Monday, January 26, 2009

Pakistan cinema owners anxious about India spat

KARACHI (AFP) — Pakistani teenager Mohammed Salim joins the crowd waiting at one of Karachi's cinemas to see the blockbuster Indian thriller "Ghajini" -- Bollywood's biggest grossing movie ever.

The action movie starring Indian actor Aamir Khan and based on the Hollywood film "Memento" spins a complex tale of a man with amnesia who tattoos himself and takes Polaroid pictures to remember people and places.

"I loved this movie, not just because it was made in India but because we don't produce such quality stuff here," Salim said afterwards.

Just a year ago, the screening would not have been possible, as Pakistan had barred films from its rival neighbour for more than 40 years.

Lifting the ban helped revive Pakistan's suffering cinemas, luring film buffs away from televisions in their living rooms and into the movie houses.

But cinema operators now fear that the spike in cross-border tensions in the wake of the Mumbai attacks could doom their businesses, especially after Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram suggested business links could be suspended.

"The entire industry is looking at fresh tensions between India and Pakistan with great worry. We are certainly anxious to see how the situation develops," said Nadeem Mandviwala of Pakistan's association of film exhibitors.

"We want a set policy from the government so that we can keep our businesses running smoothly," he said. "Indian movies have got people back into Pakistani cinemas and have played a great role in saving cine culture in the country."

Bollywood stars are wildly popular in Pakistan, where people watched their films on pirated videos and DVDs for decades until the ban was lifted. The country's press is filled with gossip about Indian film stars.

Director Hasan Zaidi, who organises the annual international film festival in Karachi, says Pakistani films might suffer in the short run from the Indian competition but will eventually benefit thanks to renewed public interest.

"The Indian movies certainly affect ours now but that phase will soon end, and then it will bring better prospects for us with money, skills and technology which we would use to make our films stronger," Zaidi said.

Jehanzeb Baig, a cinema operator in the eastern city of Lahore, agrees.

"Indian movies will not obliterate the Pakistani film industry. They will encourage the production of good quality movies here," Baig said.

Zaidi said he thought the stiff competition from Bollywood would eventually force authorities to change censorship policy, allowing the production of domestic films with sensitive themes.

Pakistan currently does not have a culture minister, as the post was left vacant following a rift last year in the former governing coalition.

A ministry official who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject matter told AFP that the government had no plans to reinstate the ban on Indian films in response to the ongoing row with New Delhi over Mumbai.

"Pakistan wants stability in the region and banning Indian films could enhance mistrust -- that is something that our leaders do not want to do at present," he said.

Umer Sharif, a Pakistani comedian who is also well known in India, says culture should remain separate from political concerns.

"Cultural exchanges boost love and frustrate hate in hearts and they should not succumb to politics. India should also realise that Pakistan is sincere about wanting to maintain peace in the region," he told AFP.

Mandviwala, who said dozens of new theatres could be built in coming years given the current upswing in the movie business, echoed Sharif's thoughts.

"Cinema is larger than life. Very few people love America, but the whole nation loves Hollywood films. Likewise, all Pakistanis like Indian movies so the matter should be decided based on what society wants," he said.

Abdul Ghafoor, who has worked for Karachi's oldest cinema Nishat for about 40 of his 65 years, says he hopes India and Pakistan will maintain the status quo, for the sake of happy moviegoers.

"It is heartening to see people are again entering the theatres along with their families. It is something which I even could not visualise in my dreams. Even women and children are coming to the cinema," Ghafoor said.

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