A recent article by Shah Rukh Khan describes what is being a Muslim in India. It was published on January 29 in Outlook Turning Points 2013 (Published by the New York Times). In a prompt reaction Pakistani interior minister Rehman Malik urged the Indian government to provide security to its well-known Muslim actor. Malik’s statement is laughable and what followed is embarrassing. The Indian spokesman responded by advising Malik to take care of his own citizens. Shah Rukh’s response was even stronger, said he “I would like to tell all those who are offering me unsolicited advice that we in India are extremely safe and happy. We have an amazing democratic, free and secular way of life.” When Jyoti Malhotra, a senior Indian journalist, was invited to comment on the situation in Hamid Mir’s talk show she was surprised that a high official would give such an irresponsible statement. She even doubted if Malik had read Khan’s article. The Telegraph summed up the controversy as “a senseless diplomatic row between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan.”
By building this blog on Shah Rukh Khan’s article I am not trying to say that India has not committed any crime; in fact more sectarian violence is recorded in India than in Pakistan. But that is in the political arena in which I do not wish to venture. Mine is an observation of the cultural front where Pakistan has repeatedly failed to make its mark. If history can be a teacher it is about time that Pakistani officials should learn to discover and nourish their own stars. For this is what the founder of the nation would have advised as evidenced from his recently discovered letter, published in the Tribune.
It will be fair to begin with the history of Pakistan and see how the authorities treated talent who migrated from India’s film industry? To begin with only a handful had migrated during Partition, whereas the list of those who remained behind is too long. Most of them not only flourished but dominated the Indian cinema. Mughal-e-Azam, considered the greatest Indian film, was made by a team that consisted mostly of Muslims- K.Asif, Yusaf Khan (Dilip Kumar), Madhubala, Nigar Sultana, Shakeel Badayuni, Naushad, Mohammad Rafi even Ustad Bare Ghulam Ali Khan rendered a raag. To judge the outcome you can watch the 3 hour long film condensed to 15 minutes here. Such magnum opus is not possible to create under dangerous conditions at least they were not around film industry.
There are many more examples but for the sake of relevance to the topic I have chosen to limit to Mirza Ghalib. A biopic on the great Urdu poet, made by another team of Muslims-Suraiya, Talat Mahmood, Nigar Sultana, Iftikhar Khan, Murad, Mukri, Ghulam Mohammad and Saadat Hasan Manto who wrote the story and screenplay and who migrated to Pakistan. Out of all his writings Mirza Ghalib seems to be most dear to Manto, he had taken few years to complete this masterpiece. There were moments of frustration and inspiration during the process: Manto had complained about the dearth of material on poet’s life and he had enjoyed walking through the streets of Delhi, the beloved city of Ghalib. Manto even named his son after Ghalib’s adopted son Arif and finally he convinced Sohrab Modi to produce a film on a slice of Ghalib’s life.
In 1954 Mirza Ghalib was finally released in India. The film was a huge success and won the prestigious National Film Award, unfortunately by that time Manto was rotting in Pakistan. He was writing short stories for a magazine and selling it for Rs. 30; Pakistani bureaucracy instead of lending patronage had charged him with writing obscene material. Yes, Manto also had a passion to write on the sub-culture of the sub-continent; prostitutes, pimps, tongawalas, street urchins were his favorite characters but he used them not for any sensual reasons but to highlight the ‘disease’ of society. People loved his short stories and Faiz Ahmed Faiz defended him in the courtroom. A year after the release of Mirza Ghalib Manto died at the age of 42.
Mirza Ghalib was never released in Pakistan but Pakistanis enjoyed its songs on the radio. It must be admitted that many Pakistanis and Indians came to know Ghalib’s poetry through the ghazals of this film sang by Talat Mahmood, Suraiya and Mohammad Rafi.
The irony is that Pakistani government did not even allow exhibition of its own film on Ghalib. I also came across this piece of information on Wikipedia: “The Pakistan government in 1969 commissioned Khaliq Ibrahim (died 2006) to make a documentary on Mirza Ghalib. The movie was completed in 1971-72. It is said, that the movie, a docudrama, was historically more correct than what the official Pakistan government point of view was. Thus, it was never released. Till this date, barring a few private viewing, the movie is lying with the Department of Films and Publication, Government of Pakistan.”
For most countries film has been a powerful medium to portray culture. Hong Kong, at the tail end of British era, was marketing its culture of martial arts through films; The French Ministry of Culture under the Socialists (1981-86, 1988-93) made films to highlight sensitive issues; India is known to the World mostly through Bollywood films; Venezuela makes four films a year, Pakistan can do at least half of this number to correct its distorted image. But film is at the lowest priority in Pakistan’s cultural policy and culture in general is ruthlessly neglected by policy makers. The only effective cultural policy, it is said, was authored in 1970s by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, perhaps he saw some hope in the new democratic government. I came to know the fate of his policy in one of his interviews. “It was neither accepted nor rejected by any regime.” Faiz revealed. “They accepted the parts which suited them and rejected the rest.”
Once again a new government is in sight. We can hope to have a sane cultural policy that is capable of creating an environment where quality films can be made and a profound culture can flourish.