ISLAMABAD // The Indian James Bond can disarm a bomb while flying a helicopter, dodge bullets from deadly assassins and save his country from nuclear disaster. But getting into cinemas in Pakistan has proved to be an impossible feat.
Pakistan banned the Indian film Agent Vinod a few days before its scheduled release, likely because of its critical portrayal of the country's generals and spies. They are shown providing support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and scheming to set off a nuclear suitcase bomb in India's capital.
"It was our judgment that it should not be allowed to be screened," the vice chairman of Pakistan's Film Censor Board, Muhammad Ashraf Gondal, said yesterday. "It falls under the negative codes of our censor."
The film, which was scheduled to open last week in Lahore and Karachi, likely hit too close to home because it echoes real criticism of Pakistan - admittedly, in the exaggerated style of India's popular Bollywood film industry.
Although Pakistan has never been accused of trying to detonate a nuclear weapon in India, it has sponsored Islamist militant groups who have carried out attacks in the country. It helped the Taliban seize power in Afghanistan in the 1990s to counter Indian influence, and many believe support for the group has continued despite Pakistan's denials.
"Agent Vinod is for Indians, but it is not against Pakistanis," Saif Ali Khan, the movie's lead actor and co-producer, said. "But I understand if they get upset because we are beating them up quite often in the film."
Khan plays agent Vinod, dubbed "India's James Bond". He is a spy from India's Research and Analysis Wing, which has spent decades in a real-world cloak-and-dagger struggle with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI.
Pakistan and India were founded in 1947 following the break-up of the British Empire. They have fought three major wars since then, two of them over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
The Indian film shows Pakistani officials encouraging terrorist attacks in India and financing Lashkar-i-Taiba, a militant group founded with the ISI's support in the 1990s focused on pressuring India to give up Kashmir.
"If you feel this is unreasonable or not true, then it is fair enough," said Khan, the actor-producer. "I think it is all quite true."
Lashkar-i-Taiba has been officially banned in Pakistan, but the government has done little to crack down on the group. It is blamed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people.
Agent Vinod is certainly not the first Bollywood film to be prohibited in Pakistan. The government imposed a blanket ban on all Indian movies in 1965, following a bloody war between the two countries.
Pakistan lifted the measure in 2008 but has continued to block individual films. It banned an Indian comedy about Osama bin Laden in 2010, claiming it could spark terrorist attacks.
The effect of such censorship is limited. Indian films are popular in Pakistan, but there are relatively few movie theatres in the country. DVDs are a more common means of watching movies in the country. Pirated copies are easily available at chains of stores that specialise in them.
Huma Yusuf, a well-known Pakistani journalist, wrote a column in Dawn newspaper yesterday saying Pakistan should support films and other forms of entertainment that explore controversial issues rather than seek to block them.
"They may be the only tools at the disposal of Pakistani society to stem the rising tide of hate, religious intolerance and ethnic differentiation," Yusuf said.
* Associated Press