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Stopping 'Maula Jatt' Release an Attempt To End All Indo-Pak Cultural Exchanges

The release of Pakistan’s highest-grossing film could have given a fillip to the idea of peace through culture.

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In the Ahmed Nadim Qasmi short story Gandasa, the character Maula Jatt is pushed to commit acts of violence by his mother who craves revenge. The story narrates the transformation of a common village man into a feared murderer.

In the end, the bloodshed gets to Maula, as does his mother’s spite and lust for blood, and in the climax, he, an embodiment of masculinity, cries in front of his mother for pushing him and using him as a tool for revenge. 

While Qasmi’s story finds its roots in the 1960s when the Indo-Pak war had affected the psyche of Pakistanis and made them prone to militaristic and masculine ambitions, the story is a great allegory for our current times where many, in both India and Pakistan, thrive on anger and its resulting strife rather than look for answers to end an ongoing hateful battle.

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It is rather poetic that a film that derives heavily from Qasmi’s Maula Jatt character has become an arena for another round of animosity between India and Pakistan – where cultural exchange and the release of a film is somewhat looked at as a sign of betrayal. Much like the mother in the story, there is an angry society unwilling to yield space to those looking to build bridges and find peace.

When news of the India release of the Bilal Lashari-directed and Fawad Khan-starrer Punjabi film The Legend of Maula Jatt came, many were wary. Pakistani films rarely get a release in India, and since the 2016 Uri attack where 19 Indian soldiers were killed, there has been a reduction in the number of Pakistani artists arriving in India to work in the film and art space.

In the mid-2000s there was a high number of Pakistani talent in Indian films, with Pakistani singers and bands also regularly performing in Indian cities. With geopolitical troubles and animosity between the Indian and Pakistani governments, this cultural exchange programme has all but disappeared.

The release of Pakistan’s highest-grossing film could have given a fillip to the idea of peace through culture. But already there are are reports that the release of the film, which was set to be screened in Punjab on 30 December, has been postponed indefinitely.

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While there has been no official statement, the political connotations are difficult to miss. There have been instances where political groups have opted to resort to violence as an expression of their opposition to Pakistani artists.

It was in 2014 when a pre-moderate Shiv Sena members barged into a press conference to block the Pakistani Mekaal Hasan band’s announcement for an Indo-Pak collaboration.

Film theatres and financiers grew wary of any form of violence and sought to avoid facing the ire of social media trolls who have grown in strength over the years in creating manipulated narratives through their ‘boycott’ campaigns.  

A film that has no political colour to it has been thrust into cross-border politics. Many on social media are against the film’s release primarily because of its potential in the thawing of cold relations.

While Indians and Pakistanis display bonhomie in the Pakistan Coke Studio videos’ comments section on YouTube, there has been an absence of physical interaction between the citizens of the two countries.

So, while the release of a Pakistani film will not necessarily warm all Indians to their Pakistani counterparts, the consumption of Pakistani art could help in instigating, at the very least, artistic conversations between the two nations, especially since Pakistani artistes have been prohibited from shooting or performing in India for a number of years.

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Indian films have been particularly popular in Pakistan, despite the supposed bans put on them from the 60s. It was not uncommon to come across pirated DVDs of Indian films in local stores in Lahore. The death of popular Punjabi singer Sidhu Moose Wala was also an instance where Pakistanis displayed an affinity for an Indian artist.

In Other Side of the Divide, Sameer Arshad Khatlani writes about how "the end of the ban on Bollywood films in the nineties revived the cinema-going culture in Pakistan, brought in revenue, and increased the demand for better content.” This, he said, revived the Pakistani film industry as several multiplexes cropped up in Pakistani cities.

Essentially, the success of Maula Jatt owes a lot to the fact that the Pakistani audience is keen on Indian films, evidenced by the fact that by 2016, Pakistan had emerged as one among the top five overseas Bollywood markets with over 200 Indian movies screened in the country.

A major reason why the Pakistani film’s release has been objected to could be it’s status as an inherently Punjabi film promoting Punjabi village culture. Set in a period era with no specific date, the film gives a glimpse of an idealised rural Punjab life with its set design and costumes. Unlike the original film from 1979, this film is more of an undivided Punjab story, which perhaps adds to the concerns that many have with the film releasing in India.

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Against a background of intense political attempts at creating a dichotomy of us vs them, a Pakistani Punjabi film has the potential to threaten this. It has been, after all, largely through the popularity of Pakistani TV serials in India that false notions that many Indians had about Pakistan have been broken. 

(Ibrar is a freelance journalist and analyst currently based in the UK. He is an alumnus of SOAS University of London where he studied South Asian Area Studies focusing on democracy, authoritarianism and culture of South Asia. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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