03 September 2012

A Silent Invasion

Asif Ezdi

In his appearance last Monday before the Supreme Court, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf sought some more time to deliberate on the issue of writing a letter to the Swiss authorities and assured the court that he would do his best to deal with it. “Mujh par vishvas karen” (trust me), the Prime Minister said, using an opaque Hindi word meaning trust, confidence, belief.

Raja’s use of Hindi in addressing the court was striking as well as jarring, given the fact that there are perfectly suitable Urdu words with the same meaning, not only those of Arabic origin – like yaqin and i’timad – but also indigenous ones like bharosa. Vishvas, on the contrary, is not one of the hundreds of thousands of words that are common to Urdu and Hindi, but has been given currency in India as a result of a campaign by Hindu nationalists to popularise or coin “authentic” local substitutes for “foreign” terms.

Raja’s choice of Hindi vocabulary would hardly merit comment, were it not for the fact that it is symptomatic of a creeping cultural penetration of Pakistan by our eastern neighbour, to which the government seems to be completely oblivious. This silent invasion is taking place mainly through the opening of Pakistan to cheap Bollywood movies, the airing of Indian TV’s entertainment programmes by our cable operators, the free availability of pirated DVDs and videos of Indian films on the local market and, most insidious of all, the home screening of popular children’s programmes, especially cartoons, dubbed in Hindi.

Young impressionable minds are the most vulnerable to this onslaught. But they are not the only ones. Raja hardly belongs to that category and even at his age he seems to have subconsciously imbibed Hindi vocabulary simply by watching too many of the Bollywood thrillers.

Most of these oeuvres offer little more than a standard fare of love triangles, scheming villains, melodramatic dialogue, “wet sari scenes and lots and lots of singing and dancing in alpine meadows” (Washington Post). and are devoid of any artistic or cultural merit. If someone chooses third-rate entertainment, it is of course a matter of individual choice. Where the state comes in is when the national interest or the fabric of society is threatened. From this point of view, there are three reasons why imports from Bollywood should be a matter of public concern.

First, these movies provide a generous serving of what a recent Associated Press story on Bollywood described delicately as “swelling songs, innervating rain storms, and jiggly dances” which transgress the bounds of decency and good decorum. The titillating scenes which are their main attraction promote vulgarity and obscenity, as the Supreme Court has remarked on a petition by concerned citizens. Because of lack of action by the government, the Supreme Court has now taken the matter in its hands. Although the airing of “obscene” material is prohibited, there is no definition of this term under the law. The court has asked Pemra to consult all interested parties to determine what amounts to “obscenity.” The case is still pending, but in the absence of a commitment by the government judicial action will not be enough.

Second, Indian movies increasingly portray such errant behaviour as steamy love affairs, promiscuity and marital infidelity as normal and acceptable. This tends to promote a culture of permissiveness in the society at large and should be a matter of concern to the state. Even Afghanistan, India’s strategic partner and one of the biggest foreign markets for Bollywood films, has had to draw a line, and in 2008 the government was forced by pressure from the parliament and the Shura-e-Ulema to order local television networks to stop broadcasting five Indian soap operas because they were not in keeping with “Afghan religion and culture.”

When the Musharraf regime lifted the ban on the import of Indian movies in February 2008, it gave the assurance that “religious and cultural norms and values” of the country would be protected. But this commitment has not been fulfilled. Since most Pakistani viewers watch pirated (and therefore uncensored) Indian movies at home, there is no way to ban unwanted films or to excise undesirable material, other than by penalising their illegal sale in the country. But this has never been done. The truth is that the government has an unwritten policy not to enforce its declared policy to ban Bollywood movies which are offensive to our values and culture.

Third, the home screening of pirated Indian films brings Indian culture and language right into our living rooms across all barriers of law and policy. As a result, our distinct way of life, values and language, which we have successfully preserved through the centuries in an alien and hostile environment, are being challenged as never before. Children and young people are particularly susceptible.

Typically, the government does not have any policy to counter this threat. It is perhaps not even alive to its existence. But it is not the government alone which has been remiss. The civil society, which is quick to take up causes dear to the West, and the political parties, have been remarkably silent on the challenges posed by the easy availability of uncensored Indian movies and the airing of Indian TV programmes. Besides, the media, especially private TV channels, has contributed to the problem by idolising Indian film stars and giving extensive coverage to gossip about their lives.

The cultural onslaught that Pakistan is facing from its larger neighbour is not unique. In several European countries, France in particular, there is resistance against the large share of Hollywood in the movie market and against the adoption of English words in the local language. Jack Lang, who served as French Culture Minister under Mitterrand, warned two decades ago of the dangers of the “Coca Colonisation of the minds.” The effort to purge the French language of foreign words is even older. The French Academy was set up in 1635 as an official authority to protect the purity of the French language. It has now been tasked to coin French words in place of English terms which have crept into French. France also has laws to limit the use of English on TV and to impose translations of English slogans in advertising. Unofficial academic or civil society organisations to guard against the mingling of English words in the national language exist in Germany, Russia and Spain. In China as well, some linguists have been objecting to the mushrooming of English loanword in Chinese.

The ban on Indian movies was imposed in 1965 and lifted in 2008. Today, there are good reasons for reinstating it. The Supreme Court has taken up the issue of combating vulgarity and obscenity, the main source of which is Bollywood. In addition, the ban is needed to preserve our cultural values and to protect our language from disfigurement.

But a prohibition on the screening of Indian movies in our cinemas will not be enough. The government would also have to enforce a complete ban on the import, production and sale of DVDs and videos of Indian movies and of films and children’s programmes of other countries which have been dubbed in Hindi.

Besides, to fill the gap created by a ban on Indian films, the government should provide financial support for the dubbing of quality foreign-produced movies, educational films and children’s programmes in our own languages. There is a precedent. In France, the government provides huge subsidies to dubbing firms. Also, the National Language Authority, like the French Academy, should be given the task of popularising and, if necessary, coining Urdu words to substitute foreign terms that have crept into our language.

This is neither a difficult nor an overly ambitious agenda for the government. All that is needed is the necessary political will.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service. E-mail: asifezdi@yahoo.com

This article was published in 'The News International' newspaper on 3 September 2012