Just how real is the ‘ban’?

December 29, 2013

Just how real is the ‘ban’?

The Motion Pictures Ordinance, 1979 makes no mention of it. The 1,209 ‘negative’ (or prohibited) items listed in the Import Trade Policy 2012-13 do not include this. There is no clear provision in the Punjab Motion Pictures (Amendment) Bill 2012 regarding a ‘ban’ of any kind. So, where does the bar on the screening of Indian films in Pakistani theatres come from, in the first place? Even as the government eased up on the import of feature films from across the border in Musharraf’s time, circa 2006, the ‘issue’ has kept coming back -- albeit in popular knowledge -- only to reinforce the ambiguity surrounding it.

There are those who blame it on "some presidential order" (in the words of leading film critic and academic Ajaz Gul) dating back to Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s time, post 1965-war. Indian films which had been a regular feature in Pakistani cinema houses till then were now declared ‘enemy property’.

The Martial Law Order ’81 sought to decertify all Indian films that had been released between 1947 and ‘81. Furthermore, the Trade Policy prohibited import of any film whose language and/or actors are Indian or Pakistani. These movies needed to obtain NOC from the Ministry of Commerce before they could be presented for review by the Central Board of Film Censors.

It translated as a ‘ban’ nonetheless and continued through decades. The ban was so well placed that it impacted the import of a big Hollywood franchise like Raiders of the Lost Arc because it starred Bollywood actor Amrish Puri. The only two Indian movies that ever saw the light of the day in Pakistani theatres -- Meena Kumari’s Noor Jehan and Reena Roy-starrer Kashish -- were afforded special permission by Gen Ziaul Haq in 1981 because Sheikh Mukhtar, the actor-producer of Noor Jehan, had migrated to Pakistan for good and Dr Jan, the importer of Kashish, had promised the government to use all revenue generated from the box office collections of the movie in building an eye hospital in the country. (That Kashish flopped and no one ever came around to starting a hospital is history.)

It is interesting to note that even though Indian movies have always enjoyed huge popularity among the masses in Pakistan, it wasn’t until Gen Pervez Musharraf that film was actually seen as a diplomacy channel to improve relations with the neighbouring country. In April 2006, Akbar Khan’s Taj Mahal and a digitally coloured version of K Asif’s epic Mughal-e-Azam became the first two Indian films in decades to be officially screened in Pakistani theatres. Both the films were historicals, set in the Mughal era, and ‘gifted’ to president Musharraf.

In August 2007, the release of Awarapan, starring a more mainstream actor Emraan Hashmi, was justified as being an Indo-Pak co-production. The same year, John Abraham’s Goal made it to cinemas in Pakistan. It was now believed that an Indian film that had been shot outside of India -- Goal was shot entirely in the UK -- could be considered for release here. But most of this was only popular misconception.

History shows how the release of legendary Bollywood actor-director Dev Anand’s blockbuster Jaal in 1952 was vociferously resisted by the film fraternity on this side of the border.

In 2008’s blockbuster Race, the Pakistani importers had their first real taste of box-office success in an imported Indian film, which paved the way for similar deals by more and more people associated with the cinema industry. The crooks also had a field day. Bollywood films were routinely smuggled into the country by obtaining the Certificate of Origin (CO) from the UK or Dubai.

On April 4, 2011, the then government of PPP devolved the powers of the Central Board of Film Censors to individual provinces through the Eighteenth Amendment. This move is yet to pay dividends.

According to Senior Inspector Punjab Film Censor Board (PFCB) Imran Shahzad Khan, the situation is "all hotchpotch."

"There should be a proper legislation on the import of Indian films," he insists. "Our awaam is crazy about Bollywood movies. They will watch them on DVDs etc, no matter what. The government should understand this fact and also how these movies can generate revenue when brought in officially.

"Direct import of Indian movies shall help us to get rid of those entering through backdoor channels."

Leading film distributor and the owner of one of the biggest multiplex chains in the country, Nadeem Mandviwala rubbishes all talk about there being a ban in place. "The Motion Pictures Ordinance, 1979 only gives us the censor certification code," he explains.

For the uninitiated, Section 6, Clause 1 of the said Ordinance states that a "film shall not be certified for public exhibition if, in the opinion of the Board, the film or any part thereof is prejudicial to the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan or any part thereof, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or amounts to the commission of, or incitement to, an offence."

Running parallel to the fight of the cinema owners, distributors and importers for legalising Bollywood movies in Pakistan are the insecurity and vested interests of those belonging to the Lahore-based (almost defunct) film industry aka Lollywood. An out-of-work director Aslam Dar recently got a bunch of ‘like-minded’ producers and directors to throw their weight behind him as he moved court against the exhibition of what he termed "smuggled" Indian movies. To his heart’s content, the court ordered stay.

Earlier, on November 18, the Lahore High Court passed a ruling in response to a petition. That an agreement was reached between the aggrieved parties and the case was withdrawn is no secret.

The film people’s insecurity is not a recent phenomenon. History shows how the release of legendary Bollywood actor-director Dev Anand’s blockbuster Jaal in 1952 was vociferously resisted by the film fraternity on this side of the border. It actually snowballed into a movement, popularly termed the ‘Jaal Agitation’. Earlier, in ‘51, the Pakistan film producers banded together to stop Raj Kapoor’s Awara showing in local cinemas.

The industry has long been divided into two groups -- those who were in favour of allowing Bollywood movies in Pakistani cinemas and others who contested it.

Mercifully, the two groups have now met half-way. As renowned filmmaker Syed Noor puts it, "We understand that Indian films have brought a cinematic boom in Pakistan. We aren’t against them, we just want it to be done in a legal way.

"We also want a fair representation of our movies in cinemas," he continues. "I’m glad that exhibitors such as [Nadeem Mandviwala], Ramzan Sheikh and Faraz Chaudhry saw our point. They invited us to sign on an MoU whereby their cinemas will give half the number of shows to Lollywood movies."

"The recent court order is only an affirmation of the rule," adds Mandviwala. "The court has only directed the government not to censor any Indian film in violation of the Import Trade Policy 2012-13. There’s no stopping those who import a film through proper channel."

Just how real is the ‘ban’?