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Battle of the bans

Published 23 Nov, 2016 02:19pm

The real consequence of banning Indian content in Pakistan.

I may not be the biggest fan of Bollywood but I like watching Katrina dance around half naked in full HD as much as anyone else. So you can imagine how I felt when PEMRA took it upon themselves to indefinitely pull the plug on my nanga naach after the Government’s recent kneejerk decision to ban all Indian content (in response to India’s ban on Pakistani talent). But forget about me. Imagine how all the die-hard Pakistani fans of Indian content must have felt when their prime source of entertainment was snatched away. Not good, I’m sure.

Whether we admit it or not, the majority of Pakistanis are head-over-heels for Bollywood. We laugh and cry at their films, we marry to their music and we gush and gossip over their celebrities as if they were our own. And why not? Bollywood is a force to be reckoned with. It is glamorous, sultry, hot, sweaty, rambunctious - and most of all downright entertaining. And as a nation, we are absolutely addicted. This is why it made me wonder that by banning Indian content from Pakistan, who are we really punishing? India? Bollywood? Or are we really just ourselves?

Let’s weigh the pros and cons.

Financially, the decision is both good and bad for us. On one hand, it’s justified because Pakistan is the third largest importer of Indian content in the world; hence we contribute to a fairly significant amount of their revenue in the form of licensing and royalties every year. By banning the import, we will not only disrupt their cash flow, we will be saving millions that could potentially be pumped back into our own local entertainment industry. Will it bring Bollywood to its knees? Unlikely. But India will certainly lose a steady stream of revenue, not to mention a fairly sizeable and passionate audience. On the down side, our local cinema businesses are going to take a hit. With Indian blockbusters off the marquee, audiences will end up watching their favourite Indian movies elsewhere (most probably illegally online or on pirated DVDs at home) and Pakistani cinemas will have to rely on Western films to fill their seats (due to the short lifespan of Pakistani films).

Ethically, it is also a bit of a grey area. Indian content poses without doubt the greatest competition to all Pakistani entertainment. Interestingly however, by banning Indian content from TV channels, ratings have already shown that audiences (for lack of choice) are switching to Pakistani channels. Radio stations are also jumping on the bandwagon, turning the mic over to Pakistani performers to fill the void. That is certainly good news for the smaller players who did not have a chance before, but I’m still struggling with the ethical side of it. Being the only choice doesn’t make you the best choice. Killing the competition seems more like a strategy I would expect from hermit nations like China or North Korea. And although I know that boosting ratings was not the primary reason for the ban, decreasing the competition never yields better quality and diversity. In fact, the opposite. Indian content is (and will always be) our benchmark for quality entertainment. Whether we are producing or watching it, we can’t help but compare the standard. Without Indian content it’s hard to say whether Pakistani productions will up their game or let the status quo remain where it is. Only time will tell.

Morally, this is where I feel we have failed. I have always believed that sharing art and culture is critical to building bridges and increasing understanding between nations. Yes, tensions are high. Kashmir and state-sponsored terrorism are boiling issues. Our governments and military are at each other’s throats. There is a lot of hate and racism in the air. But is this a sentiment we need to spread to our general public? It’s one thing for my Government to fight a cold war; it’s something else when they start telling me who I should and should not give patronage to. How can my Government force me to pledge my solidarity to a specific party? Does it make me any less Pakistani if I refuse? Isn’t that exactly the sort of coercion my Government is sworn to protect me against? As far as I am concerned, it’s my right to be able to watch whatever I chose, whether it’s made in India or anywhere else (and vice-versa). No one should be able to decide that for me. The problem with censorship is that it takes away that freedom of choice and forces us to adopt the Government’s agenda. But what if my agenda doesn’t include being biased against Indians, or their culture, or their entertainment? What if I am part of a generation that believes in breaking down walls, erasing borders and creating unity and acceptance among people? How does this ban help me spread my way of thinking?

The truth is, it doesn’t. Bans, blackouts and censorship never result in bringing communities and ideas together. They are designed to drive them apart. And although our response to ban Indian content will bring some short-term gain to Pakistan, the long-term negative socio-political impact for the region will be far worse. Look at the bigger picture. This ban is not just about banning actors or shutting down entertainment. It is about closing off communication, tolerance and understanding. It is about drawing a line in the sand between ‘them’ and ‘us’. This is precisely the time when art and culture are needed the most to keep us connected. To remind us, that above everything, we are all human beings with our own histories, passions and beliefs. And sharing this only makes us stronger.

Ban or no ban that belief is something that no government can ever take away.