The magic of films binds people across the world together through drama, tragedy, romance and comedy. And when it comes to these emotions then Bollywood is the ocean where all rivers meet. The love for all things Bollywood is the very glue that has enchantingly enough kept millions of families within Sri Lanka, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, SAARC’s newest member, tied together by breaking the barriers of language, culture and even a chequered past. No one can really explain the real reason why Hindi films have won over people beyond boundaries but one can’t deny Bollywood its magnetism when it comes to bonding South Asians.
Bollywood has always been a melting pot of cultures and has attracted artists from across the borders. A majority of Bollywood’s golden generation that included the likes of Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, B.R. Chopra, Prithviraj Kapoor, O.P. Nayyar, K.L. Saigal, Sunil Dutt, Balraj Sahni, Om Prakash and many more originally hailed from cities like Lahore or Peshawar, which were then a part of British India. Many of these artistes continued to imbibe the culture of their hometown in their works that helped them win fans across what became international borders once India was partitioned.
Many Indian filmmakers held a particular SAARC nation dear to their heart and these nations inspired them unlike anything else. For Yash Chopra, a Punjab that was divided by a man-made line across two nations always existed as one. Be it Waqt, a film he made in the mid 1960s or Veer-Zara, which he directed in the mid 2000s, for Chopra the large heart of Punjab always beat as one. Even after an entire lifetime of selling dreams, the only broken one for Raj Kapoor was one that was spread across the Indo-Pak border. Kapoor wanted to pay a definitive tribute to his memories of Pakistan with Henna, a film that was ultimately completed by his son Randhir Kapoor.
Similarly, Ritwik Ghatak could never let go of the memories of an undivided Bengal where he grew up. For Ghatak the trauma of refugee camps that followed the Partition played an important role in shaping the characters in films like Megh Dhaka Tara (1960), Komal Gandhar (1961) and Subarnarekha (1962). The creation of Bangladesh brought back the trauma of Partition, something that Ghatak never really forgot and his last two films Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (1973), a co-production with Bangladesh, and Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974) featured Bangladesh almost as a character.
For Dev Anand it was Nepal when it came to a favorite SAARC country. He immortalised Nepal with his 1970s counter-culture hit Hare Rama, Hare Krishna (1971) and later returned to shoot Ishq, Ishq, Ishq (1974) as a part of the promise he had made to the then King of the Himalayan nation. Mani Ratnam’s oeuvre wouldn’t be as impressive if it lacked Kannathil Muthamittal (2002) his love note to Sri Lanka. The story of an orphan girl whose adopted parents accompany her on the search for her biological mother in the war rife nation, Kannathil Muthamittal uses Sri Lanka’s darkest hour as the backdrop and is perhaps one of Ratnam’s best films.
Films like Feroz Khan’s Dharmatma (1975) initiated Afghanistan’s love for Bollywood. Khan’s film was one of first films to feature the Bamiyan Buddhas before the Taliban obliterated the 6th century relics forever. Bollywood revisited Afghanistan along with Amitabh Bachchan, Sridevi and Danny Denzongpa in Khuda Gawah (1992) and in the recent past even featured Afghan actor, Hanif Hum Ghu in a pivotal role in Kabul Express (2006).
But what is the real reason that Bollywood is the common thread that binds South Asians? Is it because it offers an escape from the harsh realities of our everyday existence? There is little doubt about the escapism that accompanies a typical Bollywood film and yet, there would just be a few people from across these eight nations whose pain it couldn’t ease. Today, Bollywood is perhaps the only place in South Asia, dubbed one of the most volatile places in the world, where borders don’t matter. An Ali Zafar finds himself as much at home in Mumbai as he would in Lahore just like Runa Laila did in the 1970s or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ali Haider did in the 1990s. Similarly, a Naseeruddin Shah never felt more loved by an audience like he did during his recent visit to Lahore.
Thanks to Bollywood even policymakers have started looking at films as a tool of not only interaction but also cultural cooperation. The SAARC Film Festival is one such initiative that gets bigger and better with every new edition. In spite of the regular challenges faced by the SAARC fraternity, the relationship amongst the members has almost been like high drama from a Bollywood film. Our differences may compel us to take different paths but somewhere our similarities make the roads meet. There will always be the naysayers who may doubt the power of Bollywood but to them one can only say a people who once watch a Bollywood film together are doomed to stay together … the fact that we enjoy the emotions, Bollywood has already done half the job.