaps thank Pakistani serials on Zindagi channel and Pakistani artistes—Ali Zafar, Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan—working in Bollywood for the opening of eyes and perceptions. But as author-columnist Santosh Desai puts it, Big Brother India hitherto has always had the upper hand. “The superior position is inbuilt,” he says. “Then the generosity and magnanimity towards the other also become easier. You can give without losing the balance of storytelling.” Shohini Ghosh, professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, finds it interesting how BB inverts this romantic construct and ‘de-demonises’ Pakistan. For her, Bajrangi is not ‘Big Brother’. “India is Big Brother,” she says, “in the realm of politics, war cries and retaliation. Bajrangi is the sane, younger, pacifist brother.”
Director Kabir Khan himself confesses to using politics as just a backdrop. “There’s a huge disconnect between the political establishment and the people of the two countries,” he says. “I am not setting out to improve political relations. I don’t have the power to do that. My focus was on people-to-people friendship.”
This very ‘goodness’ is what made it easy for BB to get past the Pakistani censors. “Bajrangi was a very comfortable film to certify,” says Sindh censor board chairman Fakhr-e-Alam. It has been given a Universal certificate. The only scene that was cut was of the attack on the Pakistan embassy in New Delhi. “The reason we thought of the deletion was that it would evoke unnecessary resentment in some people’s hearts,” he says, which he thought would be unfair on a film that in its entirety was “beautiful”.
Bajrangi is also extremely clever in how it stresses on Salman’s “Being Human” and uses it to make a larger political point. The Indo-Pak theme segues nicely with the Hindu-Muslim angle. It does a political tightrope walk, and nicely at that. Like just when you think it is celebrating the Indian Selfie King with the Selfie song comes the scene where Salman is asked to define a Selfie and he replies cockily: “Khud ki le lete hain,” adding “tasveer” after a significantly long pause. It is similarly cheeky when it takes potshots at our other hypocrisies and prejudices without being either patronising or offensive to any side of the divide: Hindu, Muslim, Indian, Pakistani, vegetarian, non-vegetarian. Even ‘typecasting’ Pakistanis as fair and beautiful comes dangerously close to being impudent and brazen when Salman says of the little Shahida, “doodh ki tarah safed hai, Brahmin hi hogi”. “It casually depicts everyday bigotry on both sides of the border, and is able to subvert it without getting preachy, overly political or radical,” says Reema. So Puri playing Maulana is able to say that Pakistan too possesses a bit of Kashmir, the emphasis being on “thoda sa (little)”. Its “chicken song” is deliciously subversive too. As Reema puts it, “The very powerful lyrics about overcoming prejudice for the greater interest of humanity (‘thodi biriyani bukhari, thodi nalli nihari, le aao aaj dharam bhrasht ho jaaye’) pretty much summarise the whole plot/message of the film.” For Shohini, BB takes Hinduism away from Hindutva—the fun Bajrang Bali of the film a perfect counterpoint to the hardliner Bajrang Dali. “The right wing had taken away a culture that belonged to all of us to turn it into a religious symbol,” she says. The film is a reclaiming of that culture. “It’s not about any ideology but people growing up in a milieu, ambience without questioning it,” says Kabir. One that you confront when perhaps a Shahida comes calling.
The Significant Other
|Partition blues||Warring the enemy||Cross-border love|
|Chhalia (1960) A tale of two estranged families in post-Partition India, this was one of the first mainstream films to discuss Pakistan||Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973) IAF operative in ’71 war utters dialogue: “Jawaab dene aaunga, is jawan ki kasam, Hindustan ki kasam”||Henna (1991) A not-so-young Rishi Kapoor strays into the Pak side of Kashmir and falls in love with the beautiful Zeba Bakhtiyar|
|Garam Hawa (1972) Pakistan looms large as Balraj Sahni, the frayed old paterfamilias, is unable to decide whether to stay on in India or move across||Border (1997) Based on the iconic Battle of Longewala fought in the battlefields of Rajasthan during the Indo-Pak war of 1971||Gadar, Ek Prem Katha (2001) Truck driver Tara Singh falls in love with Sakina who turns out to be the daughter of mayor of Lahore, the evil Amrish Puri|
|Pinjar (2003) Indefinable love grows between Hamida and Rashid as she gets torn away from her family during Partition||Sarfarosh (1999) An Aamir starrer in which suave ghazal singer Naseeruddin Shah from across the border is evil mastermind of terror plot||Veer Zaara (2004) IAF pilot in love with Lahore girl is suspected of being an Indian spy and ends up in Pakistan jail|
And yet like a squarely mainstream film, BB remains a true-blue utopian fantasy in which borders get thrown open way too easily. Which still doesn’t stop Syed Aflah Ahmed, a CTS executive at ary Digital Network in Karachi, from watching a 5.30 am show of the film and becoming a Salman fan precisely because of a message that says “India and Pakistan have to end the hatred for the sake of our kids”.
Yes, there’s still lots for Pakistan to nitpick. “We don’t use the word ‘janaab’ that much in Pakistan,” says Khizra. “We also use terms like sir, boss, yaar, dost, bhai etc. Also, while I agree we were looking at rural Pakistan, not all our men walk around wearing namazi topis (skull caps).” Most also found Munni’s miraculous chant of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ unnecessary. But also, perhaps, fine in the light of Salman’s character coming around to doing aadab after continually chanting Jai Shri Ram. Tokenisms also talk. Nawazuddin Siddiqui as journalist Chand Nawab in BB tells Bhaijaan: “Nafrat aasani se bik jaati hai (Hatred sells easily).” Nice then to see that the film itself is managing to sell harmony and humanity in the Indo-Pak film bazaar.