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Geopolitics

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] Natwarlalopens 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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