Bollywood is everywhere in South Asia. It’s playing on fuzzy TV screens in chai stalls, it’s what aunties are watching at home while they put coconut oil in their hair, it rings through tinny speakers from rickshaws and trucks. Its omnipresence make sense: the multi-billion-dollar industry produces some annual 2,000 movies, lapping Hollywood — which outputs roughly 500 films a year — by a longshot. Bollywood’s sheer volume is matched by its rapacious viewers, who can be found all over the world.
Pakistan is among the biggest consumers of Bollywood films outside of its mother country. The two countries were once a single entity; before the British helped carve out the eastern side of the country, where I live, away from India proper, there was no “Bollywood.” There was just Indian cinema, an industry that in its nascence was enjoyed equally by subjects of the British Raj. After the bloody Partition in 1947 — the event that petrified Pakistan and India in a perpetual state of enmity — the industries weren’t entirely split, but set on alternate paths, their fates sealed with the border.
It wasn’t until the second all-out war between Pakistan and India in 1965 (there have been four, it’s a good Wikipedia page if you have some time) that Indian movies, in the eyes of the Pakistani state, become irreparably “Indian,” and anything “Indian” was considered non-grata in Pakistan. The country’s first military dictator (there have been three — another good Wikipedia page) banned Indian cinema. Shortly after, India did exactly the same for Pakistani-made cinema. The twin bans remained in place for some 40 years, a period in which Bollywood became the leviathan it is today, and Pakistani cinema, dubbed “Lollywood” after the city of Lahore, where the majority of Pakistani movies are made, struggled to survive.
Officially, the ban on Bollywood movies in Pakistan was lifted in 2006 by another military dictator as a gesture of goodwill during a period of relative peace. India followed in turn. But since the lifting of the Bollywood and Lollywood bans, the countries have been locked in tit-for-tat conflict countless times, at least three instances of which have led to new Bollywood bans in Pakistan. Each time, like a histrionic Bollywood actress slapping her contemptuous lover, each side promptly pulls the other’s movies from their box offices, and with a sense of betrayal: “How could you?”
The latest showdown between India and Pakistan happened in late February and escalated to a point at which war seemed imminent. When we woke to the news of two Indian fighter jets reportedly dropping bombs well into Pakistan’s territory — a shocking but confusing update, considering it seems the Indians hit a few trees and nothing else — my boyfriend wisely suggested we see Gully Boy, a hit Bollywood film based on a true story about underground rappers from Mumbai, before the authorities banned Indian movies.
I called ahead to one movie theater to make sure their online box office listings were correct. A few hours later, the cinema’s website had removed Gully Boy as well as all other Indian movies. I called the cinema again. “We’re still showing Gully Boy tonight,” the operator told me. “It’s just not displayed our website due to the current… situation.”
The five-screen theater was surprisingly crowded, considering it was a Wednesday and Gully Boy had been out for a while. It seemed we weren’t the only ones rushing for the film’s unofficial final viewing. The film began, but not without a little-too-on-the-nose preview for an upcoming film produced by the Pakistani military featuring two Pakistani Air Force jets in a dog fight with Indian ones.
“We’re collateral damage. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
Pakistan had just been bombed by Indian fighter jets that morning, but in the commercial, the Pakistani jets won while the Indians crashed and burned. A few of us, myself included, scoffed at the blatant propaganda, but films like that are produced often here. No one else seemed to care. The lights dimmed and a wide shot of Mumbai, a city just over the border from our cinema in Karachi, appeared.
The next day, Gully Boy and all Indian films were officially removed from Pakistani box offices by the Pakistan Association of Film Exhibitors. Pakistani courts extended the ban to TV, effectively eliminating Indian soap operas, movies, and even advertisements from our airwaves. New Indian releases are banned at least through the end of March.
This leaves Pakistan virtually Bollywood-free, which might be counted as a “win” for hawkish Pakistanis. But for cinema owners, even a temporary ban brings back Pakistan’s dark days, when the lack of legitimate partnerships between Pakistani cinema and Bollywood nearly destroyed the industry. Nadeem Mandviwalla, who owns a movie theater in downtown Karachi, has had to shut down Indian films many times due to conflicts just like this one. The last time, he said, was in 2016, when similar circumstances brought Pakistan and India to the brink. “We’re collateral damage,” said Mandviwalla. “There’s nothing we can do about it.” Gesturing to the theater where we were chatting, he said, “At the end of the day, the damage will be here.”
Cinema culture is finally seeing a resurgence in Pakistan. After a near-collapse in the late nineties, several big budget Pakistani films have emerged over the course of the last five years. Coupled with the sudden growth of the multiplex, replete with popcorn and nachos with that melty cheese, fountain sodas, and reclining seats, the upper-middle class has become the main driver of cinema culture. At $5 a ticket, these multiplexes are only affordable them. The theaters show close to 10 films at a time, many of them American-made, but even as new multiplexes crop up, demand is high. I often find showings sold out, something almost unheard of stateside.
The resurgence is owed in large part to members of the Pakistani film industry who fought to keep it alive through the darker periods. Mandviwalla has worked to revive Pakistani cinema during his decades-long career, and has seen many iterations of cinema culture here, including the era of the outright ban, which lasted from 1965 to 2006. Knowing how difficult that period was, he is frustrated by his counterparts in India: in February, after a young man detonated a suicide vest in Indian-controlled Kashmir and killed more than 40 Indian soldiers, the country banned Pakistani actors from appearing in Indian productions. “Nation comes first,” went a statement on the ban by All India Cine Workers Association. “We stand with our nation.” Mandviwalla said it’s frustrating to watch the same narrative play out again, years after the Bollywood ban was lifted. “We’ve already been through this before,” he said. “We know it only hurts ourselves.”
Though Indian box offices banned Pakistani films right after the Pulwama attacks, close to two weeks before Pakistanis banned Indian movies, the financial losses are disproportionately felt. Without Bollywood movies, cinema owners like Mandviwalla have a limited number of new Pakistani films of the same caliber to turn to, as the Lollywood industry is still finding its footing. After decades of being excluded from the massive film industry next door, Pakistan’s production houses only make a few dozen films yearly, hardly at the pace of Bollywood’s thousands, and often lack secure sources of funding needed for big budget films. Cinema houses are still few and far between, with only about 129 screens in a country of 200 million. Pakistani cinema owners and film producers both have trouble making sizable profits with Pakistani films. Reports estimate close to 70 percent of the film industry’s earnings are from Bollywood films, which puts cinema owners at a loss while the bans are in place.
Mandviwalla said the ban feels like a farce when you think about all the ways Pakistanis can access Bollywood movies in spite of it. “Anyone can watch an Indian film anywhere, but the ban just means I’m the only one who can’t show it,” he said.
He’s right. While we rushed off to see Gully Boy on the first day of a crisis that became increasingly tense, I knew I could likely find an illegal download or inevitably find the movie on some in-flight catalogue if I didn’t watch it in cinemas. Truthfully, I had no plans to see it before things started to unravel in the first place. But as the two countries came closer to outright war, the stakes felt higher. It was certainly my last chance to see it in a Pakistani cinema.
It might be why I enjoyed Gully Boy more than I ever thought I would. Mumbai, a sprawling seaside megacity, looks in many ways just like coastal Karachi. I recognized my friends and people I know here in Pakistan in many of the characters: the young Muslim medical student, the rich liberal arts college girl who lives in the U.S. and comes back to India speaking Hindi with an American accent, the father who drives cars for the wealthy but sleeps in a slum. I know it’s corny, but in that moment, it was so clear how similar Indians and Pakistanis are, and how the divisions our nations harbor are imagined.
As we left the theater, the after-showing chatter was equal parts about the movie as it was about how bad things would get between India and Pakistan. As it turns out, things did get worse. All flights in the countries were grounded. People stocked up on groceries and gas. TV channels on both sides of the border became one big jingoistic blur. Misinformation and fear spread by the hour. There were talks of missiles and submarine warfare. A lot more than just the movies was at stake.
When things went sour, a lot of big names in India took to Twitter with messages of patriotism. “Jai Hind” — or “Victory for India” — was the prevailing hashtag. I checked the actor who played Gully Boy, whose performance made me swell with pan-South Asian emotion. Sure enough, he’d tweeted “Jai Hind” too. It was just a tweet, but it snapped me out of my romantic notions of a borderless South Asia.
Mandviwalla, who pulled Gully Boy from his cinemas the day after we talked, likened what happens between our countries to a script. We’ve seen this film before and, most likely, we’ll see it again.