TV wars be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan are only half the story

The National - News - - OPINION - RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL

TBut if im­age pro­jec­tion, or na­tion­brand­ing, needs flat­ter­ing films and TV shows, it can also be un­made by them

ele­vi­sion is a medium, Amer­i­can co­me­dian Fred Allen once quipped, be­cause any­thing well done is rare. That’s a damn­ing value judge­ment – but worth think­ing about now that Pak­istan’s Supreme Court has re­in­stated a ban on In­dian tele­vi­sion shows in re­tal­i­a­tion for its neigh­bour’s al­leged at­tempt to dam the In­dus river and its trib­u­taries.

What’s the point of turn­ing off the flow of In­dian tele­vi­sion shows to Pak­istan? Is it purely sym­bolic – a sign of worse to come or just an­other ex­am­ple of the two coun­tries’ spo­radic, of­ten petty dis­plays of hos­til­ity to­wards each other?

This type of an­tag­o­nism has his­tory. In Septem­ber 2016, the In­dian Mo­tion Pic­tures Pro­duc­ers As­so­ci­a­tion im­posed a ban on Pak­istani artists work­ing in the Bol­ly­wood in­dus­try, cit­ing the strained diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries. In­dian min­is­ter Babul Supriyo went so far as to crit­i­cise the hir­ing of world-renowned Pak­istani singers such as Atif As­lam and Ra­hat Fateh Ali Khan, say­ing pro­duc­ers should show na­tional “sol­i­dar­ity”.

The new Pak­istani ban is a broader reprisal of one from 2016, which was lifted last year. The fall­out says a lot more than a diplo­matic de­marche. It sends a mes­sage, one that is deadly se­ri­ous, of the grim­ness with which Pak­istan views any per­ceived at­tempt by In­dia to re­duce the flow of wa­ter. The rivers flow through In­dian-ad­min­is­tered Kash­mir and more than 80 per cent of Pak­istan’s agri­cul­tural land re­lies on them for ir­ri­ga­tion.

Although In­dia de­nies ac­cu­sa­tions of “steal­ing” Pak­istan’s wa­ter, the con­se­quences of any such at­tempt would be sig­nif­i­cant on its neigh­bour’s wa­ter sup­ply. But so too is Pak­istan’s block­ing of In­dian soap op­eras, po­lice dra­mas, quiz shows and Bol­ly­wood films. They have a large and pas­sion­ate fol­low­ing in Pak­istan and are a sub­tle but sig­nif­i­cant way for In­dia to ex­ert what his­to­rian Ed­ward Carr once called “power over opin­ion”.

That is why it mat­tered when China cut off South Korea’s wildly pop­u­lar cul­tural ex­ports in 2016. It had al­ready made known its ve­he­ment op­po­si­tion to the de­ploy­ment of the US Ter­mi­nal High Al­ti­tude Area De­fence mis­sile sys­tem in South Korea. But Beijing’s re­fusal un­til re­cently to al­low Korean dra­mas, K-pop con­certs and fan meets de­liv­ered the mes­sage more ef­fec­tively. It hit the South Kore­ans where it re­ally hurt – a lu­cra­tive re­la­tion­ship with Chi­nese fi­nanciers and mas­sive ex­po­sure in a bil­lion-dol­lar mar­ket. More to the point, it made K-pop’s big­gest stars per­sonae non gratae in China, even those who made ef­forts to re­lease songs in Man­darin.

By not recog­nis­ing the Korean en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, the Chi­nese seemed to damn an en­tire peo­ple with in­dif­fer­ence. Those en­gaged in the sec­tor ur­gently sought new au­di­ences and tried to lo­calise their acts to suit sen­si­bil­i­ties in Ja­pan, the US and the Mid­dle East, in­clud­ing the UAE. But it was hard go­ing, bad for their sense of self-worth and a huge blow to low-cost cul­tural mes­sag­ing from Seoul.

Amer­i­cans know this well. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween US films and for­eign pol­icy is minutely doc­u­mented. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, the US held 16mm film screen­ings in Euro­pean vil­lages. The use of Amer­i­can films picked up dur­ing the Cold War as a ri­poste to the Soviet threat and to build favourable mind­sets abroad through re­al­is­tic yet al­lur­ing images of US so­ci­ety. Af­ter 9/11, se­nior Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial Karl Rove tried to en­list Hol­ly­wood in the so-called war on ter­ror.

Some­what sim­i­lar at­tempts to har­ness film­mak­ing to for­eign pol­icy ob­jec­tives have been em­ployed by Rus­sia and Ge­or­gia in the years since they clashed in a short but bru­tal war in 2008. In an ob­vi­ous at­tempt to press their re­spec­tive cases on the big screen, Rus­sian film­mak­ers re­leased a doc­u­men­tary and ro­man­tic fea­ture film that de­picted Ge­or­gia as a geno­ci­dal ag­gres­sor, af­ter which the Ge­or­gian govern­ment sup­ported a Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor’s take on the con­flict.

But if im­age pro­jec­tion – na­tion-brand­ing in to­day’s par­lance – needs flat­ter­ing films, per­sua­sive TV shows and al­lur­ing cre­ative con­tent, it can also be un­made by it. This has long been the case for Ja­pan and its one-di­men­sional por­trayal in hun­dreds of Chi­nese films, year on year. Af­ter his re­cent visit to Beijing, Ja­pan’s prime min­is­ter Shinzo Abe, once la­belled an “un­wel­come per­son” by Chi­nese of­fi­cials, said bi­lat­eral ties were at a “his­toric turn­ing point”. Just how his­toric might re­ally only be seen on the big screen.

Ear­lier this year, China and Ja­pan signed a land­mark co-pro­duc­tion treaty bring­ing their film in­dus­tries – sec­ond and third re­spec­tively be­hind the US in do­mes­tic box of­fice rev­enue – closer to­gether. Po­ten­tially the agree­ment will end the pow­er­ful and in­sis­tent cin­e­matic ren­der­ing by China of decades of en­trenched bit­ter­ness and ri­valry with Ja­pan.

It had a pro­foundly neg­a­tive ef­fect on Ja­pan’s im­age, as Tokyo Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and for­mer de­fence min­istry re­searcher Ya­suhiro Mat­suda once ac­knowl­edged. There are facts, he said, such as the Nan­jing mas­sacre and Ja­pan’s in­va­sion of China, but “when there are more than 200 movies com­ing out (in one year), you can imag­ine the neg­a­tive ef­fect”.

Well, quite. Muham­mad Iqbal, the poet known as the spir­i­tual fa­ther of Pak­istan, once wrote: “Na­tions are born in the hearts of po­ets, they pros­per and die in the hands of politi­cians”. In the age of mul­ti­me­dia, those in­flu­en­tial po­ets and sto­ry­tellers are now tele­vi­sion pro­duc­ers, film di­rec­tors and so­cial me­dia users.

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