Border and the Brave Pirate of Abu Dhabi


Border and the Brave Pirate of Abu Dhabi

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Ispent the formative years of my life in Abu Dhabi in the UAE. Like all desi children who grew up outside India, I derived a sense of a distant home through Bollywood, measuring out our allegiance to India through Pardes and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. But it wasn’t until Border, which released 20 years ago today, that I really understood the meaning of patriotism and what it could make homesick NRIs do.

My parents were first-generation immigrants. My father had left his home in Jodhpur at the age of 20 to find work in the Gulf as a textile-shop salesman. Because he left home at such a young age, he never stopped missing it. In his memories of childhood, he was a “lion on the streets of Jodhpur” – and even though he exchanged one desert for another, he was an alien in Abu Dhabi.

Growing up, I heard many stories about how he’d fight with his mom for five rupees so he could go to the movies every Tuesday with his gang. “You haven’t seen anything,” he’d inform me helpfully. But if I asked to go to the movies, he’d scoff, “You want to watch an English picture, eh? I know what happens in English pictures.” Over the years and away from home, he became more patriotic than Manoj Kumar in Upkaar. (I think this is why Manoj Kumar started hiding his face, though I could be wrong.)

Every weekend, our home would be turned into a mini theatre as my father brought back a VHS cassette of the latest Bollywood release. Like any spoilt Middle-East NRI kid I was fed a nutritious diet of chips, bebsi, falafel, and a side helping of Jaani Dushman, Rakshak, and Waqt Humara Hai.

Suddenly it was 1997. Border had released in India to mass hysteria. The JP Dutta film dramatised the events of the Battle of Longewala from 1971. Its patriotism on steroids must have been helpful in whipping up support for the Kargil War that was to begin two years later. In faraway UAE, however, there were concerns that the film might start a mini conflict between Abu Dhabi’s Indian and Pakistani population.

For years, the two communities from the subcontinent had lived as a model of harmony. We’d stayed in the same buildings, shopped at the same malls, and cribbed about the same thing (how difficult it was to save money and send it back home, obvs). The UAE government would never allow the release of any movie that might cause even the slightest tension between the two communities.

I still remember the day my dad finally got his hands on it. He immediately called home and told my mom that he was shutting shop for a few hours and coming home with the tape.

But the heart wants what it wants. The story of Border’s overnight blockbuster status quickly reached UAE. People couldn’t stop talking about it. Sunny paaji’s performance, where he decimates enemy bunkers using nothing but his temper, had already become the stuff of legend. My father and all the other Sindhi uncles he used to hang out with were dying to watch it.

You know what they say about us Sindhis. We’re nothing if not risk-taking intrepid entrepreneurs.

The community has always dominated the retail textile market in Abu Dhabi; my father’s shop was one of several. One day he learnt that another textile merchant had somehow managed to sneak in a pirated VHS cassette of Border on his way back from India.

What. A. Baller. Move.

An Indian merchant had put himself on the line at Customs, just so that his NRI brethren could feel the same rousing emotions as when Suniel Shetty carries a landmine with his bare hands and blows up a tank with it. As Jackie Shroff gives Sunny Deol a thumbs-up from an airplane, flying at Mach-something speed above him. As Akshaye Khanna vomits in the face of death. “Maa ke aankhon ki roshni aansuon ke saath beh gayi” and “Kamla ki jawani”. Even “Sandesey Aaate Hai” doesn’t get more poetic than this.

The news of this brave merchant spread like wildfire among the Abu Dhabi Sindhi community. Everyone wanted to get their hands on this blockbuster – there was a freaking waiting list to watch it. If a shop in the market shuttered in the middle of the day, other shop owners would joke that the guy was probably watching Border.

I still remember the day my dad finally got his hands on it. He immediately called home and told my mom that he was shutting shop for a few hours and coming home with the tape. Luckily for me, it was a Friday. School was shut, and I was hopping with excitement.

The mind, as they say, was blown. The young mind, as they say, was influenced. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, being on the edge of my seat every time a major character was about to die. Damn Akshaye Khanna, stop being such a wuss and shoot! Sunny Deol’s right. War’s fucking cool! Okay but don’t die I’ve started to like you. Don’t die, you idiot!

Because of the long waiting list, my father had to return the cassette exactly three and a half hours later. But I would feel the aftereffects of the film in the years to come, in the Bollywood-style jingoism of my compatriots.

Border did what most popular movies in other genres do – pander to current sentiments.

As the film completed two decades, I tried going back to it. Not surprisingly, I found that it has aged like fine milk. Kept outside the fridge. For twenty years.

For starters, let’s admit that Sunny Deol’s character is a bit of an arsehole. He threatens his wife with divorce when she tries to stop him from going to war because she fears for his life. He even fires Mathuradas when he applies for leave because the poor sod’s wife has cancer. Yes, some of its action scenes were definitely ahead of their time, but is there another film that blatantly glorifies war and paints the other nation as a complete villain? Border did what most popular movies in other genres do – pander to current sentiments. Just ask my father.

He continued to love his Bharat Maa, but I know he loved his business and his customers even more. Over the years, he’s earned the loyalty of the folks who buy their “dress material” and “three-piece salwar suit” only from him. A huge fraction of these customers are Pakistanis, several of them Pathans. And they’re genuinely good friends with my father. They’ve invited him home for dinner and he has obliged.

That day after watching Border – right after rooting for Sunny Deol bombing Pakistani tanks and screaming “Bole So Nihaal” – my father went back to the shop. I’m certain he would have shaken hands with a Pathan after selling him a Pathani suit, all the while assuring him that, “Yeh best quality hai saab, aur best price sirf aapke liye”.

The irony, I’m sure, was lost on him. Patriotism and Bharat Maa were all fine. But business knows no borders.