New Delhi: Strained diplomatic ties between India and Pakistan are back in focus only days after leaders of both the nations discussed how to defuse tension. But the unanimous success of Eid release 'Bajrangi Bhaijaan' - a Salman Khan starrer that propagates a positive message of peace, unity and brotherhood - on both sides of the border is proving there's a strong force in the soft power of Bollywood.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met in the Russian city of Ufa earlier this month in an effort towards restoring cordiality in ties - but the situation was back to square one when a top Pakistani diplomat said that no dialogue process will take place with India sans the Kashmir issue.
It only seems more symbolic then that the movie too doesn't miss Kashmir - neither in its visual treat of the picturesque Valley nor when a Muslim character tells a Hindu man on a lighter vein: "Thoda (Kashmir) hamaare paas bhi hai."
Largely, cinema can play a "big part in changing the bitterness of our history into a sweet future for our children", concedes Fakhr-e-Alam, chairman of Pakistan's Central Board of Film Censors.
"Films are a great way to bring people closer or to make people understand each other better. It's a great tool for propaganda and awareness. If used wisely like in 'Bajrangi Bhaijaan' and 'PK', it can connect people the world over, create a better understanding for each other, increase tolerance, open minds and connect hearts," Alam, who courted "life threats" for giving a green signal to the Salman Khan starrer and was trolled on Twitter for being a "traitor" said in an email from Karachi.
Alam - the same person who banned Akshay Kumar's ‘Baby’ in his nation for being a "a poor propoganda (sic) film basically saying all muslims r terrorists & Pakistan harbors them" - however, went on record on social media to convey "'Bajrangi Bhaijaan' is the most positive film for Pakistan that Bollywood has produced in a long time".
The Kabir Khan directorial sees Salman - a hugely popular Hindi film superstar - in the role of a god-fearing Hindu simpleton named Pavan aka Bajrangi taking it upon himself to unite an accidentally-lost six-year-old mute Pakistani girl in India with her parents in Pakistan. It's not just Salman's holier-than-thou portrayal sans his trademark mannerisms that has tugged at the audience's heartstrings, but the angelic smile of talented little girl Harshaali Gupta; the quirky dialogues of Nawazuddin Siddiqui and the deftness with which the director has handled a subject as sensitive as Indo-Pak ties.
Ali Murtaza of Shiny Toy Guns, currently producing the upcoming Pakistani romantic comedy ‘Dekh Magar Pyaar Say’, said that he saw the movie in a "packed show" on the fourth day of Eid. He describes it as a "brilliant and breathtaking" story, with special praise for the director's attention to detail.
Having released in 47 screens with over 74 screenings on July 17 - a day before the holy Eid celebrations – ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ has enjoyed a decent run over one week in Pakistan, despite clashing with two awaited Pakistani movies ‘Bin Roye’ and ‘Wrong No.’, as well as Hollywood movies like ‘Ant-Man’ and ‘Terminator Genisys’.
The gross billing for Pakistan territory for the first seven days turned out to be $1.2 million, said Satish Anand, head honcho of Eveready Group of Companies, which distributed "Bajrangi Bhaijaan" in the nation - primarily in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, which are key centres for films.
"Salman Khan films on Eid always have a very strong initial draw in Pakistan," Anand said in an email from Karachi, adding that what makes ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ stand out from his past entertainers is the fact that it's not "all out action" and it is this reason why women and family audiences in Pakistan are patronising it from the word go.
However, Anand, who was himself bowled over by the "different tangent and direction" that Salman had taken as an actor and producer of the film, and is all praise for the movie's feel-good-factor, said he faced issues in distributing ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’.
"I had a lot of problem in having it released...first due to the trailer, and then in the past, the director (Kabir Khan) had made 'Ek Tha Tiger' (about a RAW agent), which never got released in Pakistan. So, there was anticipation in the market that there would be a problem with the content in the film. There was a huge campaign (from certain quarters) to try to create a negative perception about the film," he added.
The business which, according to him, is "phenomenal", could have been better had the movie been released at a time when not many Pakistani films were coming. Also, pirated prints, he said, have already come into the market and on cable, hampering chances of sustainability on Pakistan's big screens.
In India, of course, the film has crossed the Rs.200 crore mark.
Decoding why the film is working, Mumbai-based film historian S.M.M. Ausaja said: "It's working because we as Indians are largely tolerant and peace-loving. I also feel that these are times when politics has polarised the people and this is their way to endorse secularism and human values, giving a message that the basic civilizational values we (in India and Pakistan) have imbibed remain intact."
While several people are praising ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ for avoiding Pak-bashing, Ausaja pointed out how "all the films on Indo-Pak issues eventually depicted a triumph of peace and brotherhood, including 'Border' and 'Gadar - Ek Prem Katha'".
"There may be stray scenes in some, but the industry has largely been secular and above narrow divisive ideologies," he added.
Shailja Kejriwal, who pioneered the Zindagi channel - a platform which brings Pakistani TV content closer to Indian TV viewers - said that apart from a political discourse on igniting peace between the nations, a social discourse involving people-to-people understanding, acceptance and involvement must also be stressed upon. And this, she said, is possible with the power of mass media platforms like films and TV.
"Someone asked me: 'Will what you're doing (through Zindagi) bring peace between India and Pakistan?' As I see it, most landmark movements have been people's movements, and even if efforts like Zindagi or a 'Bajrangi Bhaijaan' may not bring peace, they are a step towards peace."
To that end, she added, the remarkable aspect about ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ is that it tells a simple story about people, goodness and genuine emotions without touching politics, and sends out a universal message: "Goodness is more important than enmity."
Pakistan had banned Indian movies in 1968 but lifted this later. Now, various initiatives like the Aman ki Aasha movement, fashion shows and movies like ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ are doing their bit to promote harmony between the two nations.