Friday, January 13, 2012

How Pakistan fell in love with Bollywood

By Anuj Chopra

In February 2010, just before the release of the Bollywood film My Name is Khan, a message generated in Pakistan on the microblogging site Twitter was massively retweeted in Mumbai, India: "You might want to come to Karachi to catch MNIK's first day, first show!"

The release of My Name Is Khan, or MNIK, as it is popularly known, had to be scaled back in Mumbai, India's film capital, because of a political controversy. Just days before the premier, its lead actor, Shah Rukh Khan, had lamented the exclusion of Pakistani cricketers from the Indian Premier League cricket auction. This infuriated Shiv Sena, a Hindu ultranationalist group that advocates snapping all sporting and cultural ties with Pakistan. It launched a campaign against Khan, threatening to stall his film's release until he apologized and retracted his statement, which he refused to do. Placard-wielding protesters besieged his mansion in suburban Mumbai, burning his effigy and bellowing slogans like "Shah Rukh Khan, go away to Pakistan!" One of the protesters clutched in his hands a dummy airline ticket emblazoned with the words: "Mumbai to Pakistan." Mumbai stationed police officers at movie theaters and rounded up 2,000 people in advance of the opening as a cautionary measure.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border in Karachi, My Name Is Khan opened Feb. 13 to packed houses and was received with roaring claps and whistles. According to Pakistani cinema owners, it was the highest-earning film ever to screen in Pakistan.

This film certainly resonates with Pakistani audiences because of its theme -- it tells the story of an autistic Muslim man's struggles against prejudices in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The big applause line in Pakistan comes at the beginning, when Khan proclaims, "My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist!" But the widely published tweet inviting Indians to watch the film in Karachi offered a somewhat twisted insight into a cultural paradox: two countries sharing so many cultural references, and yet watching them through such different lenses.


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