Pakistanis looking beyond Bollywood fixation, find Malayalam cinema 'secular'

The emergence of Netflix, Prime Video, and other web-based entertainment platforms have helped Pakistani viewers/writers to look beyond Bollywood and to other Indian regional cinema, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor 

Mahendra Ved Jun 19, 2020

The boycott to protest India’s "unilateral" action in its own Jammu and Kashmir territory in August last year has ended. There is no indication of Pakistani artistes returning to Bollywood. But Bollywood is back in sections of Pakistani media. And it is even looking beyond. 

It began with the back-to-back deaths of two megastars, Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor, in May. Irrfan was an internationally admired actor and loved in Pakistan, while Rishi was part of the pre-partition nostalgia about the family who came from Peshawar. Rishi was the third generation of the Kapoor dynasty, headed by his grandfather, the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor, who moved to what was then called Bombay cinema, yet-to-be nicknamed Bollywood. Pakistani journals occasionally publish photographs of the Kapoor house, a huge edifice where Raj Kapoor was born.

Kapoors gave back Pakistan ‘Henna’, a poignant musical in which Rishi’s character drowns in the river from the Indian side and strays into Pakistan. The 1991 hit movie was directed by Rishi’s elder brother Randhir, known popularly as Daboo. Rishi had starred opposite Zeba Bakhtiar, daughter of one-time Attorney General of Pakistan, who became a star after the release of the Hindi movie.  

Rishi had also earned Pakistani brickbats for playing a character loosely based on fugitive Indian underworld don, Dawood Ibrahim said to be living in Karachi. But that is another story. Dawn newspaper in a column wrote that Rishi was keen that his actor son Ranbir marry Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt and “was fine with Ranbir’s idea of a not-so-extravagant ceremony with no more than 45 guests. He had also intended to take his son and his girlfriend out to dinner, but that was never to be. Sad. Death is such a cruel thing.”

Bollywood fixation

It would be natural for Pakistani cinema (dubbed by its media as Lollywood, from Lahore) to have the predominant presence of “gora chittas” (fair-skinned actors)  from the subcontinent’s north-west, unlike Indian cinema that has actors of varying complexions. Endorsement by some of the Indian stars of whitening facial creams have been a subject of debate in India too. But when some Bollywood celebrities, who earn from such ads, supported the “Black Lives Matter” movement, triggered by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man by a cop, Pakistani commentators have taken potshots, albeit, quoting Indian gossip writers, calling them "hypocritical". 

Among those they have targeted is Priyanka Chopra, Bollywood actress and a rising Hollywood star, who is also a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Peace. The Pakistani twitterati last year was miffed at her for endorsing the Indian government’s move to scrap Article 370 from the constitution that grants special status to Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcating the state into two Union territories – Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. A Pakistani human right minister, in fact, filed a complaint against the 'Quantico' actress and sought her removal as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Goodwill Ambassador.

A new entrant to the Pakistani gossip mill is actress Disha Patani, a prominent propagator of fairness cream. She was trolled for losing her ‘Disha’, which means direction in Hindi. When Disha came under fire for tweeting a poster that said, “All colours are beautiful.” One of the tweets said, “The hypocrite who is endorsing a fairness cream for money is now saying all the colours are same.”     

Pakistani media is critical of the current ‘Hindutva’ discourse in India. It seems to have merged well with the ‘complexion’ campaign and support to the blacks in the US.  Pakistani netizens also reminded the actress of how Muslims in her own country was facing similar discrimination. “These celebrities cannot talk against fascism but will call out racism. They cannot see the pain of Muslims in India but they can see the pain of blacks in other countries.”       

Express Tribune newspaper, while noting down the adverse impact of coronavirus globally, including on the movie industry, especially Hindi cinema.  “The ensuing lockdown has hit the film industries all across the globe. Bollywood star Taapsee Pannu, during a recent chat with an Indian magazine, made a valid point about the economic side to the stoppage of work. She said that since nowadays actors are not working in movies, they’re not getting paid. Taapsee P added that she’s also ready for salary cuts, if and when filming resumes.”

The newspaper also took a potshot:  “Harrowing times! We hope that this will only happen to bad actors, though — of whom there’s no dearth.” 

Pakistanis discovering Indian regional cinema

However, the emergence of Netflix, Prime Video, and other web-based entertainment platforms have helped Pakistani viewers/writers to look beyond Bollywood and to other Indian regional cinema.

In Dawn, Sadaf Siddique notes “Why Malayalam cinema is an engaging alternative to Hindi cinema.” Like Hollywood, Bollywood, Lollywood et al, she prefers to call the Kerala-based cinema Mollywood. It “opens new perspectives on regional Indian cinema,” but wonders: “is it a cut above Bollywood?”

She observes that most of Pakistanis’ exposure to Indian cinema has been a Bollywood film, “mainly because of our familiarity with Hindi, but there still exists a distinct North Indian (read: Punjabi Hindu) bias to the characters we see on screen.”

The writer’s Malayalam cinema’s ‘discovery’ is also prompted by the ‘Hindutva’ discourse. “…. with an increase in nationalist films, tired clichés and not to mention, actors bending their very flexible spines to the political winds (and windbags) —shouldn’t there be greener pastures to turn to?”

“These lush pastures can perhaps be found in the wonderful variety of films from India’s southern state of Kerala.

“Films shot and made in the Malayalam language, colloquially known as Mollywood, offer gems of films and innovative filmmaking that offer a more engaging alternative to Hindi cinema.”

Siddique takes note of the fact that like Hindi films, Malayalam cinema too has its share of superstars – Mohanlal and Mammotty.

She finds the Malayalam cinema secular, and hence welcome.

“Another noteworthy aspect of Malayalam cinema is the representation of their Muslim and Catholic communities. These characters go about their normal lives and we get to experience all the highs and lows of their journey. Characters are often shown in interfaith marriages mentioned so casually as to be taken as the very fabric of their lives.”

(The writer is President, Commonwealth Journalists Association.  The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

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