Do Pakistan War Films Ask, “How’s the Josh?”

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Do Pakistan War Films Ask, “How’s the Josh?”

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

I

happened to watch Uri: The Surgical Strike in the theatres a month after its release. There’s a scene in the film, where a little girl cries at her soldier father’s funeral that moved the audience in predictable ways. The man sitting next to me quickly wiped away a few tears and before I knew it, the hall erupted into “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”. One youngster added to the proceedings by screaming “Pakistan …” (yep, exactly what you’re thinking) that was met with thunderous applause. It’s no secret that India loves to hate almost everything Pakistan (other than Coke Studio and Fawad Khan maybe). And it reflects in our greatest export of all time – Bollywood. Uri: The Surgical Strike is in fact, a perfect culmination of this sentiment.

When it comes to Pakistan, most Hindi films stick to two narratives – people on both sides of the border are kind-hearted (Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Happy Bhaag Jayegi), or that Pakistanis are the root of all evil (Indian, Sarfarosh). There is hardly any middle-line – it’’s either “dil ka achha” or “shaitaan ka bachha”. If Indians are not forcing entry into Pakistan and wreaking havoc, they are winning over the Pakistani girl – not just conquering their lands but also their women. In 2004, Shah Rukh Khan, who had finished charming the entire nation, crossed over the border with his arms wide open to charm a Pakistani girl in Veer Zaara. And in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha, Sunny Deol entered Pakistan on a train, married the daughter of a Pakistani general, uprooted a Pakistani hand-pump, fought an entire Pakistani army single-handedly, and then returned home with his loot.

So hyped are our filmmakers about nationalism that even in the aftermath of the Balakot attack, when the entire country was fretting over Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s safe return, they were queuing up to register film titles. Clearly, Bollywood follows conflicts as closely as our army generals. This made me wonder: What is the status on the other side of the border? Are war films as much of a sub-genre in Lollywood as it is in Bollywood? And what do they look like?

In the noughties, when Bollywood was exploring new frontiers, Lollywood went through its lowest phase. And it was during this period that Pakistan was churning out war films. There was the slick Waar (2013), one of Pakistan’s highest grossing films of all time, where singer and actress Meesha Shafi plays Lakshmi, an Indian spy who collaborates with the Taliban to spread terror. And its villain is Ramal, an Indian RAW agent who ultimately gets defeated by the hero. Even then, the movie isn’t packed with anti-India statements: There’s the usual “good triumphs over evil” tripe, but no over-the-top preaching on either Kashmir or kheer. Impressed, I decided to continue my Pakistani war film binge.

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I was most surprised by Ghazi Shaheed (1998), a film produced by Pakistan’s Navy, that focuses on the 92 Pakistani soldiers who lost their lives in a submarine explosion. The reasons for this explosion are still contested: India claims to have downed the submarine, while Pakistan maintains that it sunk due to an internal error. Still, Ghazi Shaheed makes no mention of Indians, choosing to depict the human side of the story. In comparison, I can only think of Raazi and War Chhod Na Yaar, that sensitively depict Pakistanis.

Desperate to find the Pakistan’s answer to Border, I went from one war film to another. I watched Ramchand Pakistani – a movie with Hindu leads – that narrated the plight of Pakistani prisoners in an Indian jail. You’d expect the jailers to be heartless and evil, but by the end of the film they take a liking for the jailed Pakistani boy. Instead of yelling “How’s the josh?”, the movie ends with a message of brotherhood. Sunny Deol – 0, Pakistan – 1.

Even though the most common word used to describe Indians is “dushman”, the films I watched were devoid of monologues about destroying India. Instead they routinely spoke about peace. Could it be possible that Pakistan doesn’t hate India much as we do? A tiny “aman ki asha” began to flicker inside my heart.

That lasted until I stumbled upon the films of Shaan Shahid, the Pakistani Sunny Deol. Shahid is Pakistan’s highest paid actor and has acted in over 500 films in the last two decades. He has also been vocal against Pakistani artists working in India, which he considers “unpatriotic”. He is the rare Pakistani actor who hasn’t worked in any of India’s film industries and probably wants to declare his peers anti-national. In his directorial outing, Moosa Khan (2001), all Indians are “Hindus” who are at war with Pakistan. This film is so bad that it will make you pray for a cataract. But even worse is Shaan Shahid’s Border. Shot in 1998, it makes JP Dutta’s version seem like avant-garde arthouse cinema. It’s available for free on YouTube, possibly because nobody considers it either “intellectual” or “property”.

Yet the difference in the war films of both the countries lies in their emphasis on real events.

In (Pakistan’s) Border, the hero is an army officer who thrashes two people for betting on a South Africa-Zimbabwe cricket match. He fights legal cases in court and asks the judge to ban cable television, as it brings Hindu songs and dances into their bedrooms. But that doesn’t stop him from admiring an Indian girl, who eyes him during a boxing match. She sings songs for him and finally chooses him as her lover, picking up arms against her family and nation. This Border ends with a shootout during a Holi celebration where Shaan destroys everything. He then pulls out the Indian flag, and replaces it with a Pakistani flag. So far, so jingoistic.

Yet the difference in the war films of both the countries lies in their emphasis on real events. Since our track record with Pakistan in wars is the same as our record in World Cups, we can’t help but thump our chests about it. Unlike Pakistani films, Indian war films often boast about being “based on true events”. Pakistani films, on the other hand, are based on real emotions but imaginary timelines – they rarely mention when and where the war was fought.

It was then that I realised that Pakistan and India might not be too different from each other: Both countries love watching movies that give them a manufactured sense of victory. In the three days that I spent watching Pakistani films, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has announced another film on the Balakot attack, which Pakistan will no doubt consider banning. There might liberals in Islamabad who’ll ask for a lift on that ban. But will they be asked to take a train to India?

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