One day after the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan, SM Krishna and Shah Mehmood Qureshi pick up the thread of their official dialogue process in Islamabad so brutally interrupted by the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008, a Bollywood film called ‘Tere Bin Laden’ is threatening to hijack the limelight with its worldwide release.
You don’t need to tell anyone living in South Asia that the film is a comedy, a spoof on the western world for making an anti-hero out of an extraordinarily rich Saudi contractor-turned-villain, perhaps a cinematic reprimand for allowing ourselves to be circumscribed by the real Osama’s un-funny lines in real life.
For a start, the title itself ‘Tere Bin Laden’ – translated from the commonly spoken Hindi/Urdu across the sub-continent as ‘Without you, Laden’ — promises to unite film-goers in their cheap stall tickets and those in their cushioned leather seats with laughter, an ingredient terribly dangerous for power-hungry politicians on any side. If you can snigger at the most dangerous man in the world, Osama bin Laden, consider that the battle of good vs evil has already been won.
On the one hand, then, is the film story itself, so recognisably South Asian that it feels like a second skin: An ambitious young news reporter from Karachi, Pakistan, is desperate to immigrate to the Mecca of the West, the United States of America, but each time his visa is peremptorily rejected by those men and women with First World accents. The young man, however, refuses to give up his long-cherished dream of the good life and decides to fake a scoop with an Osama look-alike. He produces a video of an interview with the world’s most wanted man and sends it onwards to several news channels…Except the White House soon gets involved and the story is pulled by its own laugh-a-minute gravitational spiral.
That’s on the one hand. On the other is the fact that the film’s hero, Ali Zafar, is a leading Pakistani pop singer, while the movie itself has been shot and directed in Mumbai – the scene of the horrific attacks in November 2008 – by an Indian called Abhishek Sharma. (The producers promise that care has been taken to replicate Karachi locations.) Other leading lights have real names like Rahul Singh, Piyush Mishra, Barry John, Shankar Ehsaan Loy, a veritable potpourri of religion, caste and creed.
Meaning, despite the anger and the animosity resulting from the Mumbai massacre in India, ordinary Pakistanis and Indians have been willing to look beyond the single dimension of terrorism that divides them and experiment with so much in the language and culture they have in common.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s banning of ‘Tere Bin Laden’ in the last 24 hours sends out a message of fear, but the movie itself has one motto: Terrorists can kill, but the cackle of side-splitting laughter will ensure that they will never win.
If only SM Krishna and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the two foreign ministers of India and Pakistan, were listening. On the eve of their talks, both governments had been unusually quiet about promises and expectations. Talk of a “trust deficit’ rent the air, as did slogans (from Delhi) that Pakistan “must do more” to combat anti-India terror.
India wants Pakistan to take action against those who masterminded the terror attacks in Mumbai and live up to its promise – reiterated even by former president General Pervez Musharraf — that it will not allow any terror attacks against India. India feels that Pakistan adopts double standards on terror : It takes strong action against militants fighting the Pakistani state, like the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in the Swat and Malakand valleys, but refuses to take action against anti-India groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, prime accused in the Mumbai attacks.
Already, though, in Pakistan, the mood seems to be changing. Just like Ali Zafar’s fearless participation in a spoof on Osama bin Laden, Pakistanis are beginning to stand up and ask, What happened to the new country they created in 1947? In the Islamic republic of Pakistan, ordinary Pakistanis are now saying, more Muslims are killing each other – all in the name of the same religion.
When the terror finds more and more targets within, then the enemy outside – the Pakistan military calls it India – could become a secondary distraction.
Whatever the outcome of the talks between the two foreign ministers — opening up the visa regime, encouraging trade, releasing prisoners in each other’s jails, even returning fishermen who unintentionally stray into each other’s waters because the Arabian sea, you see, doesn’t have a dividing line – the fact that the two governments have taken up the thread of dialogue again is of significant value.
Many will quibble and criticise that these initiatives amount to really small gestures, and that once again India’s politicians have not been brave enough to arrive at settlements on bigger issues, such as the Siachen glacier and the Sir Creek matter – the first is a sub-zero mountainside held by Indian soldiers since 1984, where soldiers tend to die from frostbite rather than bullet wounds, and the second is a sliver of water in the Rann of Kutch between India and Pakistan, whose importance supposedly grows by leaps and bounds every decade because of the adjoining continental shelf.
No matter. If visa regimes are indeed relaxed, it would be a momentous day. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim families, divided by the partition of the sub-continent in 1947, find it simply impossible to buy a ticket for Karachi or Lahore or Delhi or Ajmersharif, because the visa has become the equivalent of pixie dust. These are practically impossible to get, and when they are, they are limited to certain cities and time periods. The ultimate ignominy is something called a “reporting visa,” where Indians and Pakistanis have to report to the local police station in each other’s country, sometimes on a daily basis.
It must be time to end this mindless bureaucratic charade. Terrorists don’t really need visas — neither those that came to Mumbai and held India’s most cosmopolitan city to ransom for 60 long hours nor those who have infiltrated the Kashmir valley for the last two decades.
That’s why this resumption of official dialogue is important. The battle-ground between India and Pakistan is vast and it is deeply mined. But if Ali Zafar and Abhishek Sharma have to make music and films together, then some of that deep-seated mistrust can and must be transformed.