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Last Updated: Friday, 28 April 2006, 11:35 GMT 12:35 UK
Pakistan's overtures to Bollywood
By Usman Ghafoor, Lahore

Taj Mahal premiere in Lahore
A star-studded premiere for Taj Mahal in Lahore

Officially Indian films are banned in Pakistan, a prohibition dating back to the 1965 war between the two countries.

But this week has seen the government allowing two exceptions.

On Friday the film Taj Mahal goes on general release in Lahore.

This comes days after one of Bollywood's greatest love epics, Mughal-e-Azam became the first Indian movie in decades to be officially released in a Pakistani cinema.

The premiere of Mughal-e-Azam was a historic occasion that saw a large turnout of the great and the good.

Bollywood flops

Perhaps surprisingly, the 1960s classic got a lukewarm box-office response.

The reason seems to be that the release was put forward ahead of its original date of 2 June, so that it beat Taj Mahal, but in the rush there was insufficient advertising.

Our language and culture are quite similar. Besides, people are very fond of Indian movies. Period
Pakistan Film Exhibitors Association Chairman Jahanzaib Baig

Back in India, Taj Mahal was one of the major Bollywood flops last year.

In Pakistan, the run-up to its release has been accompanied by a barrage of publicity, the support from a local TV network, live shows and interviews with a bunch of Indian stars flown in especially to attend the film's Lahore and Karachi premieres.

Indian State Minister for Culture Ambika Soni accompanied the convoy of film stars that included Kabir Bedi, Shatrughan Sinha, Feroz Khan, Manisha Koirala and the lead actors in Taj Mahal, Sonia Jehan and Zulfikar Syed.

No such gathering can truly matter without a senior politician present, so federal Minister for Culture Ghazi Gulab Jamal duly obliged.

Earlier, the Lahore High Court had dismissed a petition filed by the veteran actor and president of the Movie Artists Association of Pakistan (MAAP), Yusaf Khan. He was trying to maintain a total ban on the showing of Indian movies.

Last nail in coffin

Ever since the 1965 ban, forces on both sides of the border have been trying to persuade the Pakistani government to ease its stance.

The campaign gained momentum in the last few years, especially following the decline of Lollywood, the Lahore-based film industry and the rise of home viewing of pirated DVDs.

A scene from Taj Mahal
Sonia Jehan made her Bollywood debut in Taj Mahal

Many film producers in Pakistan have gone out of business. Many cinema owners have shut down their theatres, converting them into plazas, showrooms and service stations.

The more recent demands to lift the 40-year old ban on Indian movies came mainly from exhibitors and film distributors.

But the artistic fraternity is mostly opposed to the idea. For them, it means driving the last nail in the coffin of the local film industry.

The chairman of the Pakistan Film Exhibitors Association, Jahanzaib Baig, contends that the survival of cinema industry lies "only in importing" Bollywood movies.

"Our language and culture are quite similar. Besides, people are very fond of Indian movies. Period," Mr Baig argues.

He says that Pakistan is not producing enough films to supply local cinema demand.

And as the owner of one of Lahore's prestigious few Digital Theatre Sound (DTS) cinemas, he is in a good position to know.

The current slump in the Pakistan cinematic industry has meant that he has had to erect a gas station within the cinema premises "in order to keep the ball rolling".

Greater hype

Mr Baig does not see movies like Taj Mahal and Mughal-e-Azam as necessarily setting the trend for future film imports from India.

"These two movies are more like testing the waters for us," he said.

There are rumours that the mixed response to Mughal-e-Azam will lead its distributor to withdraw it from viewing and then re-release it on 2 June with greater hype.

Taj Mahal Director Akbar Khan with heroines from the film
Its hoped that Taj Mahal will not bomb in Pakistan as it did in India

While Taj Mahal awaits its fate at the Pakistani box office, Mr Baig says that its miserable performance in India will not have any bearing on Pakistani audience reaction.

"There have been instances when a film flopped in its hometown but worked overseas, or vice versa. So, we are keeping our fingers crossed," he says.

Next up before the grand jury of public opinion is an Indo-Russian co-production, Sohni Manhival. It was given a censor certificate earlier this year for an all-Pakistan cinema release.

Rumours also abound that the Aishwarya Rai film, Bride & Prejudice could also hit the screens in Pakistan.

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