Bollywood – bringing India and Pakistan closer together

Fans of Muslim Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan gather outside a cinema showing his latest blockbuster film "Dunki"
Bollywood movie 'Dunki' stars Shah Rukh Khan, one of India's most bankable film actors (image: Satyajit Shaw/DW)

Indian movie stars, especially from Bollywood, have huge fan bases in Pakistan – despite the bitter political rivalry between the neighbouring nations. What's driving this popularity?

By Mohammad Salman

Films in Pakistan need to be cleared by provincial boards that censor anything deemed a violation of the country's social and cultural values.

And, since 2019, movies produced by India's Hindi film industry, based out of the country's financial capital, Mumbai, and more popularly known as Bollywood, have not been allowed at cinemas in Pakistan.

When the blockbuster "Pathaan" with actor Shah Rukh Khan was publicly screened in Karachi's affluent DHA neighbourhood in January 2023, the censor board in Pakistan's southern province of Sindh, where Karachi is located, stopped the screening.

Relations between Pakistan and neighbouring India have seldom been cordial, particularly because of the disputed Kashmir territory. Nevertheless, many Pakistani cinemagoers are ardent followers of Bollywood and its stars.

Apart from Shah Rukh Khan, known as the "King of Bollywood", whose latest comedy-drama "Dunki" was released in cinemas in December 2023, other Bollywood actors such as Aamir Khan, Deepika Padukone and Ranbir Kapoor enjoy a large following in Pakistan.

In the past few years, movies produced in the southern part of India – or helmed by directors hailing from the south – have gained popularity in Pakistan because of their action-oriented and technology-driven storylines.

Adding to the appeal of Bollywood on the other side of the geographical divide is the language featured in the films, Hindi. Hindi is similar to Urdu, which is the language widely spoken in Muslim-majority Pakistan. Also, a number of artists and technicians working in Bollywood are Muslim, including Shah Rukh Khan himself.

Large format poster of Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan in his latest film "Dunki"; in the foreground his fans celebrate
World-famous: transcending national borders, Muslim Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan is a cultural phenomenon (image: Sankhadeep Banerjee/NurPhoto/picture-alliance)

Bollywood: marketing or content?

Despite the tensions between India and Pakistan at the state level, similar cultural aspects beween the two nations persist – particularly when it comes to movies and music.

"I heard a TV host the other day talk about the subject. He was of the view that before 1947, in undivided India, we were making similar films," said actor Mohib Mirza. "Our heroes also sang songs in the valleys and around the trees. But I think influence is a different subject. Bollywood itself is not original – it's heavily influenced by many other countries."

"The reason our audiences watch Indian films is the way they 'market' their stuff," Mirza added. "No matter what, we will get the news about what's happening in India."

But journalist Ghazi Salahuddin disagrees. "Bollywood has a lot of influence in Pakistan, primarily because its films are widely watched in the country for their quality and content, something that we lack," he explained.

"They have adapted to technological advancement, as well," said Salahuddin. "They have a big international market due to which they can afford to experiment and spend a lot of money on their screen projects. India's economic success has a role to play in it, too."

Indian and Pakistani movies have song and dance sequences, said filmmaker Shoaib Sultan, whose directorial debut "Gunjal" was released in cinemas on 15 December. "It's a massive industry. Our audiences watch it because it's entertaining and larger than life." 

Given that Pakistan lacks a major film industry of its own, movie distributors and cinema owners in the country now largely depend on releases from major Hollywood studios to keep their businesses afloat.

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Dearth of Pakistani films at the box office

"Until we [in Pakistan] start making movies, people will keep watching Bollywood," said film distributor and exhibitor Nadeem Mandviwalla.

"These are the only two countries in the world which make movies the same way: song-and-dance sequences, dresses and the language, etc.," he said. "They call it the Hindi language and we call it Urdu. They use 80% Urdu words in Hindi."

"Peace activists on either side keep trying to bring the temperatures in the political field down," said Salahuddin. "Indians and Pakistanis travel a lot and have large diasporas, because of which they meet each other outside South Asia."  

Mandviwalla highlighted the importance of Indian movies in Pakistan. "Our people know so much about India because of their exposure to its films," the film distributor said. "For the last 40 years the Pakistani public has been watching Indian content."

But, since Pakistan banned Indian movies in 2019, exhibitors and distributors in the country have had a tough time. "We [as exhibitors] tell our government that there are only two choices: either allow Indian content, or make at least 100 to 150 movies a year, which will help the Pakistani film industry stand on its feet," Mandviwalla said.

As government leaders work to resolve the larger differences between the neighbouring countries, their people can continue to focus on their cultural similarities. 

Mohammad Salman

© Deutsche Welle 2024