As a Pakistani, I Grew Up Watching a Very Different India in Bollywood

A few weeks ago, famous Bollywood director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam completed 19 years. The film’s soundtrack and the iconic pairing of Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai (now Bachchan) was the talk of the town in Pakistan at that time. And there was Ajay Devgn’s character, whose demeanour in the film impressed many young girls like me who sobbed at the very thought of a husband who would take his own wife to meet her boyfriend.

Bollywood has always been a part of Pakistan’s cultural discourse. Pick any wedding video from the ’80s – the time when wedding videos started becoming a rage – and you’d hear Bollywood music playing in the background.

A still from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’.

My maternal grandfather, a quiet but smiling man who took a train from Allahabad to Karachi post-Partition, could never really let go of his love for Indian/Bollywood films and cinema. And he was no different from the majority of Pakistanis who grew up on Bollywood as a staple.

My family would get into angry and heated debates about who was better: Kishore or Rafi. Who was prettier: Madhuri or Madhubala? Who was handsomer: Dilip Kumar or Shahrukh Khan?

For my paternal side of the family, Fridays used to be Bollywood night. We would rent a videotape of the ‘latest’ film and watch it together. My aunts would sing praises of Madhubala’s beauty, we would all discuss Asha Parekh’s eyeliner and rank our favourite films in terms of plots, songs and how well we remembered them.

It was in Karachi during the summer of 1999, when we were all listening to the songs of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam – one of Bhansali’s best (Pakistanis didn’t stop loving him or any other Indian filmmaker even during the Kargil war). While I vividly remember the coup d’état by Pervez Musharraf in October that year, I also remember Bollywood songs playing at our college welcome party that same year.

Also read: What’s Driving Our Taste for Explicitly Nationalistic Cinema?

As a Pakistani in Dubai, 20 years later, I was happily working on exciting projects in collaboration with Indians when Pulwama attack happened. I had just joined a Bollywood site and I would often have to read and go through content coming in from Indian mainstream stars and Indian politicians. Kangana Ranaut called Pakistan an insignificant territory and called for its destruction. The same Kangana Ranaut about whose feminism I had written waxing eulogies and the same Kangana Ranaut who I had loved and adored for her performances in QueenTanu Weds Manu and Tanu Weds Manu Returns.

Soon after, Atif Aslam’s songs disappeared from T-Series’ YouTube channel. There were rumours about the discontinuation of other cross-border collaborations. A few months earlier, when Karan Johar had dared to cast Fawad Khan and Imran Abbas as Pakistanis in his film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he had to change his entire plot because he did not want to show Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor), an Indian boy falling in love with a Pakistani girl (Alizeh, played by Anushka Sharma). Rumours had it that Alizeh was initially supposed to be from Lahore and so was Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s character. But due to the political situation, both were shown to be thoroughbred Indians.

A still from Karan Johar’s ‘Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’.

An even more revealing facet of the growing hate against Pakistan and Muslims was the barrage of insults I witnessed online from trolls that had photos of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as their display pictures, the Indian flag or even Vicky Kaushal (he starred in Uri: The Surgical Strike which I had reviewed – and obviously disliked due to its Islamophobic nature).

I was called ‘porki’, ‘terrorist’ and ‘jihadan’ among other things. These trolls would descend in my mentions as soon as I commented on anything related to India. They made their way to every social media outlet I had (including TikTok, Facebook or even YouTube). The obsessive level of hate that I faced was only a fragment of what I saw activists and outspoken actors faced online. One look at the replies to their tweets would make my insides churn.

How could this level of hate and bigotry escape my eyes over the years?

It was perhaps because we, Pakistanis, had a delusional idea of dancing and singing Indians on our big and small screens. The same Sanjay Leela Bhansali whose Devdas and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam we loved so much backed a film made on Modi. A film that flattered him and praised him. Bhansali said in a statement that the film was “a human interest story about the self-discovery of a person who went on to become such a strong leader of our country”.

Also read: Bollywood and Dissent: Beyond Modi’s Love for Mangoes

All through last year, Bollywood pandered to the right-wing element in India, shattering any last vestiges of secular India or hopes of Pakistan and India coexisting as friendly neighbours instead of constantly warring enemies. With the revocation of Article 370, the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and most recently, Supreme Court’s order to construct the Ram Mandir at a place where once the Babri mosque once stood – Modi and his right-wing following have lifted the veil from a very ugly reality – India really doesn’t like Pakistan.

Many Indian friends have been amused to see my shocked reaction. They told me, almost laughingly, that most Indians do not like Pakistan. “Why is that so surprising to you?” they asked. “It wasn’t that way with us Pakistanis,” I said. I have family in India, I watch all the Bollywood films, I know all the songs, I even know the mantra (chant) Rani Mukerji recites in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai: Om Jai Jagdeesh…’

A still from Karan Johar’s ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’.

Somehow, by growing up on Bollywood, and watching Muslims characters in Bollywood films, I had created an idea of India in my head. Even if I didn’t see Shahrukh Khan dancing on the streets or on top of taxis in Mumbai, I’d see minorities being embraced or Muslims like Khan not worrying about trying to find accommodation, and rather sitting comfortably in the highest corridors of power, safe in India – a secular country by the book.

But the reality is quite opposite, I realised. Shahrukh Khan was once called an anti-national by BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargia. Aamir Khan got trolled massively for talking about intolerance in India. And when Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor Khan had a baby boy and named him Taimur, everyone lost their cool again. Was this an India we never knew or was this an India that had finally come to a boiling point after years of allowing hate to be hidden from the public eye?

Over the past few years or so in Bollywood, I saw Muslims being demonised as meat-eating cannibals, illiterate fundamentalists with gastric issues, evil villains trying to incite violence and degenerate criminals ready to kill women at the drop of a hat. Just in the past year or so, when anti-CAA and NRC protests were at their peak, mainstream Muslim Bollywood actors could not even utter a word in support of the Muslim community and hardliners or those secular actors capitulated in the face of BJP’s prowess.

This was not the India I had imagined it to be. The India I thought I knew was something like a Sooraj Barjatya film. But the India of 2020, one that celebrates voices that want to destroy Pakistan, one that looks at all Pakistanis as enemies or as terrorists, is the reality Pakistanis such as myself have to accept.

It is the reality that many good Indians have to accept – so that they can fight it and hope to change it someday. Because surely you won’t go gentle into that good night? Surely you will fight against the dying of the light?


Mahwash Ajaz is a UAE based journalist.

Featured image credit: Reuters