Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistani blockbuster The Legend of Maula Jatt is set to become the first film from the country in more than a decade to be released in India on December 30, marking a tentative cultural breakthrough in strained ties between the South Asian neighbours.
38-year-old director Bilal Lashari’s adaptation of the 1979 cult classic Maula Jatt will be released in Punjab, India and in select theaters in Delhi, confirmed Rajender Singh Jyala, chief programming officer of INOX Leisure, an Indian multiplex chain.
“It will be played in Punjab and in several theaters in Delhi at INOX where there are Punjabi speaking people,” Jyala told the Press Trust of India on December 26. Al Jazeera reached out to Jyala for comment, but did not hear back. time of publication.
Last week, another Indian multiplex chain, PVR Cinemas, shared an announcement about the film’s release on its website before pulling it down. It is unclear whether the film will still run in its theaters, but the incident underscored the political risks Indian companies and individuals face when dealing with their Pakistani counterparts.
Released worldwide in October, The Legend of Maula Jatt has become the highest-grossing Pakistani film of all time, amassing more than $10 million at the box office so far.
With a running time of just over 150 minutes, the film revolves around family feuds on themes of revenge and honor and features a strong cast of famous artists familiar to Indian fans – led by Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan, the stars of the film.
Mahira’s film Bol was the last Pakistani film to be released in India in 2011, although both she and Fawad Khan have acted in several Indian films. Fawad has acted in Khoobsurat, Kapoor & Sons and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Mahira featured in Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan’s Raees which released in 2017.
The legend of Maula Jatt would mark a return to Indian cinema for both the actors after more than five years.
But far-right Indian political parties have threatened protests if the film is released in India. Ameya Khopkar, leader of the Hindu nationalist Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), said earlier in December that his party would not allow the film to be screened in India.
In a tweet on December 9, Khopkar wrote: “It is most outrageous that an Indian company is leading this scheme. On Raj Saheb’s orders, we will not allow this film to be screened anywhere in India.” He was referring to MNS chief Raj Thackeray, whose party has often targeted films with content – or actors – it disagrees with.
Fawad Khan fans traitors can very well go to Pakistan and watch the movie.
— Ameya Khopkar (@MNSAmeyaKhopkar) December 9, 2022
Khopkar, who is also a producer himself, said, “Favad Khan fans, traitors can very well go to Pakistan and watch the film.”
Against this backdrop, entertainment writer and film festival programmer Aseem Chhabra said that screening the film in India will not be easy. “I will not be surprised if the release of this film has some political implications,” he told Al Jazeera. “However, I believe this is a great opportunity to renew cultural exchanges between the two nations.”
Despite the popularity of Pakistani films, dramas and a burgeoning music scene in India, Pakistani artists often struggle to reach their fans overseas, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014.
After an attack in Uri in Indian-administered Kashmir in 2016, which resulted in the death of at least 19 Indian Army personnel, Pakistani artists were effectively banned – without any formal ban – from all platforms in India. Pakistani cricketers have been avoiding playing in the highly popular Indian Premier League since 2009, following the November 2008 Mumbai attacks.
The Pakistan national cricket team last played a bilateral series against India a decade ago. The two cricket-mad nations have only competed against each other in global multi-team events since then.
Nevertheless, Pakistani artists are still making a name for themselves in India through the Internet. One of the biggest music hits this year on both sides of the border is the song Pasoori performed by Pakistani singers Ali Sethi and Shae Gill on the Coke Studio platform. It was among the most streamed songs on Spotify India.
Joyland, which is Pakistan’s Oscar nominee, was also screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival in northern India in November, and according to Chhabra, the film was so successful that festival organizers had to add another screening of the film.
Speaking about the potential release of The Legend of Maula Jatt, Rafay Mahmood, a Karachi-based film critic and cultural commentator, said it was important to note that India had not formally banned the release of Pakistani films or the casting of Pakistani artists.
“These bans are mostly imposed by art bodies, exhibitors and distributors in both countries. There is no formal government regulation banning artists or art itself,” Mahmood told Al Jazeera.
He believes that both countries are engaged in restricting art because it is a “symbolic representation” of the nation. “When the state establishment wants to assert its soft power, it first focuses on art, culture and entertainment. They are a symbolic representation of the nation, be it music, sport, film. These leisure options are symbols of nationhood,” he said.
However, Chhabra expressed optimism about the release of The Legend of Maula Jatt, saying it was “exciting” to see the wildly popular Pakistani film screened in theaters in India.
“I think these cultural connections are important,” Chhabra said. “It will bring the people of India and Pakistan closer together.”
The expected release of the Pakistani film also comes at a time when Bollywood – India’s giant Hindi film industry – has struggled for hits and is going through what Mahmood described as almost a “famine”.
“They haven’t had much commercial success in the last two, three years and it’s quite possible that The Legend of Maula Jatt could be the film that brings the audience back to the cinemas,” he said, pointing to his “alpha male”. characters, over-the-top dialogue and aggression” — film characteristics that often work well in India.
A critic from Karachi suggested that other factors could help the film in India.
Punjab, a key potential audience for the film, is still reeling from the loss of popular rapper Sidhu Moose Wala, who was known for his rebellious, anti-establishment music. “It’s possible that audiences there are just flocking to watch a Pakistani film just as a protest,” Mahmood said.
And with India’s right-wing parties currently targeting Mahir Khan’s former Indian actor Shahrukh Khan for his new film, The Legend of Maula Jatt might just slip by without too much disruption, Mahmood said. “For the BJP-driven right wing, the success of a Muslim superstar in India is a bigger concern than a Pakistani film running in parts of Punjab.”
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