East and West Punjab, in India and Pakistan respectively, have retained fairly strong cultural bonds despite the war clouds that cover the two countries more frequently than not. And one of these to withstand strained political relations are films, particularly Punjabi films.

One can gauge the strength of this bond from the stories that are currently being shared about Dhani Ram Theatre, popularly known as Raja Talkies in the border town of Ferozepur in Punjab, which is now up for sale. Shut down in 2006 on account of television, DVDs, multiplexes and an unfriendly tax regime, the cinema hall continues to have immense nostalgic value for the masses on both sides of the border.

One of its owners Subhash Kalia told The Citizen, “Till 1971 when trade was open between the two nations, a large number of people from across the border used to come to watch cinema here after crossing the Hussainiwala border check post. Those were times when going to the cinema was a special occasion and people used to dress up properly expecting to run into the who’s who of the area at the cinema hall. My father Kishor Chand Kalia was also a social worker. He owned this cinema theatre but also took personal interest in ensuring there was no rowdyism. There were occasions when shows used to be delayed because important personalities had booked tickets.”

Those were the days when the likes of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Suraiya, Nargis and Dev Anand were ruling the silver screen and majority of them had migrated from Pakistan. “The people were also starting to accept the new generation of actors like Dharmendra. Films like ‘Sasural’, ‘Ankhen’ and the devotional blockbuster ‘Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai’ that had Prithviraj Kapoor as one of the main characters had done particularly very well in our cinema hall,” recalls Kalia.

It is well known that Bollywood films continue to be very popular in Pakistan but more interesting is how the Punjabi film industry has played out on both the sides of the Radcliffe Line.

Radio journalist Shiv Inder Singh who has been a Punjabi cinema buff told this reporter, “When compared, the films made in Pakistani Punjab before 1971 were way ahead than what was being made this side. Films like ‘Dulha Bhatti’, ‘Heer Ranjha’ , ‘Yakke Wali’ and the iconic film on partition ‘Kartar Singh’ that were made in Lollywood as Lahore’s film industry is popularly known, had been very popular in Indian Punjab.”

The fallout of the 1971 Indo-Pak war has had a cascading impact on the filmy relations between the two Punjabs.

Shiv Inder further said, “The Indian Punjabi cinema of those times produced desi versions of the Pakistani Punjabi flicks. ‘Gernail Singh’ was made as ‘Chaudhary Karnail Singh’, ‘Maula Jatt’ got remade as ‘Putt Jattan De’ and there were two versions of ‘Heer Ranjha’ of Lollywood. Even actors like Gaggu Gill and Yog Raj can be seen action in the mould of Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi.”

Another interesting aspect he spoke of was that the old generation of film viewers in Indian Punjab can still hum the tunes of Pakistani Punjabi films and one of the most famous song remains ‘Vastaa e rab da, tu jaawin na kabutra’ (In the name of the Lord don’t go away o’ pigeon).

An interesting anecdote that needs to be shared here is about performing arts expert Zorawar Singh. On a trip to Pakistan as a part of a religious congregation in mid nineties, Zorawar had managed to give everyone the slip and land at the house of famous Pakistani actress Noor Jehan. Coming to know what her fan Zorawar had risked just to meet her; the latter played a perfect host to him. She ensured that Zorawar returned with sweet memories of his visit to last a lifetime. Such is the bond of humanity that survives.

Kulwinder Singh who lives in Jalandhar and is an expert on Punjabi films told this reporter, “The best thing that has survived in Punjabi films on both sides of the border is that they have never promoted jingoism pedaled by the politicians. Be it ‘Gernail Singh’ made in Lollywood or ‘Chaudhary Karnail Singh’ made in India Punjab, the subject has been dealt with great sensitivity. But when you have a Punjabi film given the shape of ‘Gadar—Ek Prem Katha’ the difference is visible as it was full of jingoism against the neighbouring country. That the people on both the sides are conscious of each others sensitivities is apparent in the stupendous success of a film like ‘Shaheed-E-Mohabbat Boota Singh’ that is based on the real life love story of Boota Singh and Zainab.”

Shiv Inder points out that the reason for Indian Punjabi films of yesteryears trailing behind similar Pakistani movies was because the good Punjabi actors in India preferred working in Bollywood.

He further says that the dampening of relations between the two countries has taken a toll. And the youth in Indian Punjab were weaned away from Pakistani Punjabi films as they had no avenue where they could see these films. Even on cable and television the Pakistani Punjabi films were not accessible. But the internet is slowly changing this as out of sheer curiosity the youth has once again started watching Punjabi films from across the border. One just has to read comments on the Youtube pages of these films to understand this.

Another Punjabi film buff Arundeep who lives in Jalandhar pointed out that political tensions have often dampened the enthusiasm of filmgoers in both the Punjabs. “The latest example is that of the Punjabi film ‘Chal Mere Putt’ made by artists from both the countries. The film could not be released in Pakistan because of the ban on Indian films,” he said.

But Kulwinder points is optimists, “A film like ‘Lahoriye’ that has a plot revolving around the love of a Sikh boy from a border village in Indian Punjab with a Muslim girl from Lahore did well on both sides of the border. It was well received by the diaspora of both countries as well. A very positive thing is that be it the Kargil action or the recent Balakote air strike episode, the youth from both Punjabs has responded maturely and has not got caught in jingoism generated by both countries. The numbers of such youth might appear to be small but it is very relevant for days to come.”