Pakistani Cinema – The End of an Era, or the Beginning of a Revival?

By Sonya Rehman

Pakistan’s cinema industry has gone through monumental changes in the decades since partition from India. Located in the city of Lahore, hence the sobriquet “Lollywood”, the carefree, swinging, glory days took off in the 1950s only to reluctantly wind down during the late Sixties when the political climate within Pakistan became more conservative.

Local cinema’s ruin cannot be attributed to political upheaval alone. VCRs and DVDs ate into cinema attendances; there was competition from Bollywood (particularly) and Hollywood, coupled with middling production standards. These all stand as factors that have contributed to Pakistani cinema’s breakdown.

But politics undoubtably did constitute a large chunk of the crisis. Many attribute this demise to President Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator from 1978 until his assassination in 1988. Haq’s widespread Islamisation of the country led to many local cinemas being shut down, along with the imposition of new tax rates, censorship policies and registration laws that severely affected the local film industry.

These restrictions came in surprising forms. For example, productions revolving around cutesy romances and love stories were curtailed, and instead, violence was favoured. Thugs and gangsters would be beaten to a pulp by a sole hero. The simplistic plot would be embellished with buxom babes running around trees, chests heaving, dancing and singing, in one big sexy mess of blood feuds and sexual innuendos. Refined Urdu movies, which were once popular in the country, began fading out, while rougher, cruder Punjabi flicks became all the rage for the masses.

During this 1970s era, Punjabi actors quickly became iconic superstars of the big screen. One in particular — the late Sultan Rahi — became so popular that his name went down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the only Pakistani actor to have acted in over 800 local productions. Even today, seventeen years after his death, Rahi remains an integral part of Pakistani pop culture.

Currently, Pakistani cinema is an odd concoction of two kinds of productions. There are below-average movies for the masses that follow similar storylines and choppy plots. And there are a few alternative productions targeted towards the middle and upper echelons of Pakistani society, made by independent filmmakers.

At a friend’s residence in the city, Shaan Shahid, one of the most well-known Pakistani actors of the big screen, speaks at length about the lack of “passion” on the part of young Pakistanis. He blames the “elite” who, he says, have failed to keep local cinema’s machine well-oiled and running. “It’s the failure of the intellectuals. I get angry at the educated, and feel sad for the uneducated in Pakistan. We have so much potential in Pakistan,” he states.

Shaan Shahid - Photo: Farhan Lashari
Shaan Shahid – Photo: Farhan Lashari

For Shahid, Pakistan seems to have forgotten its values, and most importantly, its culture. “Where is that national cause that we were fighting for?” he questions in a resigned, almost acquiescent manner. “We can retain our culture, but the intellectual community has to be a part of it. We must nourish our literature, our poetry, our cinema… it’s all one unit.”

Over the past few years there have been a few glimmers of hope. Shoaib Mansoor, a Pakistani director, released Khuda Kay Liye (“In The Name of God”) in 2007. The production, which focussed on Islam and Muslims post-9/11, was an instant hit at the box office. Incidentally, Shahid played one of the lead roles in the movie. Yet, when I mention the movie, Shahid dismisses the notion that a sprinkle of good movies by independent local filmmakers can resuscitate Pakistani cinema. “Shoaib Mansoor is a great director, but he needs to train people here and cast fresh faces. The film industry can’t be revived with one good film every few years.”

Aadil Mandviwalla is the director of Mandviwalla Entertainment, a local film distribution and cinema management company. He goes even further and states that Pakistan’s cinema industry is currently “in the Stone Age”.

The paucity of quality output is not the only problem. Last year, some of the country’s cinemas were set ablaze by frenzied mobs who took to the streets in September 2012 in protest against Nakoula Basseley Nakoula’s anti-Islamic Innocence of Muslims. Nishat Cinema, owned by Mandviwalla Entertainment, was one of Karachi’s oldest, most popular and profitable cinemas. It was completely destroyed.

But despite the setback, Mandviwalla remains optimistic about the future of Pakistani cinema. He points to the increasing number of new cinemas appearing in the country and mentions local productions, Khuda Kay Liye and Bol. Both movies were the highest grossing titles in Pakistan at the time of their release.

“If the local Pakistani product is good enough, it is preferred over any foreign film,” he says. “We need new faces and new ideas. Today’s generation needs to be given a chance to prove to our current directors and producers that there is much to be changed and done in Pakistan.”

A handful of good quality movies have also originated from the local industry, such as Khuda Kay Liye, (2007), Ramchand Pakistani (2008) and Bol (2011). And this year, Zinda Bhaag and Waar, two hotly anticipated Pakistani productions, will be released. Independent filmmakers are also taking the plunge, producing movies such as Lamha (Seedlings) (2012), Siyaah (2013), The Extortionist (2013), and a handful of others.

So how does the industry build on this progress? Currently restricting his work to the small screen and the occasional local film, Shahid states that Pakistan ought to learn a thing or two from India. “They are making entertainment movies — look at their industry. Everyone’s mindset in India is towards growth. But in Pakistan the entire infrastructure is being completely destroyed by us.”

In Pakistan, Bollywood is big. Within days of a release from across the border, cinema houses in Pakistan begin screening big budget Indian productions for local audiences.

Farjad Nabi, one of the directors of Zinda Bhaag, claims that the reduction in the number of cinema houses in Pakistan in recent years — from hundreds of theatres in the past, to barely a few sprinkled throughout the country now — stands as a deterrent to local filmmakers today.

“Right now it’s considered more profitable to exhibit films, not to produce them. Given that a good local film is able to far exceed a Bollywood or Hollywood film in returns, it’s surprising that more investors are not coming forward to produce cinema,” he says. The problem is that producers will only invest in Pakistani films “if they see a chance of making profits.”

“But for them to be convinced,” the filmmaker states, “More local films have to be a success, and for that, more local films have to be made.”

Esquire [Middle East]



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