Prison film to ease tensions with India

Ramchand Pakistani, based on true events, highlights the hundreds of innocents in jail for straying across the border.

Javed Jabbar in Karachi, Pakistan, on Tuesday, July 22, 2008. Javed Jabbar is a film-maker and writer. He was an elected member of the senate of Paksitan (1985-91) and has served in three federal cabinets (1988-90, 99-2000). He has also been advisor on National Affairs to the Chief Executive of Pakistan (1999-2000). Photographer: Asim Hafeez/The National *** Local Caption ***  Javed_Jabbar_Khi_PK_13.JPG
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ISLAMABAD // A film about a young Pakistani boy held in an Indian jail is to receive a rare release in both the nuclear-armed rivals, boosting cultural ties at a time of increasingly strained political relations. Based on real events, Ramchand Pakistani is the story of eight-year-old Ramchand and his father, who accidentally stray across the border into India and spend the next five years in prison, while Ramchand's mother frantically tries to find what happened to them.

The film will be released in Pakistan on Aug 1 and in India on Aug 22. Javed Jabbar, the film's producer, sees a role for the movie in promoting the slow-moving peace dialogue the two rivals launched in 2004, after almost six decades of hostility. "I would think that this film and other films like it play a very crucial role in pointing out the value of mutual respect, compassion and respect for each others' ideologies," Jabbar said.

The movie's release comes as ties between New Delhi and Islamabad are under intense strain after the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan this month, which killed about 60 people, including the Indian defence attaché. Indian officials have pinned the blame on Pakistan's intelligence services. Islamabad denies any involvement. On the day the film was shown at a film festival in New Delhi, the Indian minister of state for external affairs, had to leave the screening early to attend the funeral of one of the diplomats killed in the bombing, said Jabbar, who in 1976 directed Pakistan's first English-language film, Beyond the Last Mountain.

Ramchand Pakistani had been due to premiere in both countries on Aug 1, but was pushed back in India to allow censors more time to view it, said Ashok Ahuja, the director of distribution at Percept Films, which has the rights to show the movie in India. "Being a Pakistani film they are very cautious, but it has been cleared [Wednesday] by the film revisions board," Mr Ahuja said from Mumbai, the capital of India's film industry, Bollywood.

Pakistan banned Indian films in 1965 after the second of its three wars with India since independence from Britain in 1947. But authorities have recently relaxed the rules and allowed a handful of Bollywood movies to show in cinemas, while pirated copies of Indian movies are widely available and hugely popular in Pakistan. Abdul Ghafoor, a security guard at the Nishat cinema, one of the oldest movie houses in Karachi, said audiences, enticed by the influx of Indian films, were starting to return after years in which the movie industry fell into the doldrums.

"We are really back in business. Men, women and children are all coming to watch the Indian movies which have been allowed to be screened on our cinemas by the government," said Mr Ghafoor, 65. India, however, has been more circumspect. In April this year, Khuda Kay Liye (In the Name of God) became the first Pakistani film to be released in India in more than four decades. Ramchand Pakistani is directed by Jabbar's daughter and stars Nandita Das, a popular Indian actress as the mother, while the remaining cast is drawn from Pakistan's minority Hindu community in the Thar desert, where Ramchand and his family were from.

"The theme of the film is now very timely because of the concerns on both sides of the border about people who can be held for very long periods" in detention, said Jabbar, who served as information minister in the government of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's first female prime minister, who was assassinated last year. Hundreds of Indians and Pakistanis languish in each other's jails, many of them farmers or villagers who like Ramchand accidentally strayed across the border. All are effectively treated as potential spies because of the years of mistrust between the rivals.

Cultural links between India and Pakistan have been a key part of the peace process, along with an increase in transport and trade links and an exchange of prisoners. Ramchand and his father were released in 2007 in one such prisoner release. Tanveer Ahmad, the director general of Pakistan's Institute of Strategic Studies and a former foreign secretary, said recent films and increased contact between Indian and Pakistani people were helping to change old stereotypes on the subcontinent. "Both countries began to discover that people on the other side of the border didn't have horns," Mr Ahmad said.

* The National