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Islamabad, New Delhi

India and Pakistan, longtime enemies with nuclear arsenals, have battled over borders, killed each other’s soldiers and fought three wars since the countries’ creation seven decades ago.

Now their battle has reached the big screen.

Pakistan on Wednesday imposed a blanket ban on Indian shows on its television networks and radio stations, a day after one of India’s top film directors vowed not to hire actors from Pakistan in response to a major Indian cinema group’s declaration that it would not screen films with Pakistani casts.

The tit-for-tat measures come amid deteriorating relations between the two countries after an attack in September on an Indian army base by militants who India says were from Pakistan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India responded to the attacks by authorising retaliatory strikes against Pakistan and has tried to isolate the country diplomatically, pulling out of a regional economic conference and using a summit meeting in New Delhi that included the Russian, Chinese and Brazilian heads of state last weekend as a platform to attack the Pakistani government.

Pakistani musicians have long been a mainstay of Bollywood, whose films and songs are also hugely popular across the border in Pakistan.

And Pakistani actors have recently entered Bollywood amid the growing popularity in India of Pakistani-based television serials. But those cultural ties are being cut.

The Pakistani ban on Indian shows took effect yesterday. The government acted on a recommendation from the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, and Pakistani officials said it was in response to escalating curbs on Pakistani films and actors in India. The licence of any TV network or radio station that does not comply will be suspended, the regulating authority said.

Last week, a leading Indian film director, Karan Johar, released a video in which he praised the Indian army and said he would no longer use Pakistani actors in his films.

The move was prompted by the decision of one of India’s biggest groups of cinema owners not to show films with Pakistani actors, partly targeting the planned release October 28 of a film by Johar starring a Pakistani actor.

Johar said he felt a “deep sense of pain” at being accused of working against national interests.

Sporting ties severed

The Indian air strikes on Pakistan, conducted 10 days after 19 Indian soldiers were killed at an army base in Kashmir, set off a nationalistic fervour across India that has been picked up by the country’s media.

Indian superstar Salman Khan, who spoke out against the ban on Pakistani actors, was angrily denounced by one of India’s top television talk show hosts, Arnab Goswami.

Om Puri, an actor who has appeared in Bollywood, Hollywood and independent films, also found himself under attack during a televised debate when he said he opposed the ban. The situation escalated when Puri, pressed by the anchor about a slain soldier, retorted, “Who asked him to join the army?” The actor later apologised.

Sporting ties have also been severed, with Pakistan barred from playing in India at the World Cup of kabaddi, a form of wrestling and tag that is popular on the subcontinent.

“We have a government that is taking a very, very hard line on Pakistan, a political context from which the cultural narrative is emerging,” said Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College London who is from India. “Society and the government are in sync with this argument that we need to marginalise Pakistan.”

The cultural standoff began on September 28 when the India Motion Picture Producers’ Association unanimously voted to ban employing Pakistanis in Bollywood.

“As Indians, we want a good relationship with our neighbour, but if the neighbour is not good then we have to take some steps to show him that we are not happy with him,” Manoj Chaturvedi, the association’s general secretary, said in an interview on Tuesday.

The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, a far-right political party, then raised the stakes with an ultimatum to all Pakistani performers working in India to leave within 48 hours or “risk being beaten up.” It also threatened violence against theatre owners who showed films with Pakistanis in the cast.

The Indian television channel Zindagi, which since 2014 has aired Pakistani shows that have grown hugely popular, scrubbed them from its programming. Then the Cinema Owners and Exhibitors Association of India asked exhibitors not to release any movie featuring Pakistani performers, putting in jeopardy Johar’s new film, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which stars Pakistani heart-throb Fawad Khan.

Beyond a show of solidarity for the fallen Indian soldiers, that appeal was made partly because of Khan’s silence after the attacks, when many people felt he should have made “a statement against terrorism,” said Nitin Datar, the president of the cinema owners’ association. The group also worried that cinemas might be damaged amid protests, he said. Khan made a general statement opposing violence but not a specific denunciation of the attack on the army base.

Sign of frustration

Some analysts say the furore is a sign of frustration over the Indian government’s inability to stop militant attacks carried out by Pakistan-based groups, despite overtures to make peace. Pakistan has denied any involvement in the attack on the base and support for the militants in Kashmir.

“There is a turning of the tide about the narrative that engagement with Pakistan culturally is good in and of itself,” said Pant, the international relations professor. “Nobody in India buys that argument anymore that if you do cultural exchanges and cricket matches, it will benefit India.”

But India’s muscle flexing could have dire consequences for the region if it continues for an extended period, he said.

“In Pakistan, we have several actors: military leadership, civilian leadership, and renegade parts of the Pakistan military,” Pant said. “Anyone can retaliate.”

— New York Times News Service