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Love thy neighbor

Published Jun 20, 2012 06:34pm


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One of the things that Bollywood does to survive is to simply soak in the foreign elements so much that they feel at home. A few years ago Rahat Fateh Ali Khan might have been that velvet voice from across the border but now he’s the one who renders those soulful numbers. Adnan Sami might have started off with his non-Indian pop album but today, he can croon in a Tamil song well enough to charm the listener. Bollywood’s love for Pakistani artists and theirs for it is way beyond mere neighborly adoration.

Subcontinental cinema’s battle with Indian cinema is unevenly tilted in Bollywood favor. With its unparalleled reach, the lure of connecting with the widest audience in the world is what attracts artists from all across to Bollywood. In spite of reservations even regional Indian artists haven’t been able to resist the pull of commercial Hindi cinema. Hollywood might accept Antonio Banderas and his undying accent but here a Mohanlal must justify his out of place accent. It works for him in a film like Company (2002) but falls flat when he reprises the role of Sholay’s Thakur Baldev Singh in Ram Gopal Varma’s abysmal remake. If you ask the trade then the only thing that matters is the actor’s ability to convince the audiences that they are one of ‘them’ and no, acting prowess isn’t a discerning factor. Sridevi or Vyjayanthimala weren’t outsiders but a Kamal Hassan was, sadly, exotic, which explains his ‘failure’ in Hindi cinema.

In the early 1980s artists from Pakistan were often sought to give things that same, same but different edge. Someone like Rati Agnihotri would have been equally convincing as Niloufer Bano in Nikaah (1983) but Salma Agha’s mere presence adds a unique aura to B.R Chopra’s Muslim social. Agha’s own voice in songs like Dil Ke Armaan and Pyar Bhi Hai Jawan added the unforgettable touch much like Nazia Hassan’s Aap Jaisa Koi from Qurbani (1980) and Reshma’s mesmeric Lambi Judai from Hero (1982). The ability of being one of ‘them’ notwithstanding artists from Pakistan couldn’t really escape the exotic tag in one form or the other especially when the arc lights were turned off. When Manoj Kumar cast Zeba and Mohammed Ali in Clerk (1989) they helplessly watched their onscreen characters of Rukmani and Ram succumb to the intense off-screen spotlight of being the first Pakistani artists in ages to star in a Hindi film. The only one who managed to escape this somehow was Moshin Khan. The former cricketer turned actor’s limited skills in addition to his doomed marriage to Reena Roy could have shortened his career but with films like Batwara (1989) and Saathi (1991), he never suffered the imported goods tag.

Does the nationality of an artist make any real difference to the role? Randhir Kapoor’s Henna (1991) with Zeba Bakhtiar is the ultimate example of an actor’s nationality being utilised to near perfection. Everything that she did following Henna never measured up but more importantly Zeba’s nationality, which was almost like the marketing tool for Henna, might have worked against. She would always be the outsider for the average Indian audience. The rules of this neighborly game are being re-written and unlike Zeba, nationality has only helped Ali Zafar. The ingenuity of Zafar’s debut film Tere Bin Laden (2010) has ensured that his nationality remains limited to that film. Based in Pakistan, Tere Bin Laden is almost like a Pakistani indie film that broke into the Indian market and following its success Zafar has been lapped up. The singer-actor blends perfectly into the scheme of new Bollywood as proved by his roles Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011) as well as London, Paris New York (2012) and has three more films lined-up.

From the looks of it Zafar is here to stay and given his success he can’t be blamed for choosing Bollywood over anything else. While this cross border love adds millions to the Indian producer’s coffers, it is also partially responsible for the state of affairs of local cinema in Pakistan. Half a century since Noor Jehan bid adieu to Bombay leaving behind a million broken hearts, her grand daughter, Soniya Jehan couldn’t resist a Bollywood launch in Taj Mahal – An Eternal Love Story (2005).

The phenomenal growth of Bollywood not only finds patrons in Pakistan but also tempts Pakistani artists. Moreover a lack of a similar bustling industry forces them to look long-term towards Mumbai. Their success here keeps the local industry from reaping the benefits and this limbo isn’t good for Pakistani films. Ideally, Zafar should look at getting few of films made there, which would not only help the local talent but more importantly give Bollywood something that it loves – exotic.

Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here and follow him @gchintamani

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Gautam Chintamani loves to closely observe society when not being devoured by Bollywood, politics and everything in between. Commissioned by Harper Collins, Gautam is presently working on a biography of Rajesh Khanna due to come out later this year. He tweets @GChintamani.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (23) Closed

Onkar sharma Jun 20, 2012 10:31am
Ali Zafar has what Bollywood was looking for. He is artistic, talented and more importantly a very good heart.
deep Jun 22, 2012 07:26am
I congratulate you all to have choosen the perfect forum to wash our linen ????
Ammar Jun 20, 2012 04:57pm
But Bollywood doesn't have artistic, talented and more importantly a very good heart for lolly wood
Gautam Chintamani Jun 23, 2012 09:41am
Hey Sanal, Kamal never stayed back in Bombay in spite of films like Sanam Teri Kasam and Saagar for the simple reason that he wasn't getting any good offers. Perhaps the final blow was Feroz Khan's decision to replace him with Vinod Khanna in the 'official' remake of Nayagan. What was the reason for Bollywood limiting it's interest in both Rajini and Kamal? I think it's the notion that it has which believes that south Indian heroes wouldn't work beyond a point which did them in. That's why Hindi films used them sparingly like Rajini and his Hindi roles. It's because of this I consider them to be 'exotic'. And Kamal's 'failure' to crack the Hindi market is apparent from him trying to make a point with a Hindi version of his films like Hindustan, and remakes of his own films like Chachi 420 or multi-linguals like Mumbai Express. It's true that Indian cinema is much more than just Bollywood...a lot of good and better cinema is happening elsewhere, especially Marathi, which is by far the most exciting as far as Indian cinema goes. But the lure and reach of Bollywood is unquestionable. Also there's a different take to the whole Kamal-Manmohan Desai tale. Turns out that Manmohan Desai couldn't get over Kamal's simple demand of wishing to see the script before he committed! That film was Allah Rakha and was made with Jackie Shroff.
Manaal Khan Jun 20, 2012 08:31pm
A wonderful take on Hindi Cinema's utilization of Pakistani talent. I wish they were more Indian in nature than wearing 80's styles from the US. I am sorry but that is what one feels while watching the Indian Idol. If you promote desi values with people wearing local attire, it would do you a world of good. I love the Bollywood movies but lately they are not producing any thing new, just regurgitating western stance of things.
G.a Jun 20, 2012 07:59pm
Fact is that Pakistani cinema can never rival Bollywood due to the latter's size and glamour and it doesn't have to either. England, Canada and Australia are English speaking and have their own production houses. Yet they can never rival Hollywood and due to the latter's sheer size and global recognition cannot even enter the U.S. market parallel to Hollywood. These three countries go for collaboration instead and that is probably the only route Pakistani cinema can take vis. a vis. Bollywood. Egypt is another example where it plays the leading role in Arabic films.
juggernaut Jun 20, 2012 07:35pm
India had different cultures in every state .. south India is more talented progressively hence they are doing better than entire subcontinent....talent knows no boundaries or limitations....
Gaurav Arya Jun 20, 2012 11:24am
When his first film was released, Indians said "Hey, this Pakistani actor is good". By the time "Mere brother ki dulhan" was released, Indians started saying "Hey, Ali Zafar ki film hai". Today, no one in India thinks Rahat is a Pakistani singer. To Indians he is simply a guy with a fantastic voice. A few hits and Zafar will go down the same road. Nationality (Indian or Pakistani) anyway should not matter to artists. As Faiz saheb said, they are "azaad parinde".
mani Jun 20, 2012 11:25am
Wow what an unbiased and 'matter of fact' write. You probably are a true cinephile cause you are encouraging filmmaking from places which traditionally haven't produced many... at least watchable ones. Right on... a little competition for Bollywood can only be good for all parties concerned.
SANAL V NAIR Jun 20, 2012 06:57pm
Dear Gautam, I didn't understood what you meant by " a Kamal Hassan was, sadly, exotic, which explains his ‘failure’ in Hindi cinema."... For your Information..Kamal Hassan was not at all a failure..instead he liked to stay in South only with his Great Tamil & other South Indian projects...I remember in one of his interview he has mentioned ManMohan Desai , a BIG producer from Bollywood came to his house for a role and he didn't even offerred him a Tea which he was not aware of. Anyway, Bollywood is not about everything..Remembr Good Films in India and Good Actors / Actresses in India are certainly not from Bollywood. Instead they are mostly from South Indian (Malayalam, Tamil) or Bangali and now a days from Marathi films only... Remembr, even the biggest paid actor (RajniKanth ) in India is not from Bollywood.
hari Jun 20, 2012 02:11pm
what keeps south India and North India united, while pakistan is not with India ?
Ali W Jun 20, 2012 01:52pm
As much as I've always liked Ali Zafar's music and even his first drama in Pakistan telivision called "Landa Bazaar"; I'm not sure if I can say the same for any of his bollywood films. "Tere Bin Laden" aside, they all have been just okay. His acting was still superb, but the movie overall didn't do for me. I wish him the best and hope the upcoming films would be more entertaining.
Sree Jun 20, 2012 09:06am
North India and Pakistan share the same culture and language, while South India is apart from both of them.
Girish Jun 20, 2012 11:33pm
Pleas enlighten us by telling what that culture and language is.
Sandipan Jun 21, 2012 05:08am
What do mean by north India. Do you consider Bengal, Bihar Orissa, North East, Gujrat and Maharastra are part of north India. Then these cultures are no way related to so called "Pakistani" culture. As an Indian we celebrate the Indian culture. Daso, idli, dhokla, momo are equally favourite food item along with chats and kababs in north India and Rajni is the all time BIGGEST start of Indian cinema.
Gautam Chintamani Jun 21, 2012 05:59am
Like the manner in which you used Faiz's 'Azaad parinde' to sum it up.
Naveed A. Jami Jun 21, 2012 06:39am
The song from film NIkah is not "Pyar bhi hai jawan" but "Faza bhi hai jawan"
Bush Jun 21, 2012 07:29am
Beautifully said!
Imran Azim Butt Jun 21, 2012 08:14am
Everyone, you have missed out the heroine in the recent hit film Rockstar. She is half Pakistani and half Chech.
sanjay kumar Jun 22, 2012 01:00am
The comments for each contributor is equally good as does the article is. A good read after a hot summer day....
Akil Akhtar Jun 22, 2012 03:58am
Yes we know indians like to forget the artist is from pakistan and introduce them as from subcontinent or totally ignore where theya re from. Indians cannot utter the word pakistan in a positive manner......
Zeeshan Dogar Jun 22, 2012 01:57pm
A special edition issue of Herald magazine highlighted the top 100 greatest Pakistani achievers from various backgrounds. Over 95 of them were artists composed of musicians, actors, singers and dancers. There was only 1 scientist, a sports personality and a single writer on that list. What does that say about our society when the majority of the intellect are made up of different artists? In a well-known Islamic rivayat, a precarious sign of the end of times is when musicians and 'fankaars' will be accorded respect and admiration.
Dr RKRAO REBBA Jun 23, 2012 06:53am
This is wrong. We proudly say Dilip Kumar was born in an area which is now Pakistan, and our Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh and a senior BJP leader were both born in Pakistan. We love Pakistanis, who are our brothers and from the same blood. Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Gandhi both of them are from Gujarat, and our leading bollywood actors have connection with Pakistan. We feel proud that talented artists from Pakistan, have made India their home. We would like to see that even common man from India and Pakistan can share and enjoy the common bond, and help one another, in getting rid of the bad blood.