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This article is so great. The author wrote about exactly how Veer Zaara is inaccurate and kinda racist.
Yash Chopra, the granddaddy of Bollywood tearjerkers, has made a new film. Mr Chopra is the man behind great crowd-pleasers like Lamhe , Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham . His latest, Veer Zaara , is also a love story, but one burdened by giant and unwieldy political themes.
The film is about an Indian Punjabi boy called Veer Pratap Singh (played by Shahrukh Khan) who falls in love with a Pakistani girl called Zaara Hayat Khan (Preity Zinta). Veer is from a village in Indian Punjab, while Zaara is from Lahore. The two meet by chance when a bus ride goes awry, fall madly in love and then proceed to make sacrifices for each other that are necessitated by the oppressive boundaries of nation-states. Veer ends up in a Lahori jail and Zaara in his Indian village. The two of them spend twenty years apart, each leading a life of quiet suffering in the other’s native country, until they are reunited by a young Pakistani human rights lawyer called Saamia Siddique (played by Rani Mukherji), a character apparently modelled on Asma Jehangir.
Veer Zaara is a brave film. It pursues tolerance and forgiveness from start to finish. It insists that love is a force that binds more strongly than hatred divides. It is beautifully shot, has nice songs, and often moves you to tears. Sometimes it even makes you want to pray. It is ruthlessly optimistic, and that is a good thing.
But it also suffers from laziness, a terminally Indian view of Pakistan, and a muddled value system. And these are not good things.
The film’s laziness will be immediately evident to a Pakistani viewer. Half of Veer Zaara is set in Lahore, but Mr Chopra couldn’t be bothered (or simply couldn’t) to go to the great city for landscape shots, let alone ferry his cast and crew across the border. As a result, the “Lahore” we see is one of embarrassing, two-dimensional stage sets and kitschy watercolour window views. One scene in particular is a good example of this: when Veer and Zaara meet for a secret cuddle in Lahore, they do so in a curiously Mughal monument, which reveals itself to be not the Badshahi Masjid or the Lahore Fort but (hold your breath; you’ll cough if you don’t) the tomb of Humayun. That’s right, folks: the tomb of Humayun, which is in Delhi, which is in India. And the film is not trying to hide this either; as the lens expands from Veer and Zaara’s embrace to their physical surroundings, you can see all the major Delhi landmarks poking out of the horizon. If Mr Chopra couldn’t come to Pakistan, fine; but this is what Mr Chopra’s lack of research, at least, says: Mughal architecture is sufficient to evoke Lahore, even if it’s really showing you Delhi .
What’s wrong with this picture?
Lots. And that brings me to my next issue with the film, which is its terminally Indian view of Pakistan. This involves an elliptical, and therefore slightly tedious, look at both the India and the Pakistan Mr Chopra constructs, so bear with me for a few more paragraphs.
The India we are shown in Veer Zaara is lush. It is the Punjabi countryside in all its verdant glory. We are shown vast fields and small villages where big-hearted philanthropists set up schools for the poor. It is an India of trees and tractors, at one with its agrarian roots and industrialist aspirations. Lahore, on the other hand, is a Kafkaesque funnyhouse packed with jails and the gaudy, ostentatious mansions of rich politicians. India is outdoors, Pakistan is indoors. In India, poor people sit atop trains and sing paeans of patriotic love for the motherland. In Pakistan, the poor either sweep the floor in jails or sweep the floor in mansions. In India the poor are citizens, in Pakistan they are servants. The India of Veer Zaara is vibrant and multicultural, where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs mingle with ease and are in fact indistinguishable from one another. The Pakistan of Veer Zaara , on the other hand, is a rigidly monolithic country, crawling with rich politicians and their families, who greet each other by raising a cupped hand to their forehead in what is supposed to be the traditional adaab gesture of north Indian Muslims. Zaara’s villainous fiancé, despite being a Punjabi politician, speaks the most highfalutin Urdu and wears exquisitely embroidered Nehru jackets. In other words, the Lahore of the film is really Hyderabad Deccan and its Punjabis are actually Mohajirs. Finally, India is brought to life by the voice of Lata Mangeshkar (Mother India?) while scenes from Pakistan are accompanied by stern instrumental renditions of the rather ominous Raag Bhairavi .
So India is rural, outdoors and Gandhian, while Pakistan is elitist, indoors and… Versaceian ? Wait. That can’t be right.
Because India is, believe it or not, more than this equation allows, while Pakistan is less . The India of Veer Zaara is not just Gandhian, it is Nehruvian in its appeal; there are no Dalits or Harijans in this India. This India is miraculously free of BJP-style Hindu nationalists. It is secular, progressive, squeaky saffron clean. The country that lurks to its west, however, is garish and nightmarish. It is a country where all the men look like Liaqat Ali Khan and all the women look like Fatima Jinnah. It is populated by politicians and policemen, and has giant murals of Mohammed Ali Jinnah pinned to its walls.
This is what I mean by a terminally Indian view of Pakistan. Mr Chopra, despite his good intentions, suffers from a Pakophobia that has plagued India since independence. He is evidence of the fact that for many Indians – indeed, for many educated, wealthy and creative Indians – the Pakistani clock stopped ticking in August 1947. India has lived for sixty years with a frozen image of Pakistan as a tragedy in India ’s history, orchestrated by a group of elite, Urdu-speaking, Indian politicians. A modern Pakistani identity that is different from India’s Muslim sub-identity is therefore inconceivable for the Indian mind. Hence the Nehru jackets and Liaquat Ali Khan clones. Even when Veer Zaara tries to be creative and imagines a Lahori shrine, it ends up with a replica of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi.
We could stop here and start weighing the scales. But we shouldn’t, for we have yet to identify the most serious and insidious of Veer Zaara ’s indiscretions.
Islam is used as a motif in Mr Chopra’s film. But when it appears in the form of human beings, they are invariably women; all the Pakistani female characters of Veer Zaara cover their heads. Even Saamiya Siddique, the character modelled on Asma Jehangir, is shown to be guided by some higher religious cause. She wants to deliver justice, true, but only in the name of Allah.
Now it is worth pointing out that Asma Jehangir doesn’t cover her head and neither do most of her colleagues at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. They believe in human rights, but not via an Islamic moral apparatus. Why, then, does Veer Zaara feel compelled to Islamise its Pakistani women?
This has to do more with women and less with Islam. Bollywood has always treated women as repositories of honour and culture. They sing, they dance, they cook and are faithful to their lovers. When they are mothers they are Devi, and when they are lovers they are Radha. Even when vamps, they appear in dark temples next to snakes a la Kali. (The same goes for mainstream Pakistani cinema, except that here the bulky damsels of Punjab and Peshawar are almost always reduced to symbols of fertility. They flutter their eyelashes, they thrust their hips. But they don’t do much else.) For Veer Zaara , therefore, Pakistani women end up embodying w