Thursday, February 5, 2009

Pakistan bans Indian films

In the wake of the recent flare-up in tensions between the two countries, the Pakistani Government is apparently considering re-imposing a ban (or has already reimposed) on screening of Indian films across the country, which was lifted only last year after nearly four decades. The official reason for the proposal is that Hindi movies were weaning away the audience from the Pakistani made movies and "destroying the local film industry". Local film industry feels that they stand no match for the big-budget, star-studded, glitzy and glamorous, and technically superior Indian blockbuster movies. This fear is an echo from the constant apprehensions in France about local cinema being swamped by "cheap and populist" American movies.

I am inclined to believe that cinema and other cultural platforms, especially in specific contexts, may present an interesting diversion from the widely held view that free trade in ideas, goods and services are good for both sides to the transaction. There are two dimensions to this debate. On the one hand is the issue of the specific industry, cinema here, facing the risk of being marginalized or eliminated by a "superior" foreign product/service. Then there is the issue of the external medium adversely (or so it is felt) influencing or socializing the local audience, to the detriment of the local culture and heritage (and in case of Pakistan and India, it is claimed, even the nation's security!).

I have limited sympathy with the first arguement. In many respects, this is similar to the arguement about goods and services, in so far as that external imports will go a long way in making the domestic cinema industry competitive and improving the quality of local cinema, besides impacting on the economy through the multiplier. The consumers get a superior product (here too, cinema being an entertainment product, and given the relative unpopularity of the so-called quality movies, the choice most often, is between two similar types of "lower quality" entertainment products), the industry makes more money, and the economy benefits. In fact, the best example is the Indian cinema industry, which has become more organized and professional (not only in the technical quality of movies, but also the industry practices) in the aftermath of the increased external competition. Even if the local cinema gets marginalized, there is a net benefit as the "superior" external movies capture the market and expands it, giving employment to more artists and others related to the sector.

But the second arguement merits some attention. Critics will claim that any culture that cannot stand its own in the face of competition does not deserve to survive, or that the domestic culture has survived many a centuries of say, external occupation, is resilient enough to withstand such relatively innocuous invasions. But, as the example of the creeping influence of western popular culture in the face of the increased globalization and liberalization, especially among our urban middle and upper class over the past two decades shows, the critics may have got this wrong. There are also numerous other examples of how knowledge or culture based sectors have undergone radical makeovers in the face of external forces.

The critical point here is the importance or priority that nations or communities attach to their culture. It is surely not for the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the United Nations (UN) to decide what this should be. Given the fact that certain cultural media are among the more established and popular channels of communicating and sustaining the domestic culture, as cinema is in France and India, and also given the fact that certain external imports (read, American movies) have a potential to erode the strength and influence of the former, there may be a case in favour of restricting the latter. Therefore, if the Pakistani Government, in its wisdom or lack of it, feels that Indian movies are eroding Pakistani cultural or other values, then there may be some justification to this ban.

However, this line of argument is on a "slippery slope", complicated by the fact that, usually, there is no unanimity about whether the particular domestic culture should be promoted at the cost of all other influences. And there is the enduring debate about whether it is the government that should decide the debate. History is replete with examples of the dangers inherent in morality policing or gate-keeping by government.

There is another interesting dimension that unambiguously goes against the Pakistani Government's decision to ban Indian movies. In the recent past, the screening of Indian movies in Pakistani theatres have generated considerable positive externalities on the bilateral relationship between the two countries. It is undoubtedly true that these movies have fostered a sense of cultural and social closeness and camarderie between the peoples of the two countries, thereby attentuating the latent public hostility (whipped up by political posturing over many years) in the country against India. Therefore it would seem evident that if the Pakistani Government is committed to improving relationship between the two countries, then they are making a mistake with the ban.

Update 1
Keith Head and Thierry Mayer, in a Vox article, argue that though "liberalisation of trade in audiovisual services would indeed induce cultural change, these changes are generally modest, and consumers gain from the enjoyment of consuming cultural goods and a broader cultural choice set".

1 comment:

anoop said...

If a societies culture is so weak that it can be overcome by watching movies then that society has no future.. It will die or take another shape very soon.. I offer a different angle. Screening Indian movies would mean that Indian pluralism and Secular values will be on the show.. For example what would a Pakistani who would be coached in his schools and by other pakistanis that Pakistan is essentially un-india would think when he watches a Indian Muslim playing the lead role?? You must agree that most pakistanis think the Indian muslims are under constant attack from the majority community..
That insecurity and shattering of a reason for the creation of Pakistan is why Indian values are loathed..