Back from the dead?

Published August 18, 2013
A still from Bilal Lashari's Waar.
A still from Bilal Lashari's Waar.

With the recent spurt of Pakistani films being released locally and with many more in the pipeline, is the industry really going through a revival? Shayan Shakeel examines Pakistan’s film industry while speaking to insiders in order to find the answer

From the looks of it, the pot is coming to a boil. Since Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Kay Liye first hit theatres in 2007, there has been a surge in the number of films that have been vying for nationwide release in Pakistan. Bol was the only movie that gained any traction in 2011, but in 2013 so far we have been privy to Siyaah, Chambaili and Josh while anticipating a number of releases including Mein Hun Shahid Afridi, Waar and Zinda Bhaag.

So is this really a revival? That’s the million-dollar question. Everyone wants cinema in the country to return. But for the film industry to be considered ‘revived’ it needs to fulfil two criteria — a return from obscurity and to previous levels of activity.

The first criteria everyone will agree is being met; after years of being in decline and a few years in which no movies were released, Pakistani cinema is back in the news. The second point is what has everyone arguing.

For one thing, the current batch of Pakistani films is entirely different from what defined Pakistani cinema in the past. After Urdu films suffered their demise at the hands of piracy and the VCR, Pakistan’s regional film centre, otherwise known as Lollywood, became representative of the country’s film scene, producing movies primarily in Punjabi but with a few Urdu language releases also splattered around the calendar. Lollywood continues to churn out a few pictures every year (case in point Ishq Khuda starring Ahsan Khan which was recently released across Punjab) but it is much too faint a shade of its former renown to even be considered part of the ‘revival’ yet. The new film scene, which is primarily in Urdu, is operating in an entirely different vein to compare to the films that came out of Lollywood.

Secondly, the current breed of films is being made by filmmakers who are very new in the field. There are no Syed Noors involved in the ‘revival’ nor have the old studios of Lahore been renovated and reopened. Reema tried, and failed, in her attempt with Love Mein Ghum to bring back the old days, but out of all the old stalwarts, only Shaan is still in action — and his movie Waar still isn’t in theatres. In fact, so new is the new cinema that even calling it the ‘New Wave’ is premature — each movie is a director/producer’s first (except for Shoaib Mansoor, though even he has only two movies to his name, both in the last five years).

If anything, the ‘revival’ of cinema is more appropriately, a rebirth. It comes from the ashes of Lollywood and from the bowels of the TV industry. After all, Jami and Bilal Lashari are known more for their music videos (Ali Azmat’s Bum Phatta and Mekal Hassan’s Chal Bulleya); Amina Sheikh and Mohib Mirza (both in Seedlings and Josh) are primarily TV actors; Shahzad Nawaz (Chambaili) used to be in advertising. From music videos to TV commercials to drama serials, almost all of the new films being produced in the country owe much to TV and its allied industries.

That also explains a lot about why films in the country have just started taking centre stage. Much has been said about the re-emergence of films due to film equipment being more affordable thanks to advances in technology and even the return of our ‘foreign educated assets’. And while both reasons helped in the phenomenon taking shape, as Nadeem Mandviwalla of Mandviwalla Entertainment says, the truth digs a little deeper.

The TV industry only began to grow during the last decade, after the end of PTV’s monopoly over the airwaves. The resulting media revolution created what is now one of the strongest industries in Pakistan. The decline of the film industry, however, meant a number of cinemas had shut down and there were fewer options for those interested in the higher quality Hollywood/Bollywood movies. After the initial culling, businesses responded with the reconstruction of cinema houses in Pakistan catering primarily to English and Hindi language cinema — Universe Cineplex and Atrium Cinemas in Karachi, Cinestar in Lahore and Cinepax and the Bahria Town Cinemas in Islamabad. But what this inadvertently, or maybe even deliberately, did was catch the attention of people in the growing media industry, who saw the new cinema houses as places where they could exhibit those films which they could not air on TV. As Nadeem Mandviwalla says, “Cinema houses are to filmmakers what retail shops are to factory owners; a place to sell their product. The more cinema houses you have, the more product i.e. film you can sell.”

Call it revival or rebirth (the latter is what I would argue for) but there is really only one question on everyone’s minds with regards to Pakistan’s film industry — sustainability. A few movies here and there will scratch an itch some aspiring filmmakers might have but for the industry as a whole, you can’t make movies some years and not for the next few decades and have anyone take the industry seriously. And there are but two factors which will affect the viability of Pakistani cinema over the long term, quality and quality control.

In terms of the latter, protectionist government policies such as raising taxes on foreign films work counter to their purpose. As cinema owners across the country, including Nadeem Mandviwalla vouch, instead of posing as entry barriers to foreign films, taxes serve only to drive up ticket costs to cinemagoers, driving them out of cinemas. What brings them to cinemas is quality entertainment. That is why Pakistan’s sole Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy advocates other government incentives towards local cinema such as subsidies on the import of equipment, cultural exchanges for filmmakers to learn their craft better and even state sponsored film festivals. “Films can be a country’s biggest cultural export,” she stressed, “What we need is for the government to focus on promoting our industry, not promoting protectionist policies which serve to harm it.”

In terms of quality, each of Pakistan’s recent films has been experimental. Take a dozen Bollywood movies for instance and analyse them for background, build-up, plot variations, anti-climaxes, climaxes and plot resolutions and you will be able to pick out a formula. The same goes for the majority of Hollywood movies from major motion picture studios. Pakistan’s recent movies however do not rely on any formulas in their scripts — they play with being artsy, exaggerate their characters, and sometimes punch in the middle of being predictable. It’s experimental, art house, and independent cinema at its youngest and scrappiest.

But experimental narratives, patriotic themes, HD cameras and even mass marketing will only work in getting audiences into theatres for so long. If we have learnt anything from the days of the VCR, it is that people will always look for better entertainment — that is why the public chose to watch Indian over Pakistani movies in what first killed Urdu cinema, despite the fact that Indian movies were banned in Pakistan.

So how can we improve the quality of films? Making more films is one way. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy says continuing to make films will train more people to be cinematographers, colourists, sound recorders etc. and the more professionals there are involved in the industry, the better the quality of films will eventually be. “I never learned how to make a film,” she informed, “but if you work on film sets, you groom and transfer your skills and you grow as a filmmaker.”

Investment in talent is also critical to our development says Daniyal Ali Khan, the former head of the South Asian Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Television, Pakistan’s only and now defunct dedicated film academy. He advocates the training of filmmakers at film schools as a tried and tested way of imparting the art of storytelling. “As the West moves the East in search of stories, Pakistan will be in greater focus,” he said, “but filmmaking needs to be seen as a profession here first.” According to him the best way is to “really watch” films and that is exactly what film schools do — provide an environment where storytelling skills, passion and professionalism can be imparted to aspiring filmmakers.

Quality not withstanding, how likely is it then that the Pakistani film industry will sustain itself? It’s a known fact that the film industry is working at only a fraction of its potential. The long lines and queues at the country’s theatres are evidence enough of the demand for good movies — industry insiders say potential revenue from ticket receipts will likely double in the next five years as more cinemas are constructed. And there is the key market of India yet to be milked. Nadeem Mandviwalla says movies in Pakistan can currently expect to make Rs2.5 crores on average but India is much bigger and much more developed. “So really, unless the government decides otherwise, the ball is in our court,” he stated.

Opinion

Editorial

Population calamity
Updated 22 Jul, 2024

Population calamity

Pakistan can also control its growth rate by following the examples of its peers and implementing functional family planning programmes and campaigns.
Blow to occupation
22 Jul, 2024

Blow to occupation

THE International Court of Justice has delivered a legal blow to the decades-old Israeli occupation of Palestinian...
Seeking Priya Kumari
22 Jul, 2024

Seeking Priya Kumari

PRIYA Kumari — the minor girl who vanished on Ashura in 2021 while serving water at a sabeel in Sukkur district ...
Olympics contingent
21 Jul, 2024

Olympics contingent

FROM 10 in Tokyo the last time, it is now down to seven in Paris, and split across just three disciplines. When...
Grave concerns
21 Jul, 2024

Grave concerns

PUNJAB Chief Minister Maryam Nawaz’s open assault on the Supreme Court for ruling in favour of the PTI in the...
Civil unrest
Updated 21 Jul, 2024

Civil unrest

The government must start putting out fires instead of fanning more flames.