‘India and Pakistan are like the left and right eyes’: A short survey of cross-border cultural ties

Despite diplomatic tensions, Indian and Pakistani actors and singers have had a long history of collaboration, starting from Independence.


The cricket world has been left poorer ever since India and Pakistan drastically cut down their engagements on the field after 2008, because of Islamabad’s alleged support for cross-border terrorism. In the wake of the Uri attack on September 18, will cinema, television and music be permanently damaged too?

Putting it another way: Is Fawad Khan’s career in India finished before even properly taking off?

The attack on the Army camp in Uri has prompted Subhash Chandra, the head of the Zee network, to declare that he will stop airing Pakistani serials on his popular channel Zindagi, which has introduced Indians to several Pakistani actors, including Fawad Khan. The demand that Pakistani talent should not be allowed to work in India has found support beyond familiar rabble-rousers such as the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and the Shiv Sena. It wasn’t Times Now's Arnab Goswami who wanted Fawad Khan to Quit India, but CNN News18 anchor Bhupendra Chaubey.

Doubts are being raised about the fate of upcoming films such as Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which stars Khan in a small role, and movies still under production such as Mom, starring Sridevi and Sajal Aly, and an untitled Yash Raj Films project featuring Danyal Zafar, the brother of the singer and actor Ali Zafar.

Over the years, Pakistani actors and singers have managed to escape the ultra-nationalist heat that has inevitably followed major terrorist strikes. They would lie low, ride out the calls for retribution and be back on the screen in a matter of weeks. That was before the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre, the proliferation of troll armies on social networking sites, the war-mongering on TV channels like Times Now and CNN News 18, and the polarisation of the movie industry into liberals, centrists, and proud ultra-rightwingers like the singer Abhijeet and actor Anupam Kher.

By training their verbal weapons on Pakistani artists working in India, the BJP’s supporters have managed to vitiate the co-operation that has marked Indo-Pakistani cultural encounters since Independence.

Partition saw a flight of talent from India to Pakistan and vice versa. Indian films were still being released in Pakistan after 1947. But by the mid-1950s, severe restrictions began to be placed on their distribution to boost the growth of the local film industry, known as Lollywood because it was headquartered in Lahore. “The restriction on Bombay films opened a new free and non-competitive market for local productions,” writes Mushtaq Gazdar in Pakistani Cinema 1947-1997. “1956 proved to be the most fruitful year of the first decade in terms of box-office returns from indigenous cinema.”

That year, two Indian actresses appeared in Pakistani productions: Sheila Ramani, of Taxi Driver fame, and Meena Shorey, who had charmed audiences in the song Lara Lappa in the 1949 movie Ek Thi Ladki. Ramani played the lead in Anokhi, produced by her uncle Sheikh Latif, and the music was composed by Bengali composer Timir Baran, “who came from India for this purpose”, writes Gazdar. Ramani returned to India and faded out after a few films.

Meena Shorey. Courtesy Upperstall.
Meena Shorey. Courtesy Upperstall.

Meena Shorey (born Kurshid Jehan) was the heroine of the Pakistani production Miss 56, directed by JC Anand. She was accompanied by her husband, Ek Thi Ladki director Roop K Shorey, who had to return to India after Meena Shorey decided to stay on in Lahore.

Many Indian directors and actors, including Zia Sarhady and Noor Jehan, migrated to Pakistan between the ’40s and the ‘60s and contributed to the consolidation of the indigenous industry. Pakistani cinema had its own star system and musical talent, but on occasion, it borrowed Indian singers such as Hemant Kumar and Sandhya Mukherjee for Humsafar (1960).
‘Akhiya Chalke’ from the Pakistani film ‘Humsafar’ (1960).

The Merchant-Ivory Production Bombay Talkie (1970), about a married film star’s dalliance with an American writer, stars one of the best-known Pakistani actors and voice artists. Zia Mohyeddin had appeared in several plays in London, including as Dr Aziz in a BBC adaptation of EM Forster’s A Passage to India in 1965. In Bombay Talkie, Mohyeddin plays Hari, a frustrated writer who is love with the American writer, played by Jennifer Kendal.

‘Bombay Talkie’ (1970).

Over the years, big-name Pakistani actors made appearances in Hindi films, including Nadeem in Ambrish Sangal’s Door Desh (1983) and Talat Hussain in Sawan Kumar Tak’s melodrama Souten Ki Beti (1989). Zeba Bakhtiar, the daughter of former Pakistan Law Minister Yahya Bakhtiar, played the lead along with Rishi Kapoor in Raj Kapoor’s cross-border romance Henna (1991). The story of a Kashmiri (Rishi Kapoor) who strays across the Line of Control after a bout of amnesia was inspired by the Pakistani classic Lakhon Mein Eik. Directed by Raza Amir in 1967, and based on a story by Zia Sarhadi, Heena has dialogue by legendary Pakistani television writer and playwright Haseena Moin, who wrote such iconic TV shows as Dhoop Kinare and Tanhaiyaan.

Bakhtiar was briefly married to singer and composer Adnan Sami, who became an Indian citizen in January 2016.

Among the Pakistani actors who have enlivened Hindi cinema through standout cameos is Salman Shahid. He plays a Taliban fighter in Kabul Express (2006) but is better known as Mushtaq Bhai, the hoodlum who tries in vain to tame Iftikhar (Naseeruddin Shah) and Babban (Arshad Warsi) in Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya (2010) and Dedh Ishqiya (2014).

‘Ishqiya’ (2010).

The patrician Javed Sheikh has had a longer run, starring in John Matthew Matthan’s Shikhar (2005), Shirish Kunder’s Jaan-E-Mann (2006), Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2008), Anil Sharma’s Apne (2007), Vipul Shah’s Namastey London (2007) and Imtiaz Ali’s Tamsaha (2015). Sheikh’s most recent release is the cross-border rom-com Happy Bhaag Jayegi (2016) by Mudassar Aziz, who also stars his daughter, Momal Sheikh.

India-Pakistani co-productions are rare, but two examples stand out. One is Khamosh Pani (2003), directed by Pakistani director Sabiha Sumar, written by Indian filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra , and starring Kirron Kher and Shilpa Shukla. The moving period drama, about a widow’s troubled relationship with her radicalised son, won the Best Film (Golden Leopard) prize at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Kirron Kher in ‘Khamosh Pani’.
Kirron Kher in ‘Khamosh Pani’.

Nandita Das crossed over to the other side to appear in Mehreen Jabbar’s Ramchand Pakistani (2008) as Champa, a Pakistani Hindu woman whose husband and son stray into India. Naseeruddin Shah has also been appearing in Pakistani films, such as Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Kay Liye (2007) and Zinda Bhaag (2013), by Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi. Khuda Kay Liye, which starred Pakistani superstar Shan and Fawad Khan, was released by Eros Entertainment in India, followed by Mansoor’s Bol in 2013. Two of Bol’s lead actresses, Humaima Malick and Mahira Khan, have been signed up by Bollywood. Malick headlined the Emraan Hashmi-starrer Raja Natwarlal (2014), while Mahira Khan has been paired with Shah Rukh Khan in the 2017 release Raees.

Nandita Das in ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ (2008).
Nandita Das in ‘Ramchand Pakistani’ (2008).

India has also been able to share the talent of Pakistani musicians over the years. Chupke Chupke, the popular ghazal by Ghulam Ali, whose concerts in India have been regularly blocked by Shiv Sena, was used in BR Chopra’s marital drama Nikaah (1982).

Subhash Ghai recruited renowned Pakistani folk singer Reshma to record her classic love ballad, Lambi Judai, for his romance Hero (1983). In a 2004 interview, Reshma, whose family left Rajasthan for Pakistan when she was a toddler, said, “I was born in India and brought up in Pakistan. To me, India and Pakistan are the left and the right eyes.”

One of the greatest Pakistani exports in music is the qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who recorded several songs in collaboration with Indian musicians and lyricists, including remixed versions of Piya Re and Aafreen Aafreen (with lyrics by Javed Akhtar) and Gurus of Peace with AR Rahman.

‘Aafreen Aafreen’ by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Numerous Pakistani singers and bands have followed in Khan’s footsteps, including his nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Strings, Ali Zafar (who has also acted in Tere Bin Laden and Kill Dill), Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan and Atif Aslam. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Shafqat Khan and Aslam are especially popular in India. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is one of Hindi cinema’s leading singers, most recently singing the hit track Jag Ghoomeya from Sultan (2016).

Shafqat Khan has sung Mitwa (Kabhi Alvidaa Naa Kehna, 2006), Tere Naina (My Name Is Khan, 2010) and Manchala (Hasee Toh Phasee, 2014). Aslam has crooned the hits Tere Bin (Bas Ek Pal, 2006), Pehli Nazar Mein (Race, 2008) and Jeena Jeena (Badlapur, 2015). Indian musicians too feature on Coke Studio Pakistan, such as Shilpa Rao in the 2016 edition.

Subhash Chandra’s decision to stop airing Pakistani soaps on Zindagi also casts a shadow over the Zeal For Unity initiative, which is aimed at promoting peace between India and Pakistan. The idea is to produce 12 short films by six Indian and six Pakistani filmmakers. Ketan Mehta has directed an adaptation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh while Tigmanshu Dhulia has been recruited for Baarish Aur Chowmein. From Pakistan, Shahbaz Sumar has made Khaema Mein Matt Jhankain, a rural-set satire about a travelling circus, while Gaur and Nabi have helmed the reality show spoof Jeewan Hathi, starring Naseeruddin Shah among other actors. “Salaam or Namaste, it’s one and the same,” says Khalid Ahmed, one of the dozen filmmakers, in the promotional video. Not anymore, not after Uri.

‘Toba Tek Singh’ by Ketan Mehta.

Article was first published on Scroll.in



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