Asian Editors Circle

Selling a brand named nationalism

It's time to worry when an utterly illogical proposition begins to sound halfway logical because it has been repeated over and over again, and because glaring gaps in reason have been plugged with dollops of nationalism. The ongoing cultural war between India and Pakistan, flagged off by a controversy surrounding the screening of a Bollywood film and culminating in a ban by Pakistan of all Indian content, is a case in point.

The Bollywood film stars a Pakistani actor, Fawad Khan, who apparently portrays an important role on the basis of a valid permit to work in India. He cannot be excised from the film without it having to be remade. He has acted in several Indian films without any questions having been asked. No one, it seems, asked him to swear an oath of loyalty to the Indian flag before letting him work.

From all accounts, Khan had finished shooting for the film when an Indian Army camp in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir, was attacked on Sept 18 by infiltrators from Pakistan.

Tensions between the two neighbours have reached a near fever pitch, especially after India announced it had carried out a surgical strike on terrorist staging posts across the Line of Control separating the two countries less than 10 days after the Uri attack.

In short, it is all but war and now the front-line troops are cineastes.

Earlier this month, an influential group of exhibitors announced they would not screen the film because it featured a Pakistani actor.

The tenor of public discourse veered sharply down a nationalistic path, with some influential television anchors leading discussion groups into agreeing that India ought to have no truck with actors and other creative persons from a country that has allowed its territory to be used as a base for terrorists.

Pakistani actor Fawad Khan had reportedly finished shooting for a film when an Indian Army camp in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir, was attacked on Sept 18 by infiltrators from Pakistan. That film is now mired in controversy, with some Indian exhibitors not wanting to screen it because of the star actor's nationality. PHOTO: VMALL

The scalpel of reason would find several ways to slice up this proposition. For starters, in the seven decades since the partition of India, the country's film industry has thrived on the work of actors and directors with roots in Pakistan. Indeed, the first post-independence generation of India's best-known actors and directors were mostly born in what became Pakistan. Through the wars of 1948, 1965 and 1971, they worked successfully without their origins provoking nationalists or dissuading fans.

The offspring of many with ancestors in present-day Pakistan still rule the roost in Bollywood, their ruddy pink complexions an essential ingredient of the manliness Indian viewers seek in heroes. If a link with Pakistan is the only basis for disqualification, they would all be out of work.

But that is not so much the problem for modern-day nationalists as it is the fact that the film industry - its many excesses, including dubious funding and frequent tomfoolery, notwithstanding - is largely a secular one, and places talent on a pedestal while shunning parochialism.

This was once a source of pride, not just for the industry but for Indians. But in the strange reasoning that now makes up the dominant discourse in India, a secularist is actually pseudo-secular; a liberal or an intellectual must be a communist and every dissenter is a traitor. To this, add the unstated but implied proposition that every Muslim must be a Pakistani and a chokehold is applied on anyone who dares ask a question.

Not every film personality is secular, liberal, a dissenter or Muslim. But as with every creative field, including journalism, filmdom has several who are one or the other or, in a few cases, even all.

Once inconvenient voices are thus labelled up and shouted down, it is easy to see how the leap is accomplished from a contemptible attack on an army camp to sending a film with a Pakistan actor into the doghouse. Two plus two doesn't make five because it is wrong, but because some people say it is actually six. This message, when deciphered, reads as follows - Pakistan, an enemy state, sends its terrorists to attack India's soldiers, and its actors and performers to corrupt Indian minds. And the once-soft Indian state, held back for so long by liberals, secularists and dissenters, has now decided to target both terrorist and actor because being from Pakistan, an enemy state, each of them must equally be the enemy. Sadly, an increasing number of people see nothing wrong in this convolution.

But it isn't just the matter of a single film. Viewing creativity through the nationalistic prism is fast threatening to reach epic proportions on either side of a fractious border. Earlier this week, an iconic 1959 Pakistani film with Indian artists was dropped from the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image festival following protests.

Pakistan, for its part, has announced a ban on all Indian television and radio content, and has also stopped the screening of Indian films, presumably including those featuring Pakistani actors.

There is a difference, though; while the attacks in India come from various groups, they are not - at least not yet - the declared policy of the state. In Pakistan, though, say reports, the ban is on direct orders of the government, which would presumably translate to being Islamabad's surgical strike on India.

Someone wise once called nationalism the result of state-sponsored branding. Many today in South Asia seem determined to promote their brand at the cost of their audience.

And that is the most illogical aspect of this proposition. As the world worries if two nuclear-armed neighbours will go to war, they are busy spitting celluloid on each other.

  • This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2016, with the headline 'Selling a brand named nationalism'. Print Edition | Subscribe