Now Playing in India: A Rare View of Pakistan
“We didn’t know that Pakistan had such good houses,” the headline said, Mr. Mansoor recalled in an interview here.
It was a striking reminder of how little people in India know about their neighbors across the border.
For 43 years no Pakistan-made film had been distributed commercially to movie theaters in India until the opening here of Mr. Mansoor’s movie, “Khuda Kay Liye” (“In the Name of God”). That absence has contributed to widespread ignorance in India about contemporary Pakistan, a country set apart by such entrenched political hostility that few Indians have visited it.
The release of the film, which broke all box office records in Pakistan last year, was hailed here as a significant moment in the slowly progressing India-Pakistan peace talks.
The Pakistani government imposed a ban on the distribution and broadcast of Indian movies after the war between the countries in 1965, one of three wars they have fought since the region was split by partition in 1947. No formal reciprocal order was issued by India, but initial political hostility to the idea of showing Pakistani films was superseded in later years by commercial considerations.
In the second half of the 20th century, the Pakistani film industry, known as Lollywood, slipped into severe decline and produced little meriting distribution in India, which is well served by its own film industry, Bollywood.
Despite the ban, pirated copies of Bollywood hits have always been hugely popular in Pakistan. And in 2006, with improving political ties, the Pakistani government gradually began to relax its approach, allowing a limited number of Indian films to be screened legally in theaters.
The effect has been a cultural two-way mirror dividing the countries, with Pakistan able to observe India (or a gaudier Bollywood version of India), but with Indians unable to see beyond their own frontiers.
“Indian films never stopped coming to Pakistan, on DVDs,” Mr. Mansoor said. “So every Pakistani is absolutely clear about the way of life in India, about how everything works in India. But there is nothing coming in the other direction, with the result that India has very clear misconceptions about Pakistan.”
His film was edited in Delhi, where he was “shocked by the ignorance” of Indian colleagues in the cutting room, he said.
“They had very surprising ideas about Pakistan,” Mr. Mansoor recalled. “They asked: ‘Do you have taxis there?’ ‘Can women drive?’ ‘Are women allowed to go to university?’ They thought Pakistan consisted entirely of fanatics and mullahs.”
Aside from their incidental wonderment at the unexpected beauty of Pakistani houses, filmgoers and reviewers have been struck by the insights the film offers into the difficulties of being a liberal Muslim in Pakistan after 9/11.
The film shows two brothers, both talented musicians in Lahore, growing apart as they embrace different readings of Islam. One falls under the influence of the local mullah, abandons his Sufi rock group and his rich, liberal parents in their interior-decorated home and heads off to join the Taliban.
The other leaves Pakistan to study music in Chicago, where he falls in love with the United States and marries an American. But he is then arrested and subjected to Abu Ghraib-style abuse by officials who are suspicious of his Muslim background, erroneously convinced that he played a role in planning the Sept. 11 attacks.
“That is the tragedy that a Muslim faces in these days,” Mr. Mansoor said. “We are beaten up by fundamentalists, with the label that we are too Western, and when we go out of the country, we are labeled as fundamentalists just because we have Pakistani names.”
The acting is patchy, but beneath the numerous plotlines Mr. Mansoor drives home his point that “all Muslims are not terrorists.”
“People need to understand that Pakistanis are not all rabid fundamentalists,” he said.
He has been pleased by the response in India. “People clapped here at the same places people clapped in Pakistan,” he said. “That’s a good sign.”
An Indian critic, Subhash K. Jha, said everyone in India should see the movie “to understand the isolation, to understand what it feels like to be deemed a terrorist, to be frisked extra hard, the pain and the humiliation.”
“I don’t think that is easy to understand as a Hindu,” he said.
But he said the film would not have obvious appeal to most Indian viewers. “Sadly, not too many people will be interested to see a film that reveals life as a Muslim, so its impact will be rather restrained,” he said. “It is not a pot-boiler; it doesn’t have the audience-pulling big stars.”
A Bollywood script writer, Javed Akhtar, described “Khuda Kay Liye” as a “very bold and honest film.”
“Ignorance breeds suspicion and suspicion breeds hate; it creates huge villains,” he said. “There is a lot to be heard and seen by Indian and by U.S. audiences here too.”
The Indian certification board recommended two cuts before approving the film’s release, removing a reference to Muslims being killed in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The other cut was from a speech near the film’s end and reflected concerns about offending Muslims in India.
But Shailendra Singh, managing director of the Percept Picture Company, which is distributing the film, said the process of bringing it to India had been surprisingly easy, and the initial box office response encouraging. He predicted that the film, which cost $1.5 million to make, would earn $2.5 million over the next three months in India.
“We felt like we were being part of history,” he said.
Recently, two Indian blockbusters Aamir Khan’s “Tare Zameen Par” and Akshay Kumar-Katrina Kaif starrer “Welcome” were released in Pakistan this year. Bollywood blockbuster “Made in China” starring martial arts hero Akshay Kumar and Deepika Padukone is also currently being shot on the out skirts of Beijing and Shanghai and will be released next year.