"Facilitating access to each other's TV, films, newspaper, magazines and books will not only be the biggest people-to-people contact that the governments of India and Pakistan can accomplish - something that will allow us to see each other as we really are, rather than through a skewed ideological prism of the past decades. I hope we can see this come about sooner than later."
By Vikas Datta

Mulk taksim huye, dil to abhi ek hai/Isi liye hamne khidkiyan kat rakhi hai deewaron mein (The nations were divided, but hearts are still one/That is why we've cut windows into the walls (between us)), wrote an Urdu poet. Divided amid bloodshed, experiencing long spells of adverse relations punctuated by armed conflict, Indians and Pakistanis have however never lost their fascination for each other - despite the prevalent stereotypes. The enthusiastic response to a bouquet of Pakistani shows on an Indian cable TV channel is proof enough.

It is also a major step to breaking down these walls, which were rendered quite redundant by those with internet, but the importance of a symbolic measure cannot be underestimated. Additionally, the wider Indian audience needed a powerful message that life across the border is not of a gloomy existence amidst terror outrages but a vibrant society of people with aspirations and facing the same problems in lives and careers as us.

The long, shared culture has always been a unifying element.

Not only Bollywood films, there is a craze for Indian TV shows - soap operas, sitcoms and game shows - in Pakistan and mutual interest in India for Pakistani music, TV shows, drama and even their over-the-top films, despite the huge variety already available here.

Leave alone singers like Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Farida Khanum and Alam Lohar who are well known in India, the folk songs of Musarrat Nazir have been (and still are) staple fare at any Punjabi wedding ceremony, and the raw but melodic rendition of Reshma's Dama dam Mast Qalandar is the benchmark version for this qawwali, sung by anyone seeking to display credentials to perform Sufi music.

Then there is an entire generation of people of the 1980s who will remember queuing up at video rental stores to get the latest installments of the popular Dhoop Kinare and Ankahi or even Khwaja Sahab and Son about a venerable patriarch and his family of six daughters and a sole son, or of Chor Machaye Shor about a noveau riche Punjabi landowner and the burlesque goings-on in his mansion one night.

Many will also remember erupting in guffaws at the madcap antics and mimicry of Umar Sharif in Bakra Kishton Pe, with the splendid accompaniment of the incomparable Moin Akhtar whose impersonations of Indian and Pakistani actors are among the finest ever done.

Pakistani stage tradition has prepared some uproariously comic actors with a impeccable sense of timing - and they have been much in demand in Indian TV stand-up comedy shows. Sharif, Amanullah Khan, Naseem Vicky and Babbu

Baral are among those who have made millions of Indians break into helpless laughter, but they are just the tip of the iceberg and I look forward to the day we can also see Sakhawat Naz, Iftekhar Thakur, and the Albelas - Honey and Saleem perform before us.On the other hand, if you want to gauge how much Indian culture has permeated life across the border, see talk shows on current issues like Geo's Khabarnaak and Hum Sab Umeed Se Hai which also display the irreverent way Pakistanis see politicians - not only their own but of their neighbours and their overseas ally, as well as sportsmen, actors and cultural personalities such as Anwar Maqsood.Hosted by Aftab Iqbal, Khabarnaak has not spared anyone. The gifted Ali Mir has essayed brilliant parodies complete with uncanny voice resemblance, of not only Shahbaz Sharif, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan, Bilawal Bhutto, Asaf Ali Zardari, Yousuf Raza Gilani, Sheikh Rasheed, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Rehman Malik, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, but also of Manmohan Singh, Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Lalu Prasad, Bal Thackeray, Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Hamid Karzai.

The ensemble cast - Amanullah, Sakhawat (both till 2013), the Albelas - as well as Agha Majid, Ruby Anum, Wajid Khan, as well as co-hostesses like Zainab Jamil and Sofia Mirza have done for a lot of others including Sushma Swaraj, Abdullah Abdullah and even Gen. David Petraeus.

Imagine seeing Indian politicians - even as caricatures - on Pakistani TV screens and whether there is anything comparable here.

But this is not all. Iqbal always stresses the composite history of the subcontinent, referring not only to the Mughals, but also Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka right down to Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. But it is in the Nasir Bhai ka Challenge where the audience toss off Bollywood melodies and the wizened Nasir perfectly identifies the singer, film, cast and music director, that you will realise what reach and recall value Hindustani film songs have.

It is no different with Dr Younis Butt's Ham Sab Umeed Se Hai. The parody song segment frequently features an Indian song - film or TV theme - to satirize Pakistani politics. Can you resist Hina Rabbani Khar singing Sasural Genda Phool for a drone-firing Hilary Clinton before the duo along with Zardari and Obama hold hands and dance around?

Facilitating access to each other's TV, films, newspaper, magazines and books will not only be the biggest people-to-people contact that the governments of India and Pakistan can accomplish - something that will allow us to see each other as we really are, rather than through a skewed ideological prism of the past decades. I hope we can see this come about sooner than later.

(Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])


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