The Bollywood Kiss Heard 'Round The World

India and Pakistan are arch enemies whose ongoing Kashmir conflict shows no signs of ending. So will the film kiss between a beloved Pakistani actress and an India heartthrob be censored?

India's Emraan Hashmi and Pakistan's Humaima Malick's locking lips in "Raja Natwarlal."
India's Emraan Hashmi and Pakistan's Humaima Malick's locking lips in "Raja Natwarlal."
Sophie Mühlmann

SINGAPORE — Pakistan's censor is already sharpening its scissors after Humaima Malick, the country's most famous and highest-paid actress, kissed an Indian in her most recent movie.

Pakistani censorship authorities bear down hard on love scenes on principle anyway, but for some patriotic hardliners this trans-border kiss amounts to consorting with the enemy.

Humaima Malick, a model and actress from Quetta in western Pakistan, seems a little worried about how audiences in her hometown are going to react when the crime comedy Raja expand=1] Natwarlal opens on Aug. 29. Her role as a bar dancer alongside Indian heartthrob Emraan Hashmi marks Humaima's debut in Bollywood. The 26-year-old beauty was granted a work permit in India after the film's director "pulled a few strings," as he put it.

India and Pakistan are arch enemies. They represent two halves of a divided whole, but between them lies the insurmountable Kashmir conflict. The two countries, both nuclear powers, have been fighting about this since the division of the sub-continent in 1947, and have gone to war three times over it. On the border — or the "Line of Control" — between Indian and Pakistani-administered Kashmir, there are repeated military skirmishes.

Delhi and Islamabad have been trying to engage in dialogue for 10 years, but so far attempts at rapprochement have been slowed by terror attacks, mutual accusations and irreconcilable bitterness. Pakistan's current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has promised better relations with India. Bus connections have been established, and there have been several "trust-building measures," official agreements about easing visa restrictions in both countries. And there has been the occasional handshake between high-level officials. But the ice is not even close to melting.

Finding common ground

At the same time, the hearts of the people are slowly opening. Indians and Pakistanis are coming together in ways that have nothing to do with heads of state or negotiating tables. People on both sides of the border are finding common ground in music, sports — and movies.

Four years ago, Indian tennis player Rohan Bopanna and Pakistani player Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi ignored the ongoing conflict between their respective countries and played doubles together. They were such a good team they made the 2010 U.S. Open finals. Known as the "Indo-Pak Express," they were ambassadors of reconciliation, showing up at Wimbledon wearing identical training clothes that read, "Stop War, Play Tennis!"

This kind of so-called "cricket diplomacy" began in 1987 when India's then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi invited Pakistan President Zia-ul-Haq to a test match in Jaipur. As the teams gave their best, the pols defused a crisis over troop buildups at their borders. In 2005, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a match in Delhi and they agreed to open the Kashmir border. Relations between the two countries warmed until a Pakistani terror group killed 166 in a 2008 Mumbai attack.

Three years later, Singh tried again and asked Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani to the semi-finals of the cricket world championships in Mohali.

Music too transcends borders. For years Pakistani stars have been going to India, where they are very popular, just as Indians have impressive fan bases in Pakistan. Indian Sufi singer Harshdeep Kaur remembers her first Pakistan guest performance in 2003 at a private event in Lahore. "I'll never forget that trip," she says. "At first I wasn't sure whether or not to go, but when I went I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and love. People there are huge Bollywood fans."

After the attacks in Mumbai, India’s traumatic "26/11," there was talk of forbidding Pakistani stars from entering the country. While some Indian celebrities wanted to send their Pakistani counterparts back to Pakistan, many espoused a different tone altogether, speaking of music's power to reconcile.

Politics is a separate issue

"Do we buy music based on caste beliefs or nationality," asks Pakistani singer Adnan Sami. "Our songs propagate love and harmony."

Indian composer Pritam Chakraborty says he feels angry and sad about the attacks on Sept. 26, 2008 — outraged that the whole plan was cooked up on Pakistani soil. "But that's politics and doesn't have anything to do with music," he says. "There should be no rush to ban Pakistanis from our country."

But the strongest link between the arch rivals is Bollywood. Indian blockbusters have long been loved as much in Pakistan as they are in India and now are released in theaters in both countries on the same day. So it's no wonder that Pakistani actors come to the film metropolis of Mumbai to try their luck. Humaima Malick is just the most recent in a series of local stars hoping for Bollywood fame.

Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt has made it his job to draw Pakistani talent to India. "I started this movement 11 years ago," he told Indian news agency PTI. "The basic philosophy I began with was creating an atmosphere of peace. I'm delighted people have picked up on the idea and that they welcome new talent from Pakistan."

Bhatt is optimistic. "Indian opinion of Pakistani people is changing," he says. And Pakistani people are increasingly opening up and appreciating the liberal spirit of Indian films that contrast with the strict customs of Muslim Pakistan.

Humaima Malick told the Pakistani newspaper Business Recorder that audiences in Pakistan today are much more progressive than they used to be. Fans didn't find kissing in her other movies offensive. "There were no death threats," she said. "The only concern that I heard was that trailers should not be released during the holy month of Ramadan." She's hoping the same positive vibe persists after the premiere of Raja Natwarlal.

But less than 10 years ago there was a fatwa against fellow actress Meera because in the movie Nazar she kissed her Hindu co-star Ashmit Patel. And some Indian films continue to be forbidden in Pakistan, like the satiric Tere Bin Laden with Pakistani pop star Ali Zafar.

Of course, there remain unwavering folks in high positions who do not approve of rapprochement. But people on the street appear to have softened. George Orwell once said that sport "is war minus the shooting," which is why sport is good for sparring countries. Couldn't it also be said that a big-screen kiss promotes understanding between nations?

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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