Indian Culture Seeps in via Satellite

The Blurred Borders between Pakistan and India

Even though Indian culture is officially unacceptable, it is India's film industry in particular that already dominates everyday life in Pakistan. Claudia Kramatschek about the popularity of Indian popular culture in Pakistan

After over 50 years, the ice between India and Pakistan would at last appear to be melting. Politicians from both countries travel back and forth and newspapers publish daily updates on the difficult tug-of-war behind the scenes. Nevertheless, the most important catchphrase at the moment is probably "people-to-people contact": the personal contact between the people living on both sides of the border that seeks to destroy the animosity nurtured between the two nations for years.

Anyone travelling through Pakistan these days gets the impression that what was presumed to be an iron curtain between the two states has long since been pulled back in everyday life.

In the evenings, most Pakistani households choose to watch one of a variety of Indian television channels, whose TV ratings are so high that staff at the Pakistani state television station, PTV, are pea green with envy. American channels with their diet of scantily clad women are also available in Pakistan.

Indian culture seeps in via satellite

However, it is the Indian channels, which shows series like "Shri Krishna" and, most importantly, Hindi Bollywood films, which have been banned in Pakistan for decades but can easily be obtained for a few rupees in any of the video rental shops in the country's smaller cities.

In this way, Indian film divas and soundtracks have become part of everyday life in Pakistan. Whenever one of the 70 million mobile phones in Pakistan ring, the ring-tone is usually the title track to some Indian film.

One side effect of this synergy could be that the national language of Pakistan, Urdu, might once again blend partially with Hindi, traces of which were banned from the language in the early days of the Pakistani national movement as a sort of cleansing campaign after the state was founded.

Banned but omnipresent

The ease with which films – currently India's most potent weapon – are overcoming the barriers that have separated the two nations since 1947 is astonishing. The power of these films was evident at the fourth KaraFilm Festival, which took place this year. Launched as an independent film festival by a handful of dedicated young filmmakers in Karachi in 2000 to showcase non-commercial films in Pakistan, a country whose cinemas are threatened with extinction, the KaraFilm Festival has earned itself a sound reputation.

The huge number of Indian films at this year's festival was striking, especially when one considers that Indian films have been banned in Pakistan since the India-Pakistan war of 1965 and are still not officially acceptable. This is just one of the paradoxes of Pakistan: democratic freedom side-by-side with political censure.

Nine of the 21 feature films that were entered in the KaraFilm Festival competition were made by Indian filmmakers, not to mention the documentaries and short films that were on show, all of which tackled thorny political issues such as the Kashmir conflict, the Taliban, or water supplies on both sides of the border.

Starting a debate about the fundamentalist forces

But it is exactly this border that would seem to join India and Pakistan in a sort of phantom ache. The Indian filmmaker, Vinta Nanda, for example, chose Karachi and the KaraFilm Festival for the world premier of her films: a declaration of love to the city where she grew up.

For his part, Rakesh Sharma showed his multiple award-winning documentary film, "Final Solution", at the festival and was, as he said himself, curious as to how the Muslim audience would react to his film about the anti-Muslim riots started by fanatic Hindus in the city of Gujarat, especially as he wanted to use the film for a debate about the fundamentalist forces in Pakistan, which make up about 20 per cent of the religious political landscape.

While the radical nature of this fundamentalist movement must be taken seriously, it becomes even more questionable when one considers that the forefathers of many Pakistani Muslims were converted Hindus. Today about 1.5 per cent of the 140 million people who live in Pakistan are Hindu and about 2 per cent Christian.

Despite tangible discrimination against these minorities, there are moments of religious syncretism and peaceful pluralism. In Karachi, for example, there is still a Hindu temple that is reputed to be 3,000 years old, and at the end of November, about 2,500 Hindus celebrated a religious festival called Dhandiya Ras, the name of which is derived from a combat-like, very rhythmical dance with sticks that is performed by men throughout the night.

Relics revered by both Hindus and Muslims

The southern city of Sindh, which has always been heavily marked by the Sufi culture, still houses relics that are revered by both Hindus and Muslims. Here, the Koran is positioned at the feet of the divine images in the Hindu pantheon.

Not forgetting the Sikhs, who originated in what is now the Pakistani part of the Punjab. The festival that celebrates the birthday of their religious founder, Baba Guru Nanak, the most important festival in the Sikh religion, which contains elements of both Hinduism and Islam, was a particularly memorably occasion last year because about 4,000 Indian Sikhs were allowed to attend the celebrations in the Pakistani Punjab.

Starting on 24 November, they spent three days praising their guru in song, dance, and prayer. This was a source of great delight to the numerous Pakistani Hindus and Muslims who also travelled to the region to take part in this colourful, sensual festival. The popularity of such an attraction probably stems from the fact that classical Indian dance is still considered disreputable in Pakistan even though the Sufis, the mystics from the valley of the Indus, saw dance as a way of becoming one with the divine.

Some of the few professional dancers in Pakistan who, like Sheema Kirmani or Faisur Rehman, practice classical dance in that country, have long been criticised not only for propagating Indian culture – something akin to treason – but also for acting obscenely. For this same reason, a dozen dancers and actors were arrested on the stages of Pakistan as recently as late November.

Subversive clothes fashion

The latest craze in the Pakistani upper and middle classes – the sari – must also be a source of great irritation to the mullahs. The sari, which for some time now has been a part of the Pakistani fashion world and reveals parts of a woman's body that were previously kept safely from view by the Salwar Kamiz, the traditional dress worn by Pakistani women.

Whether it will prove to be as popular as the Salwar Kamiz once was in India – which at the time was also a source of great irritation to the powers that be in India – remains to be seen. Women who wear it in Pakistan still take great care to ensure that as little skin as possible is visible. This certainly cannot be said for the women of the youngest generation who can be seen in the protective atmosphere of the western-style shopping malls in major cities like Karachi on a Saturday evening.

While western visitors, modestly dressed in the Salwar Kamiz, listen enchanted to the melancholy, old-fashioned voice of Pakistan's nightingale, Noor Jehan, only a few steps away, three scantily clad young girls with Henna-decorated hands buy American videos.

Claudia Kramatschek


Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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