Bollywood Becomes India and Pakistan’s Latest Battleground


That tough talk has been reverberating through the arts.

Pakistani musicians have long been a mainstay of Bollywood, whose films and songs are also hugely popular across the border in Pakistan. And Pakistani actors have recently entered Bollywood amid the growing popularity in India of Pakistani-based television serials. But those cultural ties are being cut.

The Pakistani ban on Indian shows goes into effect on Friday. The government acted on a recommendation from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, and Pakistani officials said it was in response to escalating curbs on Pakistani films and actors in India. The license of any TV network or radio station that does not comply will be suspended, the regulating authority said.

This week, a leading Indian film director, Karan Johar, released a video in which he praised the Indian Army and said he would no longer use Pakistani actors in his films. The move was prompted by the decision of one of India’s biggest groups of cinema owners not to show films with Pakistani actors, partly targeting the planned release on Oct. 28 of a film by Mr. Johar starring a Pakistani actor.

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The Indian superstar Salman Khan was denounced by a talk show host after speaking out against a ban on Pakistani actors.

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Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Johar said he felt a “deep sense of pain” at being accused of working against national interests.

The Indian Army’s claim of a military strike in the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir, which it says it conducted 10 days after 19 soldiers were killed at an Indian Army base, set off a nationalistic fervor across India that has been picked up by the country’s media.

The Indian superstar Salman Khan, who spoke out against the ban on Pakistani actors, was angrily denounced by one of India’s top television talk show hosts, Arnab Goswami.

Om Puri, an actor who has appeared in Bollywood, Hollywood and independent films, also found himself under attack during a televised debate when he said he opposed the ban. The situation escalated when Mr. Puri, pressed by the anchor about a slain soldier, retorted, “Who asked him to join the army?” The actor later apologized.

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The Indian actor Om Puri found himself under attack in a televised debate when he said he opposed the ban on Pakistani actors.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Sporting ties have also been severed, with Pakistan barred from playing in India at the World Cup of kabaddi, a form of wrestling and tag that is popular on the subcontinent.

“We have a government that is taking a very, very hard line on Pakistan, a political context from which the cultural narrative is emerging,” said Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London who is from India. “Society and the government are in sync with this argument that we need to marginalize Pakistan.”

The cultural standoff began on Sept. 28 when the India Motion Picture Producers’ Association unanimously voted to ban employing Pakistanis in Bollywood.

“As Indians, we want a good relationship with our neighbor, but if the neighbor is not good then we have to take some steps to show him that we are not happy with him,” Manoj Chaturvedi, the association’s general secretary, said in an interview on Tuesday.

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Demonstrators burned an effigy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India in Karachi, Pakistan, this month.

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Fareed Khan/Associated Press

The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a far-right political party, then raised the stakes with an ultimatum to all Pakistani performers working in India to leave within 48 hours or “risk being beaten up.” It also threatened violence against theater owners who showed films with Pakistanis in the cast.

The Indian television channel Zindagi, which since 2014 has aired Pakistani shows that have grown hugely popular, scrubbed them from its programming.

Then the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India asked exhibitors not to release any movie featuring Pakistani performers, putting in jeopardy Mr. Johar’s new film, “Ae Dil Hai Mushkil,” which stars the Pakistani heartthrob Fawad Khan.

Beyond a show of solidarity for the fallen Indian soldiers, that appeal was made partly because of Mr. Khan’s silence after the attacks, when many people felt he should have made “a statement against terrorism,” said Nitin Datar, the president of the cinema owners’ association. The group also worried that cinemas might be damaged amid protests, he said. Mr. Khan made a general statement opposing violence but not a specific denunciation of the attack on the army base.

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Indians prepared to burn an effigy of the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, last week.

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Narinder Nanu/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“If you map out the present sentiment across the country, then you will find out how many people are against doing anything with Pakistani artists,” Mr. Datar said. “It’s not only us. We’ve taken into consideration the views of the general public also, which was conveyed to us by our members.”

On Monday, the Mumbai Film Festival said it would drop a classic 1959 Pakistani film, “Jago Hua Savera” (The Day Shall Dawn), from its lineup this month. Recently restored, the movie explores the struggles of East Bengal fishermen, played by Pakistani and Indian actors, and has been called a masterpiece of South Asian cinema.

A week before the festival’s start, Prithvi Mhaske, a social activist, filed a complaint with the police against the screening of the film, threatening continued protests. “To sit in a theater and eat popcorn and ice cream as you watch a Pakistani movie is unfair to our soldiers,” said Mr. Mhaske, the president of Sangharsh Foundation, a Mumbai nonprofit. Three days later, the movie was removed from the festival’s lineup.

Some analysts say the furor is a sign of frustration over the Indian government’s inability to stop militant attacks carried out by Pakistan-based groups, despite overtures to make peace. Pakistan has denied any involvement in the attack on the base and support for the militants in Kashmir.

“There is a turning of the tide about the narrative that engagement with Pakistan culturally is good in and of itself,” said Mr. Pant, the international relations professor. “Nobody in India buys that argument anymore that if you do cultural exchanges and cricket matches, it will benefit India.”

But India’s muscle flexing could have dire consequences for the region if it continues for an extended period, he said.

“In Pakistan, we have several actors: military leadership, civilian leadership, and renegade parts of the Pakistan military,” Mr. Pant said. “Anyone can retaliate.”

“We don’t know the consequences of what India has done,” he added. “This is a unique moment in Indo-Pak relations in the nuclear age. These are new, interesting and scary times.”

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