'God' helps break down barriers

India, Pakistan's Cold War warmed by collaborations

NEW DELHI -- It took a Pakistani film called "In the Name of God" (Khuda Ke Liye), which takes head-on the debate between radical and liberal Muslims, to revitalize the domestic industry and spark a cinematic reconnection with neighboring India.

Since the nuclear-armed states parted ways in 1947, they have fought two major wars, but their centuries-old commonalities now are being addressed in the open as the Muslim world redefines itself.

"God" and its breakthrough success not only has revitalized Pakistan's stagnant film industry, it has done so with a hand from the first major Indian actor to star in a Pakistani film. "God," which has earned $1.1 million (70.6 million Pakistani rupees) since its release in July, stars acclaimed Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah.

Due to open across India on March 28, the feature debut of Lahore, Pakistan-based TV director Shoaib Mansoor Khan weaves a story of modern Pakistanis facing the odds in a post-Sept. 11 world.

"God" has done "excellent business (in Pakistan), opening with just 14 prints, considering theaters here battle the onslaught of pirated Bollywood films on cable channels," says Rehmat Fazli, head of Karachi-based distributor GEO Films, a unit of media conglomerate the Jang Group.

Even as it bridges a gap, "God" stirs up controversy. It was shot partly in the U.S. and the U.K. with a multicultural cast, and Fazli says its prints total would have been 20 had some theaters not pulled out after threats from radical Muslims opposing the film.

Despite an official five-decade ban of Indian films, Bollywood films obtained illegally have long been wildly popular in Pakistan. But now, Indian films have begun to surface on Pakistani screens in the wake of the first film to break the ban in April 2006 -- the colorized rerelease of the 1960 Bollywood opus "Mughal-e-Azam."

Since then, Pakistani distributors have used loopholes to bring Bollywood films in as non-Indian foreign productions. Produced by the London-based banner of Mumbai-based diversified film group UTV Motion Pictures, the soccer caper "Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal" was the first Indian film to have a day-and-date release in Pakistan (HR 11/23). According to UTV, "Goal" has grossed about 24.9 million Pakistani rupees ($400,000) on 12 prints.

Though India does not impose an official ban on Pakistani films, few have been seen in India "owing to their quality," director Khan says. "Our films weren't as good as Bollywood. But now I hope things will change when 'God' opens in India."

"God" played the festival circuit in India, including December's International Film Festival of India in Goa, and will become the first Pakistani film to get a mainstream release in India. Distribution will be handled by Mumbai-based Percept Picture Co.

Khan notes that despite the fact that India is home to more Muslims than Pakistan is, "and the issues and problems are common," he sometimes feels that "Indians know very little about Pakistan. There should be a lot of interest in India in this film, given the current situation, especially after the assassination of (Pakistan's former prime minister) Benazir Bhutto."

Another Pakistani film is headed to India. Punjabi-speaking North Indian audiences can look forward to GEO Films' next offering, the romantic-comedy "The True Loves" (Mohabbataan Sachiyaan), which was cleared by Indian censors for release Feb. 29 by Mumbai-based distributor Innovision Cine.

Another example of film bringing together cross-border talent is the upcoming "Ramchand Pakistani," directed by New York- and Karachi-based director Mehreen Jabbar, a daughter of Pakistan's former Information Minister Javed Jabbar.

"Ramchand" stars Indian actress and 2005 Cannes jurist Nandita Das as the wife of a Pakistani Hindu who is imprisoned in India. The film is based on a real-life border-crossing incident that inspired Jabbar. "I see it as a very relevant film that will appeal to audiences in both countries because of its theme, the main characters being Pakistani Hindus and the film featuring talent from across the border," says Jabbar, who is eyeing a simultaneous release in Pakistan and India in April. Pakistan will most likely be handled by GEO Films while an Indian distributor is being finalized, she says.

Noted Indian classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal is featured on the "Ramchand" soundtrack, following her 2006 duet with Pakistani singer Salman Ahmad. Mudgal feels "there is a definitive willingness among artists in both countries to work together, but due to various constraints, such as visa obstacles, they don't get many opportunities."

Khan says it was difficult to get visa clearance for Shah, whose scenes as a liberal Muslim cleric were filmed in Lahore.

Das adds that "a lot of the animosity between the two countries is due to the perceptions projected by the media and politicians. 'Ramchand's' story and what the film wants to say are very much in line with my own concerns about this issue, and the opportunity of working with a friend like Mehreen, with similar sensibilities, became an added bonus."

Das says the experience of shooting in Pakistan's Sindh province was not much different from being in India. "I understood the language, the food was familiar and I made so many new friends. I often forgot I was in another country."