Islamabad, Pakistan – A blockbuster Pakistani movie, The Legend of Maula Jatt, is poised to become the first film from the country in more than a decade to be released in India on December 30, marking a tentative cultural breakthrough in the tense ties between the South Asian neighbours.
An adaptation of the 1979 cult classic Maula Jatt, 38-year-old director Bilal Lashari’s movie will be released in Indian Punjab and in select cinemas in Delhi, confirmed Rajender Singh Jyala, chief programming officer of INOX Leisure, an Indian multiplexes chain.
“It will be played in Punjab and a few theatres in Delhi in INOX where there are Punjabi-speaking people,” Jyala told the Press Trust of India on December 26. Al Jazeera reached out to Jyala for comment but had not heard back at the time of publication.
Last week, another Indian multiplex chain, PVR Cinemas, shared the announcement of the release of the movie on its website, before taking it down. It is unclear whether the film will still run at its cinemas, but the incident underscored the political risks Indian companies and individuals face when engaging with Pakistani counterparts.
The Legend of Maula Jatt, released worldwide in October, has gone on to become the highest-grossing Pakistani film of all time and has so far amassed more than $10m at the box office.
With a running time of just over 150 minutes, the movie revolves around family feuds, on themes of revenge and honour, and features a powerful cast of celebrated artists familiar to Indian fans — led by Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan, the film’s stars.
Mahira’s film Bol was the last Pakistani movie to be released in India in 2011, though both she and Fawad Khan have acted in several Indian films. Fawad starred in Khoobsurat, Kapoor & Sons and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Mahira featured in Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan’s Raees, which was released in 2017.
The Legend of Maula Jatt would mark a return to Indian cinema for both actors after more than five years.
But far-right Indian political parties have threatened to protest if the film is released in India. Ameya Khopkar, a leader of the Hindu nationalist Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), said earlier in December that his party will not allow the movie to be shown in India.
In a tweet on December 9, Khopkar wrote, “It is most infuriating that an Indian company is leading this plan. Following Raj Saheb’s orders we will not let this film release anywhere in India.” He was referring to MNS chief Raj Thackeray, whose party has frequently targeted films whose content — or actors — it disagrees with.
Khopkar, who is also a producer himself, said, “Fawad Khan’s fans, traitors may very well go to Pakistan and watch the film”.
Against that backdrop, entertainment writer and film festival programmer Aseem Chhabra said it won’t be easy to screen the movie in India. “I won’t be surprised if there are some political ramifications with the release of this movie,” he told Al Jazeera. “However, I believe it is a great opportunity to resume cultural exchanges between the two nations.”
Despite the popularity of Pakistani films, dramas and its burgeoning music scene in India, Pakistani artists have often struggled to reach their fans across the border, especially since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014.
After the 2016 attack in Uri, in Indian-administered Kashmir, which resulted in the deaths of at least 19 Indian army personnel, Pakistani performers were in effect — without any formal ban — barred from all platforms in India. Pakistani cricketers have already been shunned from playing in the wildly popular Indian Premier League since 2009, after the Mumbai attacks which took place in November 2008.
The Pakistani national cricket team last played a bilateral series against India a decade ago. The two cricket-mad nations have since competed against each other only in multi-team global events.
Still, Pakistani artists have continued to make their mark in India through the internet. One of this year’s biggest musical hits on both sides of the border is the song Pasoori, performed by Pakistani singers Ali Sethi and Shae Gill on the Coke Studio platform. It was among the most streamed songs on Spotify India.
Joyland, which is Pakistan’s nomination for the Oscars, was also shown at Dharamshala International Film Festival in northern India in November and according to Chhabra, the movie was so successful that the festival organisers had to add another screening of the film.
Speaking about the potential release of The Legend of Maula Jatt, Rafay Mahmood, a Karachi-based film critic and culture commentator, said it is important to remember that India had not formally placed a ban on the release of Pakistani movies or casting Pakistani performers.
“These bans are mostly imposed by the artist bodies, exhibitors and distributors in both countries. There is no formal government regulation to ban artists, or the art itself,” Mahmood told Al Jazeera.
He believes that the two countries engage in restricting art because it is a “symbolic representation” of a nation. “When a state’s establishment want to enforce its soft power, it targets arts, culture and entertainment first. They are symbolic representation of a nation, whether it is music, sports, film. These options of leisure are symbols of nationhood,” he said.
Chhabra, however, expressed optimism about the release of The Legend of Maula Jatt and said it was “thrilling” to see a wildly popular Pakistani movie open in theatres in India.
“I think these cultural connections are important,” Chhabra said. “It will bring the people of India and Pakistan closer.”
The Pakistani film’s expected release also comes at a time when Bollywood — India’s giant Hindi film industry — has struggled for hits and is going through what Mahmood described almost as a “famine”.
“They haven’t had a major commercial success in the last two, three years and it is entirely plausible that The Legend of Maula Jatt might be the film that brings audiences back to theatres,” he said, pointing to its “alpha-male characters, over the top dialogues and aggression” — movie characteristics that often work well in India.
The Karachi-based critic suggested there might be other factors that might help the film in India.
Punjab, a key potential audience for the film, is still grappling with the loss of a popular rapper, Sidhu Moose Wala, who was known for his rebellious, anti-establishment music. “It is possible that the audience there might just flock to watch a Pakistani movie just as an act of protest,” Mahmood said.
And with Indian right-wing parties currently targeting Mahira Khan’s former co-star, the Indian actor Shahrukh Khan over a new film of his, The Legend of Maula Jatt might just slip through without too much disruption, Mahmood said. “For BJP-fuelled right wingers, the success of a Muslim superstar in India is a bigger concern than a Pakistani film having a run in parts of Punjab.”