As the much-loved superstar fought for his life in the Breach Candy Hospital, Bombay (now Mumbai), India mourned, and throughout India, there were prayers.
Across the border, in Pakistan, I remember it all distinctly, like it was last year. Pakistan also prayed for Amitabh Bachchan. Those were my middle school days, and there was this delightful addiction to the films we, the whole family, together watched on bulky VCRs. The Pakistani film industry was alive and vibrant, and cinema-going was a favourite pastime, but there was something different about watching a film at home. And watching Bachchan's films was a family treat. The tall hero with his man-next-door charm, baritone voice, deadpan comic timing, and exquisite portrayal of ethos made him a superstar in Pakistan. And he remains one to date.
In 1982, there was just one state-owned PTV, and there was no Internet, a phenomenon many readers would be unable to relate to. The Urdu newspaper, Jang became the best-selling daily at that time, it printed daily updates on Bachchan's condition. There was no one I knew or heard of or read of in Pakistan who did not say a prayer for Bachchan...the most distinct memory I still have of that distant year. My Nanijee, whom we all called Bobo, a rural resident totally unfamiliar with Bachchan's work, joined us in our prayers for our favourite actor during our long summer holidays in our village.
Such was the superstardom of the actor called Amitabh Bachchan, and not much has changed circa May 2015. Indian films are still so much a part of our everyday existence. We watch Indian films like we watch the day changing colours: it's a part of our lives. And no amount of jingoism in the media or the sabre-rattling by some politicians on both sides can ever defuse the love Pakistanis have for Indian films, actors, artists, and songs. Not at the same level, but the response Pakistani TV serials elicit in Indian audiences speaks of the common ethos of these two nations that were one until very recently.
Salman Khan's five-year sentence for the 2002 Mumbai hit-and-run case came as a shock to the actor, his family and friends, Bollywood, and millions across India.
While in India the emotions are varied, and the responses a mixed bag of gloom, dismay, indignation, anger, appeasement, blind support and gleeful vindication, Pakistan media covered the case extensively. Although there was no discernible interest in the case before the verdict was announced, suddenly, yesterday, there was pandemonium on Pakistani television. All channels had Salman Khan's sentencing as breaking news, and there was moment-to-moment coverage of what was going on at the Sessions Court in Mumbai.
Pakistani twitter timelines also saw a flurry of posts, many of which were in a light tone, with numerous jokes about Salman's "Dabangg" image. Notwithstanding the tone of the tweets, and the coverage in news, one thing was as clear as the midday sun: Salman Khan may be an Indian superstar, but the news of his court verdict elicited an unprecedented response in Pakistan media.
Other than the customary hoopla that is part of the public spectacle of a private life, there's the undisguised interest in how the law works in India: no one is spared. Pakistani media is single-mindedly focused and often obsessed with the doings of Pakistani politicians, and every tiny story is broken as sensational news. One of the constant refrains, often stated in anger and growing despair, is the lack of accountability when it comes to that small but hugely influential class of Pakistani society: the "elite." And an Indian superstar whose unprecedented popularity is an inexplicable phenomenon sentenced like an ordinary mortal is not merely breaking news, it is the stuff of a feel-good Hollywood movie where justice, albeit delayed, is dispensed. The need to have a better legal system in Pakistan becomes starker than ever, highlighting the forgotten cases of the millions of poor who rot in jail or whose sufferings mean next to nothing when the offender hails from the elite class.
There is also the subliminal, and in some cases blatant,malicious glee watching a celebrity fall. The theater of the macabre is played out, juicing every minuscule detail, and the judgments are harsh and linear. TV anchors, even newsreaders, become the judge-jury-executioner of public sentiment and the celebrity's morality. It's a global phenomenon, and Pakistani channels are no exception.
To me it's all very simple: Salman Khan is loved and followed in Pakistan like his very esteemed Indian film industry giant, Amitabh Bachchan, has been for decades.
The thread of language, family bonds, themes of class, status, politics, friendship, love, marriage, pain, intrigue, drama and crime connects the Pakistani audience to Indian cinema. This is one medium that is not dictated by the agendas of those who rule on the exploitation of schisms. No melodrama, it is what it is. Pakistan loves Indian cinema and everything related to it. From Dilip Kumar to Amitabh Bachchan to Salman Khan.
(Mehr Tarar is former Op-ed Editor, Daily Times, Pakistan)
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