Navigating invisible borders

Soap operas were created for housewives, who would watch them after putting their day’s work to rest, as though visiting old friends in the emptiness of their days

In an English city, my aunt had 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 Zara, 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 thing in England, so South Asians would organise their own screenings.

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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 premise was packed with Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Nepalis. Immediately, there was the relaxing of the muscles you experience in the presence of the familiar.

Probably among the last people to buy the tickets, ours weren’t the best seats. We were on 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 love, while the actors would virtually breathe down our necks.

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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 rescued Priety Zinta by slinging on 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 India-Pakistan romance transpired. I remember thinking at that time how cruel-South-Asian-male that behaviour was-- teasing a girl in tears.

Even as my dislike for Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) continued to build-up, I joined other women and girls in the audience and cried during all the sad scenes. The men cleared their throat. And 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, said my friend Ayub, and sent me a snapshot of the book, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh by Shrayana Bhattacharya. Ayub 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 might answer that in a separate article.)

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I cannot remember the last time I watched a Bollywood movie in the theatre. So, when the audience cheered and clapped every time SRK dismantled 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 the narrative of vindication of geopolitics? But the show was house-full 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, 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.

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“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,” says Abbass Raza, an aspiring journalist from Pakistan.

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

“Honestly, this will always be memorable,” says 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.”

On a certain terrace restaurant in the heart of Kathmandu, a friend from Pakistan and I get talking about architecture and end up discussing Pakistani teleserials. In the 80s, 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 become her home, still binges on Pakistani series and records Indian serials. In the solitude of a foreign land, content in languages she can speak have always been her friends.

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Soap operas were created for housewives, who would watch them after putting their day’s work to rest, as though visiting old friends in the emptiness of their days. While 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 represent their reality, and sometimes, 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! :)

Pratibha Tuladhar