Harsh Narayan — Photo: Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Harsh Narayan — Photo: Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

This past few weeks, we've seen arts and culture caught in the crossfire of Pak-India political tensions.

While Indian producers refuse to work with Pakistani ‘talent’ in the future, the film community in Pakistan contemplates whether to advocate for artistic freedom (Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan’s pro-peace messages) or to rebuff any opportunity of a joint venture in retaliation.

Amidst the chaos, there is a madman who believes there is still hope.

Impervious to the difficulties faced by Indian directors, including Karan Johar, in releasing films featuring Pakistani actors, Harsh Narayan, a film-maker from India, is working on a joint film production with the cast and crew belonging to both sides of the border.

“We must condemn all aspects of terrorism, in the strongest of language,” he says. “It is painful to see artists being criticised for their work based on their nationality. Films bring people together. As a film-maker I want to use the medium to bridge the divide.”

Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke is a cross-border love story that aims at bridging the gap widened by political tension and media misrepresentation in the region. The script is based on the journey of two musicians with different pasts.

“It is a story based on the psyche of the youth of both nations — their desires, aspirations, despair, love and life,” says Harsh. “Music is used as a metaphor in the central plot in the film.”

Harsh Narayan getting guidance from his guru Shri Shyam Benegal
Harsh Narayan getting guidance from his guru Shri Shyam Benegal

Adamant that mutual cooperation can prosper regardless of escalating hostility towards one another, he says, “Both countries share a common history and culture, and I believe that there is always scope to promote peace by creating rich, powerful and meaningful cinema.”

Having spent five years working on the project, Harsh is not taking a step back.

“We have been in discussions with Fawad Khan for the male lead for the past six months, and a well-known young actress in Bollywood to play the leading lady. I am hopeful that the ban is temporary and the film will go on the floors in 2017.”

Harsh has mentored by well-known film-makers Shyam Benegal and Mahesh Bhatt and has a track record in promoting Indo-Pak cultural cooperation for the past 15 years. He has taken numerous initiatives during this period to host delegations from Pakistan as well as led Indian artists across the border to sow the seeds of coexistence in the minds of the younger population.

How it started

Talking about the endless struggle of building cooperation between the most politically unstable rivals of the world, Harsh recalls how he had almost given up on his mission just as he had started in 1997.

“It was somewhere in 1997, during my student life in Patna, that I first came up with the idea of visiting Pakistan. I was convinced that the two nations could establish peace by celebrating similarities in the expression of arts and culture,” he recollects.

“I teamed up with Arif Hussain, a friend of mine, for the cause. We requested the then Cultural Minister of Bihar, Abdul Bari Siddiqui, to take a cultural delegation of students to Pakistan and invite one from there to Bihar. Despite our regular follow-ups for two years and assurances from the minister, there was no progress. Then the Kargil War took place in 1999, followed by a military coup in Pakistan and we could see our dream falling apart.”

But the story didn’t end there.

In 2004, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Pakistan twice. Diplomatic ties between the two countries began taking a positive turn and borders had opened up for travel. Taking advantage of the situation, Harsh approached Dr Kiran Seth, the founder of SPIC MACAY (Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth), to take a delegation to Pakistan and was delighted to receive an encouraging response.

“At that point in time, in spite of being contacted by the High Commission of Pakistan, I had no contacts in Pakistan itself. Finally, in Sept 2004, a delegation comprising 15 students and a few senior artists made it to Lahore.”

Pulling the chord

That journey has continued. Stressing upon the importance of exposing youth to cultural pluralism and providing them with opportunities to explore their heritage, he has initiated several ventures to connect students from both the nations.

Even when the Pathankot airbase was under attack for four days, straining India-Pakistan ties further, a group of 16 Pakistan nationals were at Igatpuri in Maharashtra, quietly learning life lessons as part of an initiative conducted by Harsh in collaboration with the Vipassana International Academy that offers a 10-day course on meditation.

“There was a time when people laughed at me when I talked about going to Pakistan. Today, the same people ask me how I managed to sustain my dream and if I could take them for a visit across the border. As the song by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore goes, Yadi tor dak shune keu na ase, tabe ekla chalo re (If no one comes to respond to your call, go forth all alone …) and I have done the same.”

Volunteering as the Pakistan Coordinator at SPIC MACAY, he has been inviting students and artists to participate in the International Convention (Art and Culture workshop) for the past three years in different cities of India, including Chennai and Mumbai.

Endless struggle

Acceptance is yet to find its way to Harsh’s doorstep, however.

Apart from the reluctance of federal authorities to issue visas, he has also faced resistance from people within the organisation he works with as well.

“I am often left alone to coordinate with the entire delegation all by myself,” he says ruefully. “People are afraid here that if they interact with the Pakistani participants, they might get in trouble. I have been continually discouraged to keep up with this collaboration by my fellow colleagues, but I stand unconvinced, since I truly believe that the power of art, music and culture are capable of transcending boundaries by uniting us spiritually as pacifist human beings.”

But given this hostility, what makes him sure he can complete his film mission?

A moment of coexistence

“It was the celebration of Janmashtmi in Lahore that inspires me,” says Harsh. “I had never imagined that one would able to celebrate the birth of Lord Krishna at a temple in Pakistan in such harmony. While Hindus were there in full strength, it was amazing to witness members of other communities — Parsis, Sikhs, Christians, Jews and even Muslims — present at the occasion. They sang bhajans together and even participated in Aarti. It is moments like these that motivate me to carry my vision of peace forward.”

“There was a time when people laughed at me when I talked about going to Pakistan. Today, the same people ask me how I managed to sustain my dream and if I could take them for a visit across the border. As the song by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore goes, Yadi tor dak shune keu na ase, tabe ekla chalo re (If no one comes to respond to your call, go forth all alone …) and I have done the same.”


Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 13th, 2016

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