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Battleground Bollywood: India’s film industry targets Pakistan as political tensions rise

As India and Pakistan trade attacks and accusations over the disputed border territory of Kashmir, a new flashpoint has emerged: Bollywood.

Indian filmmakers have banned Pakistani artists, and Pakistani cinemas have retaliated by pulling the popular Indian movies from their screens as relations between the testy neighbors have sunk to their lowest point in years.

The Indian Motion Picture Producers Assn., or IMPPA, said last week that Pakistani actors, singers and technicians no longer would be allowed to work on Indian films. The move came in response to the deaths of 19 Indian soldiers in a raid on an army base Sept. 18 that India blames on Pakistani militants.

The IMPPA includes all the major producers and production houses in the $2.3 billion Indian film industry known as Bollywood. Officials said the decision would be binding on all of them.

“Pakistani artists have no right to work here,” said filmmaker Ashoke Pandit, the association’s vice president. “They are emotionless and insensitive to the pain of our country.”

Pandit accused Pakistani artists — whose domestic film industry is minuscule — of failing to condemn terrorism against India and treating the country like “an ATM.” There are about 40 major Pakistani actors and artists working in India, he said.

Several cinema owners in Pakistan responded by saying they would not screen any Indian movies until tensions between the two countries ease.

“It is not in the ambit of an association to take policy decisions like banning artists,” said Nadeem Mandviwalla, owner of movie theaters in the capital, Islamabad, and the largest city, Karachi.

“No Indian movie will play on any of my eight screens until normalcy returns.”

Tensions have mounted over the past week, since India responded to the Sept. 18 attack with a commando raid into the Pakistani-controlled section of Kashmir, the northern territory that both countries claim in its entirety.

Predominantly Hindu India and mainly Muslim Pakistan — cleaved upon independence from Britain in 1947 — have fought three wars and come close to launching several more.

At times of strife between the nuclear-armed neighbors, India’s massive entertainment industry — its most high-profile export — often finds itself in the crosshairs of political and religious ideologues in both countries.

Days after the army base attack, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena — a Hindu nationalist party that has threatened to attack Indian cinemas that show Pakistani films — called for Pakistani artists to be banned from the industry and expelled from the country.

The IMPPA bowed to the powerful group’s demand, in part, but said that films including Pakistani actors or technicians that were in production or awaiting release would not be shelved.

“The distributors are all Indians, and stopping the release would affect our people who have invested a lot of money,” Pandit said.

Mumbai’s film community was divided over the decision. Producer Karan Johar said banning artists was “not a solution.” Veteran actor Anupam Kher said he supported the decision because Pakistani actors had not criticized the army base attack.

Zindagi, a private Indian television channel that aired popular Pakistani serials, took the shows off the air.

Pakistan was more likely to be hurt by the ban. While only a couple of Pakistani artists are household names in India, Mandviwalla said that more than half of the revenue in his theaters comes from Bollywood films, known for their sexy stars, sumptuous locales and musical numbers.

Pakistan banned Indian films for decades, but the state of domestic filmmaking was so poor that by 2006, there were fewer than 20 cinema screens in the entire country.

That year, Pakistan let Indian films back into its theaters. Their popularity has fueled a boom in the movie theater industry, with 115 screens now operating and 75 more under construction — though still a relatively small number for a country of 180 million.

“A total of 15 Pakistani films were released last year, and only six survived in the theaters for two or more weeks,” said Adnan Tariq, a journalist who covers the Pakistani film industry. By comparison, about 80 Indian films were released in Pakistan.

“Indian movies are the most viable option, as only a small number watches Hollywood films,” Tariq said.

On Thursday, a popular Indian Muslim actor was caught up in the tensions — blocked from performing in a theatrical production of a Hindu epic in his hometown in northern India.

Hindu activists said they stormed the dressing room of the actor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, to prevent him from playing a role in the Ramlila, a folk play about the life of the Hindu lord Ram. Siddiqui is Muslim, a minority in India.

“We won’t allow anyone named Nawazuddin to participate in Ramlila,” a leader of the Hindu group, Shiv Sena, told the NDTV news network.

Siddiqui said performing in the Ramlila was “a childhood dream” but vowed to return next year.




This article first published on Los Angeles Times by Shashank Bengali and Parth M.N.