Last month, just before the release of the Bollywood film My Name Is Khan, a message generated in Pakistan on the microblogging site Twitter was massively retweeted in Mumbai, India: "You might want to come to Karachi to catch MNIK's first day, first show!"
The release of My Name Is Khan, or MNIK, as it is popularly known, had to be scaled back in Mumbai, India's film capital, because of a political controversy. Just days before the premier, its lead actor, Shah Rukh Khan, had lamented the exclusion of Pakistani cricketers from the Indian Premier League cricket auction. This infuriated Shiv Sena, a Hindu ultranationalist group that advocates snapping all sporting and cultural ties with Pakistan. It launched a campaign against Khan, threatening to stall his film's release until he apologized and retracted his statement, which he refused to do. Placard-wielding protesters besieged his mansion in suburban Mumbai, burning his effigy and bellowing slogans like "Shah Rukh Khan, go away to Pakistan!" One of the protesters clutched in his hands a dummy airline ticket emblazoned with the words: "Mumbai to Pakistan." Mumbai stationed police officers at movie theaters and rounded up 2,000 people in advance of the opening as a cautionary measure.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the border in Karachi, My Name Is Khan opened Feb. 13 to packed houses and was received with roaring claps and whistles. According to Pakistani cinema owners, it was the highest-earning film ever to screen in Pakistan.
This film certainly resonates with Pakistani audiences because of its theme -- it tells the story of an autistic Muslim man's struggles against prejudices in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The big applause line in Pakistan comes at the beginning, when Khan proclaims, "My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist!" But the widely published tweet inviting Indians to watch the film in Karachi offered a somewhat twisted insight into a cultural paradox: two countries sharing so many cultural references, and yet watching them through such different lenses.
The division between India and Pakistan has been compared to the split between East Germany and West Germany during the Cold War, but the situations are widely divergent. Whereas Germany's division after World War II was largely peaceful, if tense, the subcontinent's partition in 1947 into separate Hindu and Muslim territories was followed by a fratricidal bloodbath. More than a million people were killed and 12 million uprooted. Refugees traveled by foot, carts, and trains to their promised new home, making it one of the largest mass migrations in history.
Since partition, the two countries have spent decades attempting to erect barriers against cultural exchange across the border. Bollywood movies were banned in Pakistan after 1965, following the bloody Indo-Pakistani War. After Pakistani Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq toppled Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977, he initiated a process of sweeping Islamization that cemented the artificial split between Indian and Pakistani culture. He labeled entertainment, particularly Indian entertainment, as fahashi, or vulgar. Classical Indian music and dance were banned, and colleges were instructed to shut down their music societies. He banned the sari, a Hindu garment that, according to him, revealed too much of a woman's body. Pakistani columnist Sarwat Ali has noted that in state TV programs, women playing negative roles were shown wearing Indian clothes (mainly saris), while the good ones wear salwar kameez and a dupatta, a more modest outfit that involves loose pants under a tunic, with a shawl covering the hair.
Of course, Pakistanis, especially in the cities, never gave up on their love for Indian culture: They continued to smuggle VHS tapes of Indian films into the country, and they bought satellite dishes to watch Indian programs. More recently, cable operators began to sometimes broadcast Indian TV shows, concealing the logos so that the shows would look like local broadcasts and evade the authorities' attention. Although Pakistani children couldn't watch Bollywood movies in the cinema, they still read the Urdu versions of Indian gossip magazines like Stardust and followed Bollywood fashions as much as they were allowed.