Bollywood becomes a battleground

Pop culture hostility

Kim-Marie Spence

Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia

22 December 2016

The recent Indian ban on Pakistani actors, films and television shows, and Pakistan’s retaliation, demonstrates how film and other creative industries have become an arena for conflict, Kim-Marie Spence writes.

Bollywood is the latest battleground for the ongoing hostilities between India and Pakistan. On 28 September, the India Motion Picture Producers’ Association voted to ban employing Pakistanis in Bollywood. In addition, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena – a far right, pro-Marathi party – threatened violence against theatre owners who showed films featuring Pakistanis and advised all Pakistani actors working in India to leave within 48 hours or risk violence. Zee Zindagi, an Indian television channel, also removed Pakistani serials from their programming, despite having broadcasted them since 2014.

The results were almost immediate. Pakistani stars such as Fawad Khan, Ali Zafar and Mahira Khan, among others, have left or remain outside of India. Karan Johar, an Indian producer and director so respected that he has his own television program, Koffee with Karan, had to make a video asking people to watch his latest, and ironically now his biggest, film, Ae dil hai mushkil (This heart is complicated), in which Fawad Khan plays a significant role. “When I shot my film Ae dil hai mushkil last year the climate was completely different….Going forward I would like to say that of course I will not engage with talent from the neighbouring country given the circumstance,” Johar said. Ali Zafar is presently promoting his latest film, Dear zindagi (Dear life), from Pakistan.

More on this: A new era of political film censorship in Modi’s India

The Pakistanis retaliated in kind. The cinema lobby refused to show Indian films and Indian serials on television. The Pakistani ban, or rather indefinite suspension, was lifted on 19 December. The financial imperative won out, with reports of significant revenue loss by Pakistani cinema owners. Pakistan is the third largest market for Indian films, accounting for over 60 per cent of Pakistani box office revenue. The Indian ban remains. The whole episode shows all the tensions between the countries and their creative industries writ large in high definition widescreen.

What happened to produce this rise in cinematic hostilities? On 18 September, militants attacked an Indian Army base in Uri (near the Line of Control) killing a number of army personnel. The last time Pakistan banned Indian films was after the Second Kashmir War of 1965, which caused thousands of casualties on both sides.

Over the last few decades pop culture has played an increasingly larger role in cultural diplomacy. In the 1990s the UK had ‘Cool Britannia’, which focused on 1990s British pop culture, including such notables as the Spice Girls and the YBAs (Young British Artists) such as Tracey Emin.  Japan had ‘Cool Japan’, which focused on popular Japanese pop culture, in the early 2000s. South Korea now has Hallyu, otherwise known as the Korean Wave, including K-pop groups such as Big Bang, Girls Generation, BTS, Black Pink and SHINee; and K-dramas, such as Descendants of the sun.

In all these cases, the governments of these three countries adopted these elements of pop culture as part of their marketing tools in a demonstration of soft power, using them to promote the ‘likability’ of their respective countries and to improve nation branding. Nation branding and soft power have become so topical and important that each year Anholt-Gfk produces a Nation Brands Index; and the UK Institute for Government in partnership with the lifestyle magazine, Monocle, produce the Soft Power Survey.

However, little attention has been paid to the phenomenon of ‘pop culture hostility’ or ‘pop culture non-diplomacy’. The identity politics involved in pop culture make it as applicable to war as to peace yet there is little research on this more hostile side of the phenomenon. Koichi Iwabuchi, after fieldwork in Beijing, found that consumption of Japanese pop culture (and ‘pop culture diplomacy’) was not an indicator of tolerance of Japanese colonial history. Is the result the same, when pop culture becomes the weapon?

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Indeed, in recent times, there have been instances of pop culture being used not just as propaganda, but as a weapon in its own right – a way to inflict pain and sharpen divisions. Bollywood is only the latest case of this ‘pop culture hostility’. The South Korean government responded to North Korea’s nuclear test earlier this year by blasting K-pop (Korean pop music) across the border.

Of course, India and Pakistan have been hostile toward each other since independence in 1947. Ae dil hai mushkil was not Fawad Khan’s first Bollywood movie. He starred in Disney India’s Khoobsurat and Dharma Productions’ (Karan Johar) Kapoor & sons earlier this year when this researcher was in India. At the time, my questions regarding his Pakistani nationality were met with responses like “this is a non-issue in Bollywood”. In addition, at the 2016 Mumbai Film Festival, a classic (1959) Pakistani movie AJ Kardar’s Jago hua savera (The day shall dawn) was scheduled to be screened, but wasn’t. This film went on to be shown at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and involved both Indian and Pakistani actors. The previous stardom of Pakistani actors in Bollywood, the popularity of Pakistani serials on Indian television and the reverse in Pakistan, and a cooperation dating back decades as demonstrated by Jago hua savera, demonstrate that film has not always been a legitimate area of hostility. Something has changed.

With the turn of the century, cultural and creative sectors became more legitimate as sectors of the economy, resulting in terms such as ‘cultural and creative industries’ and ‘creative economy’. Pop culture has transcended that to become a tool of diplomacy. Now it is increasingly becoming a tool of non-diplomacy, an area worthy of further research and conceptualisation. For example, how should the rollback of the ban by Pakistani cinema owners be interpreted politically and diplomatically? Who won – India, Bollywood, the Pakistani cinema owners or the Pakistani audience, all of the above or none of the above? We just don’t know. Maybe Gil Scott-Heron was wrong and the revolution will indeed be televised.

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Spence, Kim-Marie. 2017. "Bollywood Becomes A Battleground - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/bollywood-becomes-battleground/.

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