An edited version of this piece was published as last Sunday's Mumbai Mirror column:
Filmistaan is a film based entirely on a couple of ideas. If you keep that mind, it's remarkable how long it manages to make them work.
The ideas are these: Partition divided us. Bollywood unites us.
Sunny Arora (Sharib Hashmi), aspiring Bollywood actor and actual dogsbody on a documentary film crew, is mistakenly kidnapped instead of his firang crew members. They were shooting in the Rajasthan desert, and when he is ungagged and unbound, he finds himself in a desert village very like the ones he's been in. It takes some time before he figures out that he's isn't a captive in just any village.
“Yeh Pakistan hai?” he inquires of his burly turbanned captor (Kumud Mishra) with something akin to disbelief. “Abhi tak tujhe pata nahi chala?” comes the wry reply.
Sunny's answer is the first statement of the film's underlying philosophy about the subcontinent: predictable, but hard to deny – there's not much that difference between India and Pakistan.
In villages across the border from each other, people look the same, talk the same. As we find out later, in a scene between Sunny and an ancient hakeem ji, they even miss their old neighbourhoods in the same way. Like in that 2013 advertisement where Google and grandchildren unite two old men across borders, Filmistaan tugs on our sentimental subcontinental heartstrings with Sunny hearing his grandfather's Lahore-love in the hakeem's Amritsar memories.
And finally, goes Filmistaan's message, everyone on either side loves the same movies.
Though for men like Sunny's Islamist captor, Bollywood is kufr, when the villagers sit down of an evening to generate their own entertainment, it is a stumbling cd of Maine Pyaar Kiya that lights up their dim small screen.
The Pakistan government banned Hindi movies from releasing in Pakistan for nearly four decades, only lifting the ban in 2008. The reasons were both economic – a desire to protect the increasingly small-budget Pakistani film industry from being completely wiped out by the big bucks competition from Mumbai – and cultural: some Pakistani commentators referred to Bollywood as a Hindu cultural bomb. In the last half-decade, after the powers-that-be in Pakistan agreed that it was better to gain from the legitimate sale of Hindi films than suffer the revenue losses caused by their illegal import, it is absolutely normal for multiplexes in Pakistan to be showing three Hindi films at a time -- Cinepax Karachi is currently showing Fugly, Holiday and Heropanti. The current hope is that the revival of cinema-going in Pakistani urban centres will boost not just multiplexes but attendant businesses, and that audiences who come to watch Hindi movies will also come to watch new Pakistani movies.
But even during the ban, people in Pakistan continued to watch Hindi movies anyway, and that thriving illegal trade in Hindi movies is personified in Nitin Kakkar's film by the character of Aftaab. The son of the house in which Sunny is kept captive, Aftaab is a film pirate and itinerant salesman of the border villages, supplying Sunny Deol and Sunny Leone according to demand – but in his heart of hearts, he is as obsessed with the dream of making a film as Sunny is with acting in one. No surprise, then, that Sunny and Aftaab forge a bond of friendship – they are, after all, true citizens of that country we have in common: Filmistaan.
Nitin Kakkar's film does the best it can with this winning thought. Sharib Hashmi plays Sunny Arora with completely believable filminess, and you laugh just as loud as the village kids when he breaks out into a heaving rendition of 'Maar Daala' in response to a real injury. If Sunny seems to overdo it, well, he's playing his “chalta phirta Bombay Talkies” right: as the child actor Partho in Bhootnath Returns recently assured Amitabh Bachchan, hamari filmon mein thodi overacting chalti hai. Inaamulhaq is superb as Aftaab, especially in the film's second half, when Sunny and Aftaab manage to persuade the terrorists that the film camera which was abducted along with Sunny should be put to use in service of the Pakistani nation, by means of Aftab making a film with a star cast from the village.
But outside of this richly-drawn central relationship – Sunny, Aftab and cinema – this nicely-shot film leaves everyone and everything a bit pheeka. The 'villagers' are pared down into too few characters, and we're given little to choose between Aftaab's sweet old father, the sweet old hakeem sahib and a crowd of sweet children, of whom none ever distinguish themselves by a clever word. No women appear at all, and the one little burka-clad girl who does, has no role. Kumud Mishra is good enough an actor to make Mehmood bhai's violent reaction to the too-bouncy, too-happy Sunny seem understandable even in silence, but his extremeness only makes the villagers appear as an even more unconvincing mass of people without opinions. I'd have liked the Islamist hatred of the cinema to be given a chance to express itself, but there could really be more content to the villagers' love of it, too.
Surely the Pakistani relationship with Indian films is more complex than simple adoration? If English papers in Pakistan worry about why they need Kareena Kapoor Khan to sell lawn salwar kameezes to their own citizens (I read a piece in a weekend supplement), surely there is some conflictedness to be thought about? When the lightly-clad ladies of Dhoom 2 strut across outsize screens in posh Karachi restaurants, what are the burka-clad ladies who watch them actually thinking? But these are not questions that are asked in Filmistaan.
Which is why Filmistaan is, in one way, an accurate tribute to the dominant traditions of Bombay cinema: a good-looking film, with heroes, villains, plenty of humour and its heart in the right place: just don't expect too much complexity.