Navigating Invisible Borders

In an English city, my aunt learned to call home—it was the pursuit of familiarity that really gave her the purpose to stay. One weekend, she sat on the stairs, making frantic calls. My uncle punched numbers on his Nokia cell phone. Where? What time? Are tickets available? They echoed one another. Both were trying to book tickets for the only screening of Bollywood’s Veer-Zaara in a city near us.

My cousins and me, we waited with bated breath. This would be an opportunity to watch a Bollywood film on the big screen. In the early-2000s, screening of Bollywood in the cinemas had not yet become a common occurrence in England, so South Asians would organise their own screenings.

Tickets were finally booked and we rushed out, thrusting our arms through our coats as we hastily locked the door behind us. ‘This is as far as Nagarkot is from Kathmandu,’ my uncle said aloud as he drove. Would we have covered the same distance to go watch a Hindi film in Kathmandu? Probably not. But in the UK, we did, racing towards a collective South Asian sentiment.

When we arrived, the theatre entrance was packed with Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Nepalis. Immediately, there was the relaxing of the muscles one experiences in the presence of the familiar.

Probably among the last people to buy the tickets, ours weren’t the best seats. We were sat in the very first row, and for the rest of the show, we would tilt our head up towards the screen, as though clamouring for some eye contact, while the actors virtually breathed down our necks.

We weren’t the only ones with bad seats. Some in the audience had been accommodated on make-shift chairs. The auditorium was packed all the way to the exit.

As Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) rescued Priety Zinta by swinging from a chopper, I remember flinching in my seat, as though they would fall on my face. A Nepali family friend, Mahesh Mahaseth, who happened to be sitting next to me, nudged and laughed at me when tears ran down my face as the Indian-Pakistani romance transpired. I remember thinking at that time how cruel South Asian male behaviour that was, teasing a girl in tears.

Even as my dislike for Shah Rukh Khan continued to build-up, I joined other women and girls in the audience and cried during all the sad scenes. The men cleared their throats; although it seemed like SRK was demonstrating that it is okay for men to weep, to be vulnerable and heartbroken, that precedent wasn’t quite set off screen.

Regardless, we all went home purged. Post-catharsis.

For many South Asian women, SRK is religion, according to my friend Ayub. He sent me a snapshot of the book, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh by Shrayana Bhattacharya, and described SRK as ‘the resilient embodiment of liberalism’. I asked him to elaborate and we ended up hate-watching Jawan. (Was he a convert by the end of the film? He has to answer that for himself.)

I cannot remember the last time I watched a Bollywood movie in the theatre. So, when the audience cheered and clapped every time SRK disarmed a bad guy, I was surprised. And while the audience responded in euphoria, I found that I was quickly disassociating: what was this film beyond a family drama steeped in violence, a revenge tragedy interlude, and family reunion with the Robin Hood of a son, all woven into a narrative of vindication of geopolitics? But the theatre was brimming and parents had their toddlers in tow.

There are no sanitised versions of the world here, for children.

‘I was not expecting so much crowd for a Bollywood masala movie. I was surprised to be honest,’ Hashim Ahmad Hakeem, a video producer from India who went to the film’s screening in Kathmandu with friends from South Asia, told me. ‘It was amazing bonding over the movie and realising most of us have grown up in the same Bollywood cinema.’

Hakeem was participating in the Adenauer Media Leaders Academy in Kathmandu. On the sidelines of the event, one of the things the fellows did together was watch Jawan.

‘I watched it because Bollywood movies are banned in Pakistani cinemas. Secondly, I wanted to watch with fellows from other countries, specifically India as they are very much enthusiastic about Shah Rukh Khan. So, I enjoyed their cheering more than the movie,’ said Abbass Raza, an aspiring journalist from Pakistan.

For many South Asians, Bollywood movies are about coming home to a culture and language they can relate to.

‘Honestly, this will always be memorable,’ said Navneeta Nandan, journalist with The Economic Times. ‘It signifies the strength of art. We can be geographically apart but this can always be something that will keep us connected—cinema, music from different countries.’

Would we have covered the same distance to go watch a Hindi film in Kathmandu? Probably not. But in the UK, we did, racing towards a collective South Asian sentiment.

On a certain terrace restaurant in the heart of Kathmandu, a friend from Pakistan and I get to talking about architecture and end up discussing Pakistani teleserials. In the 1980s, Nepal Television used to broadcast Pakistani series as an endorsement of its friendly relations with Pakistan. Some viewers at the time even named their children after their favourite characters.

My aunt who lives in an English city, which has now become her home, still binges on Pakistani series and records Indian serials. In the solitude of a foreign land, entertainment content in languages she can speak have always been her friends.

Soap operas were created for housewives, who would watch them after putting household chores to rest, as though visiting old friends to fill an emptiness. On weekends, husband and children filled the hours. On weekdays, they would go back to conversing with their virtual friends: women who sometimes did not necessarily represent their reality, but nonetheless offered them the comfort of heroism.

At my request, my friend from Pakistan shared a very long list of recommended Pakistani dramas. I forwarded it to my aunt. And here’s what she wrote back: Thank you, chhori. I have watched ALL of them! 🙂

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ArtIQulate is a publication associated with the Adenauer Fellowship, a scholarship programme by the Media Programme Asia, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd.
About the author

Pratibha Tuladhar

Prateebha Tuladhar is a KAS fellow, 2007-09. She took her MAJourn from Asian Center for Journalism, Ateneo de Manila University. She currently writes for Nepali Times and teaches journalism at universities in Asia, and takes up occasional consultation work. She has worked for Kantipur Media Group, dpa, BBC Media Action, in the past.

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