Pakistan’s Central Board of Film Censors has banned Bollywood film Raees because “the content undermines Islam, and a specific religious sect, while also portraying Muslims as criminals, wanted persons and terrorists.” The highly anticipated film featuring popular Pakistani actress Mahira Khan and Indian superstar Shah Rukh Khan was set to release near Kashmir Solidarity Day, when Pak-Indo tensions are usually at their nadir. Predictably, TV anchors were angrily pushing for a revival of indigenous cinema in Pakistan by urging the removal of Indian films from the entertainment scene.
Tragically for entertainment-starved Pakistanis, it faces linguistic barriers with Muslim states it deems friendly but enjoys shared culture with its nemesis India. The two neighboring states are unable to completely block cross-border folk and modern poetry, and share commonalities of lifestyle and language. Politics may have divided them for decades, forcing ‘patriots’ to uselessly shun each other’s works of art, but India’s film industry remains dominated by Urdu-speaking actors who produce, unsurprisingly, films that Pakistan’s film industry simply can’t compete with. Even if India allowed the distribution of Pakistani films, it is unlikely many would watch them since they still lag behind their Bollywood counterparts on both technical and talent grounds.
Entertainment in Pakistan has remained ideologically dicey. In the early 2000s, cinemas in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa were shut down and singers forced to flee the province. Indian films were blackballed, but instead of reviving Pakistani cinema, the ban pushed Pakistanis to piracy, smuggling Indian DVDs for entertainment.
Last year, Pakistani cinemas decided to act patriotic as ties between Islamabad and New Delhi deteriorated and voluntarily took off Indian films. Instead of finding support, they saw only deserted cinema halls and employees jobless on the roads. Pakistan is repeating what the ideological state of Soviet Union did for over 70 years—blocking the West’s “soft power” products like films and books—before it collapsed. Pakistanis today will watch all banned Indian movies at home without betraying their nationalistic pride. All they need is good, artful entertainment.