In the 1980s, Imran Khan, Pakistan’s greatest cricketer and the country’s prime minister since August 2018, was at the peak of his cricketing career. His exploits off the field were no less remarkable. The suave cricketer’s colourful life was regular fodder for gossip magazines. His hard work always stood him in good stead. Khan bounced back from a disastrous debut thanks to it. He made just five runs and went wicketless in his first match in 1971, after which he went back to the drawing board to completely remodel his bowling action. Not many cricketers have survived after changing their techniques. Khan did that and thrived. He transformed into a fearsome bowler and more than a decent batsman by the 1980s. He introduced a culture of winning; he led from the front. He would pick cricketers out of nowhere and mould them into world beaters. He could achieve anything, including perhaps Kashmir for his country. Khan would famously offer—albeit in jest—to settle the issue with India over a cricket match.
The offer continued to draw India’s ire, for the Kashmir issue is truly no joke. It has been an intractable dispute; a serious and bloody business. Kashmir remains a source of constant friction which has the two countries divert considerable portions of their meagre resources to maintain and arm their armies to the teeth. The resources could be utilised better in addressing more pressing issues like poverty, illiteracy and hunger if Indians and Pakistanis, with a sense of humour, have their way. They would exchange Kashmir for Bollywood and live happily ever after.
Conflict resolution by tapping into shared culture and art is the lowest-hanging fruit. Art has been among the few common grounds between the two; a glue that has bound them together even in the worst of times. From Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor to Shah Rukh Khan and Ranbir Kapoor, Indian film stars have ruled hearts on both sides of the border. Pakistani melody queen Noor Jahan was loved in India as much as she was feted in Pakistan. Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hasan, Nazia Hasan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan followed in her footsteps to continue to prove that art knows no boundaries. Only a handful, however, enjoyed the level of adulation that Madhuri Dixit did across both sides of the divide.
Madhuri first smiled her way into millions of hearts in the 1980s. Her first film, Abodh, was a disaster. The trend continued. Madhuri’s next seven movies too tanked at the box office. The tide began to turn for her with Tezaab, the highest-grossing film of 1988. There was no looking back after that. Madhuri went from strength to strength to grow in stature that not many actresses have achieved. Her salary equalled that of her male colleagues. Filmmakers could risk making female-centric movies revolving around her. Her USP: success did not shake her strong middle-class moorings. Madhuri’s image as a grounded, graceful and level-headed star persisted. She continues to rule hearts long after fading away from the silver screen. Her popularity in Pakistan too remains undiminished. In a June 2013 article, one of Pakistan’s best-known newspapers, Dawn, gushed about Madhuri’s ‘dazzling and disarming smile’, which she ‘quite literally patented’ and honed ‘into an art form’. Her appeal, the article concluded, ‘spans across geographical boundaries and multiple generations in South Asia and in South Asian communities abroad. Immortalized in celluloid, Madhuri’s timeless beauty and charm will resonate with her fans as long as films continue to grab the public’s imagination.’
Express Tribune carried a special feature on Madhuri’s forty-seventh birthday in May 2014. It recalled how she had taken Bollywood by storm. ‘The viewers were smitten by her elegance, her unparalleled dancing skills and most of all, her beauty.’ Madhuri remains the girl next door Pakistanis can identify with. Her simplicity, charm, modesty and natural beauty dovetailed with the traditional gender norms and inspired a generation of actors. For Mahira Khan, Pakistan’s best-known actress, Madhuri is her devi or goddess. She began eating, sleeping and breathing, acting as a child after seeing Madhuri in her movie, Ram Lakhan (1989). Such remains the Indian diva’s popularity that Pakistani filmmaker Sarmad Khoosat asked Mahira not to return home without meeting Madhuri when she first visited India.
Madhuri managed to unite India and Pakistan in the middle of one of the worst phases in their ties. Her wedding in November 1999 perhaps got more media coverage than any of her superhits ever did. It hit international headlines; virtually no report about the wedding missed the perspective on Madhuri’s fan following in Pakistan. The nuptials were the closest to an up in a series of downs in India-Pakistan ties. Just six months prior to the event, in May 1999, Pakistani incursions into Kargil had sparked a war and global concerns about a possible nuclear conflagration. Prime
Madhuri’s wedding, however, was a betrayal of a different kind. It was made of the stuff of a peacenik’s dreams; it united. In Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg wrote that ‘a sense of betrayal to millions of South Asian men’ was so great ‘that it was as if they had been jilted at the altar’. An editorial in the Times of India echoed Goldenberg. ‘To say Ms Dixit has broken every male heart in the country—not to mention Pakistan and the South Asian diaspora— is to render prosaic an attachment so profound that it is at once real and imaginary, intimate and public.’ Goldenberg provided the context. She wrote Madhuri was ‘equally beloved by Pakistani fans, who used to joke that they would willingly give up their claim on the disputed territory of Kashmir in return for Madhuri’. In the middle of the Kargil war, the story goes, a Pakistani soldier shouted at the top of his voice. He sought the attention of the Indian soldiers he was in the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with amid artillery barrages. They will leave Kashmir, the Pakistani soldier offered, but only ‘if Indians give them Madhuri’. It turned out to be a dying wish. Far from responding in kind, the Indian soldiers shot him dead. ‘With love, from Madhuri,’ they rubbed it in.
Edited excerpts from Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s book, ‘The Other Side of The Divide’ (Penguin, Rs 499)