In a small town in Uttar Pradesh , a comic pair was doing its best to evoke some laughter at a wedding reception. People seemed more interested in the food, but would occasionally glance at the pair and say: “Yeh wahi Pakistani joda hai na Comedy Circus wala.” Finally, both Irfan Malik and Ali Hasan gave up. The act was followed by Raju Shrivastava’s, and suddenly the clatter of food queues was replaced by loud laughter caused by familiar jokes about Bhabhijis and Jijajis. Another Pakistani, Veena Malik, has taken her cue from Rakhi Sawant and there are enough aspiring starlets living in the paying guest accommodations of Versova to crowd every film made in India. Yet we have them dropping in droves from Pakistan: Mehreen Sayeed, Muskan Khan, Sayeeda Imtiaz, Mona Lizza and Laila Khan. There are more humorous comedians than the awful Shakeel Siddiqui, girls prettier than Humaima Malik; and if you like it wacky, then Imam is a better version of Begum Nawazish. Home grown Sonu Nigams, Shaan and Indian Idol winners can take on all comers, including Atif Aslam, Ali Haider and Ali Raja. Almost every North-east band worth its salt can do a Strings, and better. Yet, we have a situation. Pakistani artistes—some with doubtful pasts and antecedents—have begun crowding the richer and varied Indian entertainment zone in the shadow of a liberal policy. Tanuj Garg, CEO of Balaji Motion Pictures, who’s scouted for talent in Pakistan, says: “We, in India, have been far more welcoming of Pakistani talents than they have been of Indian artistes.”
So we have Vidhu Vinod Chopra launching Humaima in Chitthiyan. Veena doing a Malyalam version of Dirty Picture and Mona Lizza who flopped opposite Himesh in Kajrare finds a new taker in Mahesh Bhatt for Murder 3. Laila Khan who mysteriously disappeared when her farmhouse in Igatpuri near Mumbai burnt down also found work opposite Rajesh Khanna in Wafaa. Nargis Fakhri who came via New York had a hit in Ranbir-starrer Rock Star and has found several modeling assignments. Adnan Sami with his Lift Kara De delivered some catchy hits, but has sunk along with his weight. At last count, there are at least two dozen Pakistani artistes, actors and singers active in Bollywood, TV and the stage shows.
It began with Pervez Musharraf lifting the ban on Indian films imposed by General Zia in 2005. It meant Bollywood movies could be officially released in Pakistan. Mahesh Bhatt, never to give up on such opportunity, went there and brought with him the hideously bleached Meera. She did a film; no-one remembers the film or the actress but the gossip over her alleged nude belly dancing for Sheikhs persists. Musharraf’s India visit also opened the doors for trade in certain articles, created some business opportunities and caused an easing of the tight visa regime. The UPA government went one step further and allowed a generous policy on artistes travelling to India. It also included journalists, painters and sculptors, architects and the like. Several cross-border exchange groups have come up that have made holding conferences and seminars an annual gala feature.
Salman and Shah Rukh plucked out some gems like Rahat Fateh Ali and Shafqat Amanat, but the plane loads that arrived via the Comedy Circus, Big Boss, B-grade movies route caused a pile-up in Bollywood and down south. “The thing with Pakistani artistes is that once the novelty value is soaked in, there is little left. The breadth is just not there. Consequently, they get lost after a decent start,” says Vandana Sethi, an event manager. The worst perhaps are the comedians with their take on Pathans and crude Punjabi one-liners. It speaks of a country in love with insulting others. “Their idea of comedy is a bit robust,” as Shekhar Suman who has judged several of them puts it.
In the interim there have been any number of Janshers, Somy Alis, Altaf Rajas and Meeras who came and disappeared under the pile. But every month a new one lands up with a new jig and starry eyes. There are event managers and online agencies hawking ones with some catchy already-tested hit in Pakistan. “We come to India in the hope of finding a bigger audience and better work conditions, including technology,” says Ali Raja. For singers, an India ticket is a money-spinner, as they end up becoming part of world tours by Bollywood stars. The music companies and film producers also open up vast newer markets.
The intelligence agencies, nevertheless, doubt that some of these artistes are tutored by the ISI to behave and function in a manner that may not be desirable. Laila Khan’s antecedents are being verified. The experience with a popular ghazal singer of the 1980s is fresh in Indian minds. The singer who loves to wrap the shawl across and keeps his right arm free was also played by Naseeruddin Shah in a film in the 1990s, starring Aamir Khan. Then how did the government suddenly become so liberal in the new millennium?
“It was a well thought out policy after debates in select public domains. The idea was that if more Pakistanis travel to India and find businesses and careers, the more entrenched they would feel,” says an MEA official. The “business as usual” that the prime minister referred to in his televised address meant that government had consciously taken a decision to engage with the other side, and allow influx of people and material. Offer of peace, entrenchment, entrapment. Of the next generation. To dilute the hatred.
Clearly, it has not worked. After 117 raids and ceasefire violations, and the recent beheading of an Indian soldier, Pakistan seems to have decided otherwise. The hockey players have been sent back and the cricket team does not seem like getting an invitation for another five years. Several concerts have been cancelled and uncertainty hangs over films starring Pakistani artistes. Veena Malik had survived the MNS hungama outside the Big Boss house when she was inside, but it might get trickier this time. The Shiv Sena and MNS that have almost always been at the forefront of violent resistance against Pakistanis has successfully chased out the nine Pakistani players invited for the Hockey India League. The government had also banned cricketing relations, but relented last month. It may be ruing the decision already.
A slightly older generation will recall how during the peak of the ghazal wave sweeping India in the 1980s, artistes like Ghulam Ali and Mehdi Hasan were frequently invited to India. Ghulam Ali would gladly sing at college festivals in Delhi and in towns like Lucknow and Bhopal. His contemporaries, Pankaj Udhas and Anup Jalota, both benefited by their presence and music. Mehdi Hasan and Nusrat Fateh Ali would find a slightly more refined and evolved audience in elite clubs and qawwali mehfils. Their music was succour to the starved souls who despaired at the decline of ghazal, poetry and ‘culture’ after Partition. Another segment of society tapped its foot to Hawa, Hawa by Hassan Jehangir. The video boom had enabled yet another Pakistani artiste and his gig to entice Indian viewers. Umer Sharif and his Bakra Kishton Mein was a rage across video shops and had a starved-by-Doordarshan generation in splits. Salma Agha with her green eyes, black hijab and nasal voice provided an authentic touch to Nikaah. A little later, in the early 1990s, Raj Kapoor brought in the half-Hungarian Zeba Bakhtiyar with Henna, but these required special efforts on the part of producers and their sponsors, unlike the unchecked flood just now.
Conditions on the other side of the border may also not be amenable to further export of Pakistani talent. An article in London’s Telegraph notes that the “exodus of artistes and import of Bollywood movies has literally killed Lollywood and its Urdu/Punjabi film industry.” A Pakistani-Punjabi film costs less than `1 crore to make, but would sustain several dozen families as also the creativity. The theatres along Abbott Street in Lahore are also rapidly turning into parking lots, or show only Hindi movies.
The Indian television industry became inclusive in the hope of finding newer audience across the border, but unless a more careful screening of talent is done, it may lead to an undesirable pile-up at our doorstep.