The trailer for Punjab Nahi Jaungi was released last week. Let me break it down; neon colours, a love triangle, Punjab and people running through fields.
This is not the first Pakistani movie accused of copying Bollywood. This has been the case for most films post Khuda Kay Liye. Personally I think that many of the references are so blatant that whether local films copy Bollywood shouldn’t even be a question anymore.
But everyone doesn’t agree with me. On the aforementioned post about Punjab Nahi Jaungi, someone commented; “does Bollywood have the sole right to use a field of poppies?”
Of course it doesn’t. However, it did introduce the archetypical scene. And while we don’t need permission to use something in our films, we do need to give credit where it is due.
Film Language and why it matters
Dialogues are an important part of a film. But they are just one way of communicating via the medium. The other being visual literacy.
Martin Scorsese called visual literacy an “intelligence that was trying to tell a story through where the director, the writer and cinematographer were focusing your eyes.”
His argument was that films use visual cues to tell a story. Simultaneously every film culture has its own film language.
In her book, Margaret E. Redlich argues that Bollywood developed a secret visual language to fight censorship. When films couldn’t be blunt about their message, they began relying on visual cues. For example, until recently a song sequence was the stand-in for a typical romantic scene.
Some claim that Pakistan doesn’t have a film language of its own, which isn’t true. When films and their stars gained mass fame, they also initiated a language.
For example, note the ‘couple staring longingly into each other’s eyes’ pose courtesy Waheed Murad. Or the Punjabi action battle-cry which was introduced by Mazhar Shah, amplified by Sultan Rahi and took over the industry by the 1980s.
But eventually, Pakistan’s cinema stopped producing mainstream films and the public stopped consuming what was produced.
Bollywood bridged the gap. By the 2000s the prominent film culture in Pakistan had to cross a border. Hence it shouldn’t be surprising that Punjab Nahi Jaungi’s trailer uses cues introduced by our neighbours. Whether we like it or not, mainstream India’s film language has permeated our own.
Bollywood and Pakistan: bad romance
In a video about the much debated ‘revival of Pakistani cinema’, I touched on our relationship with our neighbours.
My argument was twofold. Firstly, we always relied on Indian films to aid the distribution and exhibition sides of the local industry. Secondly, while local directors are quick to criticize Bollywood movies, they also make films that resemble them.
Ultimately I think this may harm us, because we don’t need the comparison. But I do understand the logic behind it.
Because many of us grew up with it, Bollywood has become part of our film ethos. We can tout anti-India jargon all day long, but come wedding season we’re all dancing to Indian songs.
Film builds what an audience knows. And in Pakistan the audience knows Bollywood. We have consumed it so vehemently that any reference is instantly recognizable. Note how easily the article about Punjab Nahi Jaungi made the Dilwale connection.
Hence it makes good business sense for local filmmakers to copy. Rather than investing in fresh new iconography, it is much easier to build on what people already love.
The Politics of National Interests
Simultaneously though, a lot of big names have openly condemned the consumption of Indian films. Not a national tragedy goes by without someone demanding that Indian films be banned. For example, Syed Noor has maintained that the only way to help local cinema is by banning foreign films. Although I don’t think the import of Indian films is why his movies aren’t doing well. Chain Aye Na much?
But this also ties into the business side of things. By first presenting a product that looks (or tries to in Syed Noor’s case) Bollywood and then calling on audiences to reject Indian in favour of Pakistani, commercial filmmakers are trying to capitalize on an existing phenomenon.
I haven’t seen the film but I already know that this is the case for Punjab Nahi Jaungi.
At any rate, the question isn’t whether local films take inspiration from Bollywood. The question is why we don’t own up to it. Be it for sentimental or purely business related reasons, producing such films is completely understandable. And accepting that we do it might just help us progress.