Cinema is a powerful weapon, though it is often called soft power. Men like Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Germany's Adolf Hitler understood the awesome might of movies.
Mussolini established the world's first film festival at Venice in 1932 primarily to promote Italian cinema and that of his allies. Reni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" was an eerie documentary that endorsed what would become Hitler's notions of mass murder. She was the golden girl of German cinema, and Hitler's pet.
In India, cinema has never been used for an evil purpose, but politicians, especially in southern India, started their lives in the tinsel world. Often as scriptwriters, directors and even actors, they liberally used the medium to publicize and propagate their political ideals and views. They were highly successful, for the visually enriching movies they created touched the heart of the ordinary citizen. Cinema in India still continues to be a strong weapon for swaying people.
Admittedly, films do play a very positive role in our world if we forget and ignore what men like Hitler and Mussolini did with cinema. Movies are great binders. They build bridges among races, peoples and countries, helping one to understand and sympathize with another's point of view. Cinema creates a sense of identity and affinity, and this cannot be truer than in the case of India and Pakistan, two Asian neighbors who have been at war over Kashmir for decades.
The people of Pakistan love Indian cinema, with its color, music, grand costumes and breathtaking locales.
Indian films spread sheer joy. Popularly described as Bollywood, Indian cinema has enslaved hearts for decades with its melodrama. The primarily Hindi-language movies that grew out of Bombay, often called "Magic City," have traveled from Russia to Africa and from Canada to New Zealand, spreading thrills and enjoyment through its beautiful characters and make-believe moods.
Indian pictures are a hit even in China, despite a yawning gap in the two cultures. Travelers to China tell me that cab drivers have started to hum popular Indian songs. In Beijing, in Shanghai and elsewhere, cassettes of Indian celluloid works are to be found aplenty, sought after by expatriates and locals alike.
However, big-screen Bollywood could never cross over to Pakistan. This is sad because Bollywood originated in the Pakistani city of Lahore, where a vibrant film industry thrived before the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. Hordes of movie men came to Bombay to set up what became Bollywood.
Bereft of talent, Lahore's Lollywood could never become a Bollywood, but Pakistan is all set to lift a 43-year-old ban on Indian cinema. Pakistan's parliamentary committee on culture has just recommended that the ban be lifted, and Cabinet approval is to follow soon.
"We have devised a mechanism for allowing the import of Indian pictures for a period of one year, after which the arrangements can be reviewed," said Sen. Zafar Iqbal Chaudhry, who heads the committee.
The ban was imposed in 1965 when the two South Asian neighbors went to war over Kashmir, a region both claim as their own. However, nothing could stop the march of Bollywood; its movies were smuggled into Pakistan, and huge amounts of pirated VCDs and DVDs were sold in clandestine operations. But once the ban goes, Pakistanis will be able to watch the latest masala on the big screen from Bombay in about week after it opens in India.
Bollywood is sure to give a fresh leash on life to the moribund Pakistan film industry. Today the country has fewer than 300 screens, compared to about 1,500 in the early 1970s. Indian cinema may not only help revive cinemas, but also provide much-needed inspiration to Lollywood, listless and languishing for years.
The question is will Pakistan's ultra-radical clergy allow the entry of Bollywood with its see-through rain-drenched body-hugging saris that ravishing Indian stars wear to titillate the male fantasy?
B. Gautam writes for a leading Indian newspaper.