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Lifting a red velvet curtain

The film industries of India and Pakistan are attempting to script a big-screen reconciliation between their hostile nations.

September 19, 2004|Anupama Chopra | Special to The Times

Bombay, India — The Wagah army outpost in North India is the only official road crossing between India and Pakistan. The dusty village is fortified by electric fencing, and soldiers conceal themselves in bunkers. The tranquil fields hide land mines. The site has witnessed horrific carnage: Thousands were killed there during the mass migration of 1947 when the British partitioned India into two countries. Every evening, high-stepping Indian and Pakistani guards perform a ceremonial lowering of flags, cheered by noisy audiences. It's provocative theater, resonating with 57 years of distrust and bloodshed.

On July 7, a film crew from Bombay descended on the Wagah border. This was no ordinary set-up: Bollywood's most venerated director, the 75-year-old Yash Chopra, was shooting "Veer-Zaara," an epic love story between an Indian rescue pilot and a Pakistani girl. The night before, a colonel on the Indian side had requested a Pakistani major to open the gates at 7 a.m. instead of the usual 9:30. But in the morning, the gates stayed shut.

The Pakistanis said they did not have permission from higher authorities. While officers exchanged heated words, Chopra stayed serene. His A-list actors, Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta, sat in sweltering heat under a neem tree awaiting orders. The Pakistani soldiers seemed mortified at rebuffing a crew that included their favorite stars. Eventually the scene was shot with the gates on the Pakistani side closed.

Bollywood's biggest names couldn't open the gates to Pakistan that day, but Chopra is hopeful that when "Veer-Zaara" comes out on Nov. 12, other, more firmly entrenched barricades will give way. "We are filmmakers, not leaders," he says, "but there will never be a better film to bring India and Pakistan together."

Bollywood is probably India's most effective emissary in Pakistan. The two countries have fought three wars, and in June 1999, Pakistani infiltrators crossed the designated Line of Control into India and almost instigated a nuclear conflict. But in the last two years, politicians are taking hesitant stabs at peace -- and so is Bollywood. Hindi films, which often peddled a fiercely anti-Pakistani sentiment, are adopting a kinder, gentler tone. Artists and technicians are increasingly crossing the borders; a few co-productions are in the works. More critically, there is a move to ease the Pakistani ban on Indian films. Decades of political maneuvering haven't defused the hostility between the neighbors; perhaps celluloid diplomacy will.

Bollywood films are a surreptitious pleasure in Pakistan. In 1965, the country banned the import and screening of Indian films, but Bollywood, with its extravagant spectacles of song and dance, is everywhere. Technology -- essentially pirated DVDs, videocassettes, cable and satellite television -- has enabled Hindi film to penetrate even small towns in Pakistan. Bollywood films are reviewed in the vernacular and English press. Bollywood stars dictate fashions and rituals, particularly at weddings, as Pakistani writer Nasreen Rehman, who was a consultant on "Veer-Zaara," points out: "People try to emulate 'filmi' dances, songs and clothes. This despite the fact that Radio Pakistan does not play Hindi film songs." Pakistani fans are just as up-to-date on stars, movies and gossip as their Indian counterparts.

The film industry in Pakistan's Lahore, or Lollywood, as it is often called, is a poorer, watered-down version of Bollywood. The two industries have shared roots: Some of Bollywood's biggest names -- filmmaker B.R. Chopra, producer G.P. Sippy -- came to Bombay (now officially Mumbai) from Pakistan during partition, and many pioneers of the Pakistani film industry -- actress Noor Jehan and her filmmaker husband Shaukat Hussein Rizvi, directors W.Z. Ahmed and Zia Sarhady -- crossed over from Bombay. Sadat Hassan Manto, the subcontinent's most revered Urdu writer, was associated with studios in Bombay before he moved to Lahore.

But post-partition, the two film centers had dramatically different evolutions. Today, Bollywood is a global brand making more than 200 films annually and Indian films have an estimated 3.6 billion viewers worldwide. Hindi films have been screened at the Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals, and in 2001, "Lagaan" (Land Tax) even made it to the Oscars.

Lollywood, meanwhile, is in shambles. The Lahore film industry makes less than 50 films annually, down from more than 300 five years ago. Most of these are unarguably shoddy. The equipment is dated. There are no film schools or training institutes in Pakistan. The 225-odd theaters are in various stages of decay because the middle and upper classes prefer to watch Bollywood and Hollywood at home.

In this David and Goliath contest, David doesn't stand a chance. Lollywood simply can't match the glamour and frisson of Bollywood.

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