Till about the late 1970s, the Pakistan film industry was regularly releasing an average of 80 films a year.
In fact there were also periods when the industry put out over a hundred films in a single year. And then, it all stopped.
Contrary to popular belief, the collapse of the Pakistan film industry was not a gradual process. In fact the crumbling was a rather sudden happening.
In July 1977 the populist regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Pakistan Peoples Party) was toppled in a military coup masterminded by General Ziaul Haq.
In 1979, Haq oversaw the execution of Bhutto through a sham trial and consolidated his grip over power.
Zia’s was a reactionary dictatorship. He went after his detractors with concentrated ruthlessness.
After Bhutto’s toppling and hanging, the era of populist extroversion came to a close, giving way to social introversion that had little to do with self-reflection, but more with the need to hide one’s political and social self in an era of open religious propagation and reactive legislation that was directly opposed to the 1970s populist bearings.
One cultural symptom of this social and cultural roll-back was the abrupt collapse of the Pakistani film industry.
As if all of a sudden, Urdu films that till 1979 had been doing good business rapidly started to lose its main (middle-class) audiences.
This was also the time when the practice of turning cinemas into ‘shopping plazas’ also kicked in, with Karachi’s famous Naz Cinema becoming the first casualty.
One of the primary reasons for this was the social and cultural introversion that the country’s urban middle-classes started to slide into ever since the late 1970s.
This can also explain the rapid proliferation of the VCR – a machine that kept many Pakistanis, including regular cinema goers, comfortably stationed in their homes and enjoying smuggled Indian films on video tapes away from the cultural, social and political fall-outs of Ziaul Haq’s rampaging ‘Islamisation project’ impacting life outside their homes.
Another prominent reason for the Pakistani film industry’s growing commercial and creative woes was the implementation of a new censor policy.
Interestingly though, these policies and restrictions that barred filmmakers from showing ‘excessive sexual content and violence,’ seemed only to have been targeted at Urdu films because there was a two-fold growth in the number of Punjabi and Pushtu films, in spite of the fact that they were studded with sexual raunchiness and anarchic violence.
The rising popularity of Punjabi cinema was also symptomatic of the changing class dynamics of film audiences.
Till the late 1970s, the middle-classes constituted the bulk of this audience, but as these started to dramatically recede after 1979, the vacuum was filled by film-goers from the urban working classes in the cities, and the peasants in the semi-rural areas.
Thus, this was also the beginning of the making of Punjabi films based on populist rural themes of revenge and honour, as Urdu films based on urban subjects began to vanish after losing its core audiences to social and cultural inertia, and consequently, to the VCR.
Not that the working and peasant classes weren't film-goers before, but they outnumbered the middle-classes in this respect in the 1980s till they too began to vanish by the end of that decade.
A few valiant efforts were made by some film-makers in the 1990s to revive the industry and attract and prompt the middle-classes to return to the cinemas.
In 1992, famous stand-up comedian and stage actor (and occasional film personality), Umer Sharif produced (and acted in) Mr. 420.
A racy comical farce mostly based on plots and dialogue that Sharif had been using in his popular stage plays, Mr. 420 became one of the first Urdu films to become a major commercial hit after 1979’s Nahi Abhi Nahi.
Showbiz journalists hailed the film as being the first step in reviving the country’s industry and bringing back ‘respectable audiences’ to the cinemas.
But the euphoria was short lived and Mr. 420 was followed by a string of failures plunging the state of the disintegrative industry back to square one.
The revivalists got excited again when TV actress and director Samina Peerzada’s 1999 film, Inteha, started playing to packed houses. Alas, this too turned out to be an exceptional one-off.
By the early 2000s, an industry that once produced an average of 80 films annually was now struggling to even churn out more than two films a year.
During the ‘liberal’ military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008), cinema owners in Pakistan complained that they would be forced to close down the few cinemas left in the country if the government didn't lower the entertainment tax.
They lamented that since the Pakistani film industry had gone creatively and commercially bankrupt, the cinemas were struggling to remain in business solely on the strength of Hollywood films.
When prompted by the Musharraf regime to come up with suggestions, the owners asked for something that was almost deemed impossible to agree to i.e. Allowing the import and screening of Indian (Bollywood) films in Pakistani cinemas.
The practice of Pakistani cinemas screening Indian films (and vice versa) was common till 1965, or before Pakistan banned the exhibition of Indian films after a war between the two countries that year.
Decades later, after giving much thought, the government finally gave the green signal and cinema owners began to screen latest Bollywood films in Pakistani cinemas.
Though cinema owners were once again reporting profits, the decision was vehemently criticised and lambasted by established Pakistani film-makers and artistes.
They claimed that the import of Indian films was the last nail in the coffin of the Pakistani film industry.
The cinema owners and supporters of the new policy retaliated by suggesting that the industry was as good as dead, and even when it did produce a film or two, they were substandard and destined to flop.
But as the traditional scions of the industry were busy waving their fists, enigmatic TV director, Shoaib Mansoor, rolled up his sleeves and decided to actually make use of the fact that the middle-classes had begun to return to the cinemas, albeit to only watch Indian films.
He decided to make a film that would not only be a departure in style compared to the Pakistani films of yore, but would also be marketed keeping in mind a generation of young middle-class cine-goers with little or no memory of a time when visiting cinemas (to watch Pakistani films) was quite the norm.
But Mansoor was making a film for an audience who had grown up watching lavish Bollywood thrillers, rom-coms and pot-boilers (on DVD). However, this was also an audience who was (like every Pakistani) facing the brunt of the religion-motivated violence and extremism that had mushroomed in Pakistan after the tragic 9/11 episode in New York, that saw Pakistan enter the ‘War on Terror’ on the side of the United States.
So he decided to make a film that directly tackled the issue of extremism and the subsequent ideological and moral confusion that had begun to plague a number of young Pakistanis after the Twin Tower tragedy. He called his film, Khuda Kay Liye (In The Name of God).
Mansoor not only departed from the ways of old Pakistani films in style, plot and marketing; he also almost completely bypassed remnants of the country’s film establishment that were still seen as being authorities on the film business in the country.
The film was a surprise hit and it competed well with the Indian films in the local cinemas – but on its own terms.
In doing this, it set the precedent for the young lot that followed Manoor’s example to compete with the ‘Indian invasion,’ not by producing cheap copies of Bollywood films or simply by whining about how they were killing the local film industry; but by making films that attempted to aspire their own (Pakistani) identity.
One of the country’s most prominent cinema owners, Nadeem Mandviwallah, in an interview to New York Times, claimed that the post-Khuda Kay Liye Pakistani films coming out are to Indian cinema, what British/European films are to Hollywood.
They have a far lower budget than their Bollywood counterparts and no big stars but they aspire to offer a more ‘artistic’ and realistic content.
Thanks to the arrival of Indian films and the subsequent emergence of Pakistan’s new-wave of cinema, owning and running a cinema has once again become a feasible business in the country.
Ironically, as hoards of religious fanatics were burning down a series of Karachi’s old cinemas (Nishat, Bambino, Capri and Prince) last year (due to a controversial ‘anti-Islam film’ on YouTube), brand new multiplex cinemas were mushrooming in the country.
The last major cinema to be constructed in Pakistan was Prince Cinema in Karachi in 1976. One of the first multiplex cinemas to emerge in the country was also in Karachi in the early 2000s. Today, all the major cities of the country have spacious and hi-tech multiplexes.
But as the urban middle-classes were once again returning to watch their films on the big screens in large numbers, one did wonder, what were film enthusiasts from the working classes up to now?
Ticket prices at the sophisticated multiplexes are way out of their reach. But cinema owners like Mandiviwallah claim that these classes are now enjoying Indian, Pakistani and Hollywood films in the old, traditional cinemas that have managed to survive.
That’s why it was sad to see religious fanatics tearing down what were perhaps the last haunts of the working-classes where (like in the old days), they could afford a ticket to sit in an air-conditioned hall, forget about their many economic and social struggles for a while and submerge themselves in a dream splashed across a 70mm screen.
The change of guard (and class)
If you ever catch a Pakistani film of the 1960s and 1970s on TV channels like Filmazia or StarLite (or on a DVD), you will notice that most films shared visual and contextual commonalities regarding their portrayal of rich people.
For example, the homes of the rich (from the inside) in the films always had a massive drawing room with a large A-shaped twin staircase. A rich father would almost always be in a suit or a nightgown and thick glasses, holding a walking stick and chewing on a pipe.
His daughter could often be seen skipping down from the twisty staircase in a white mini-skirt, rolling a badminton racket in her hands and announcing, ‘Daddy, I go keelub and play badminton.’
At the keelub (club) she would venture from the badminton court to the bar where the lecherous owner of the club (usually played by the late great Aslam Parvez) would make her sip some whiskey.
A mere sip would suffice for the girl to go dashing towards the dance floor to do the most anarchic version of the ‘hippie shake’ this side of the ‘70s, before passing out.
She would then usually wake up to realise that the lewd club owner had raped her in her drunken state.
It is true that nightclubs, discotheques and bars did a roaring business in Pakistan till they were closed down in April 1977, but in no way were they anything like how filmmakers depicted them in their cinematic farces.
It was simply a case of men of a particular class perceiving the lifestyle of another class that they found to be distant. But that didn’t stop them from undertaking some pretty wild guess work.
Even during the commercial and quantitative peak of the Pakistan film industry between the late 1960s and mid-1970s, a majority of filmmakers came from petty-bourgeoisie backgrounds.
So, in spite of the fact that almost all of them enjoyed alcoholic beverages and often made use of the figurative casting couch to ‘discover new (female) acting talent,’ they mostly banked on the inherent reactive conservatism of the petty-bourgeoisie to understand and portray the morality (or lack thereof) of the upper-classes.
In the same way, these filmmakers also had their own particular understanding of the working-classes and the ‘dispossessed.’
It was again largely based on petty-bourgeoisie perceptions of the poor who were portrayed as being entirely fatalistic (which was depicted as an admirable trait), very religious, self-pitying (yet honourable), and they hardly ever aspired to move up the class ladder, remaining content in their poverty (because money caused existential and spiritual illnesses). After all, look what it did to the lass who went venturing out to play badminton at the keelub.
What I am getting at here is that the reason why the recent round of Pakistani films are looking and sounding like complete departures from the films of yore is because the changing of the film-making guard in the industry has also witnessed a change in the class of filmmakers.
The majority of new filmmakers are coming from modern middle-class backgrounds.
They grew up holding a somewhat one-dimensional nostalgic view of the once thriving film industry, but this hasn't stopped them from being more academically exposed to the creative, social and economic aspects of Indian cinema, Hollywood and (especially), to the ebb and flow of trends in this context in the more arty European and Iranian cinema.
Unlike the dwindling old guard, the new filmmakers have understood that the cinematic morality of bygone Pakistani filmmakers (if repeated) would not only become self-parodies, but actually endorse a mind-set that the new filmmakers want to challenge in their films.
After all, the new lot of filmmakers have no memory or experience of a Pakistan where religion hardly ever ventured outside of the mosque, a shrine or home.
Instead, they grew up in times in which Pakistan, in matters of state-backed, as well as evangelical and militant variants of ‘Islamisation,’ has continued to mutate, offering them only cultural restrictions and even a threat of violence to anyone attempting to question this mutation.
That’s why even those among the new filmmakers who want to simply construct an entertaining slab of commercial cinema, cannot hold themselves from commenting on matters like religious extremism, moral hypocrisy, political corruption, etc.
But if the filmmakers of yore, who had seen and related certain social and domestic issues through the eyes of the time’s petty-bourgeoisie, the new lot is doing so with urbane middle-class lenses.
In the last 15 years or so, in the context of moral perceptions, the ever-growing urban middle-classes in Pakistan can (roughly) be divided into three sets of people.
The first set is conservative and has increasingly drifted towards the call of evangelical strands of Islam. The second set likes to think itself to be ‘moderate’ and asserts itself to take a middle-ground between the conservatives and the third set that is (seen and perceived) to be overtly secular and too permissively liberal.
It is the ‘moderate’ view that is being weaved into the plots, imagery and symbology of the new Pakistani films.
Shoaib Mansoor, in both of his films (Khuda Kay Liye and Bol), offers ‘moderate Islam’ as the tool to challenge the extremist strands of the faith.
For example, in Khuda Kay Liye, one of the most prominent scenes is that of a ‘moderate’ moulvi (played by Naseeruddin Shah) responding to the intransigent arguments aired by a radical mullah.
Though, in spite of the fact that renowned economists like Akbar Zaidi, and noted authors like Ayesha Siddiqua and Hamida Khoro, have repeatedly demonstrated that classic Pakistani feudalism is a rapidly receding phenomenon and has been losing political and economic ground due to rapid urbanisation, feudalism has continued to be (rhetorically) denounced by the middle-classes as one of the main forces pitched against the country’s socio-political progress.
That’s why one saw director Iram Parveen weave a tale of female emancipation and a woman’s fight against myopia and male chauvinism by placing her heroine against a feudal lord in Josh (Passion) – even though the feudal lord’s character was an unwitting stereotype and a caricature of the urban middle-class perception of feudalism.
Then there is Mansoor Mujahid’s Lamha (Moment) that decides to simply stick to bringing to the big screen an emotional drama addressing loss, grief and the absence of communication in what seems like an attempt to exhibit that, indeed, the modern, ‘westernised’ and seemingly distant sections of the urban upper-middle-classes too are as human and emotionally vulnerable as any other Pakistani.
This is important, because in the films of the populist and extroverted 1970s, the said class was reduced to being a bunch of one-dimensional caricatures of amorality and exploitation and even today is often mocked and ridiculed for being cut off from the ground realities besieging Pakistan.
Mujahid gives this class a sympathetic look in Lamha.
As Pakistan continues to slide in stature in the eyes of the world due to what it has been facing in the shape of political corruption, extremist violence and due to the state and the government’s lukewarm response to address such mishaps, middle-class Pakistan has responded to this by often exhibiting an overt sense of patriotism, and an obsession to popularise the need to have ‘positive thinking.’
Humayun Saeed’s Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (I Am Shahid Afridi) and Ismail Jillani’s Chambaili are based on exactly these two neo-middle-class traits. On a cinematic level both work rather (and rousingly) well.
But whereas, Main Hoon Shahid Afridi goes about its patriotic business by suggesting how sport (in this case cricket) can inspire a young generation to achieve a meaningful existentialist disposition and relevance in the midst of the chaos plaguing Pakistan, Chambaili attaches its patriotism to having a new political ideology.
Chambaili is a cinematic by-product of how the new Pakistani middle-class youth understands the state of affairs in the country.
It contemplates politics not as something to do with stark Machiavellian manoeuvres and amoral pragmatism, but as something that should be based and done on an (almost Utopian) ideology.
Of course, it is not deterred by (or maybe even aware) of the historical baggage such thinking comes with, in which even the most sincerely constructed ideologies have had an inherent tendency to eventually mutate into becoming a set of dogmas that are then exploited by self-claimed ideologues and leaders who eventually turn whole populations into a mass of bleating sheep.
Chambaili, a story about a group of angry young (middle-class) men and women who come together to form a political party, insists that Pakistan is aimlessly drifting towards disintegration because its politics has lost the need to hold itself together with a powerful ideology.
Thus, it encourages young Pakistanis to band together and challenge the cynicism and corruption that reigns supreme in the country’s politics. It glorifies the creation of an almost messianic ideology that wags its finger and waves its fists at ‘fake democracy’ and at the usual caricatures of debauchery i.e. corrupt politicians, evil feudal lords, etc.
Just as Pakistani films in the past had become petty-bourgeoisie perceptions of life, love, morality and society, the new-wave of Pakistani films are urban middle-class mediation on life, love, faith and politics.
But as more and more filmmakers from this class are continuing to extend this extraordinary new (and revivalist) run of Pakistani films, the scope of mediation and perceptions in this respect are broadening as well.
And, we will now discuss this by looking at Farjad Nabi and Meenu Mazhar’s Zinda Bhaag.
Take the visa and run
Zinda Bhaag is very much part and parcel of the class make-up and sociology of Pakistan’s new-wave cinema, in which films play like stark art-house mediation on life but bear the soul of lively commercial cinema.
However, unlike their new-wave contemporaries, directors Farjad Nabi and Meenu have not only entrenched their film outside the confines of middle-class settings, their main characters also come from lower-middle/working-class backgrounds.
The story is founded on the ubiquitous obsession of Pakistanis from these classes (especially from the Punjab) who (illegally) make their way into a European country for the purpose of earning a lot more money than they ever could in Pakistan.
The film follows the daily lives of a group of friends who hold low-paying jobs and dream of one day crossing into a European city and match the tales of financial glory that are told to them about those ‘brave and clever ones’ from their area who managed to slip into Europe and were doing quite well.
The film also points out the dangers this practice constitutes in which many young aspirants are caught and put into jails in foreign countries, or actually die tragically due to the many dangerous ways that they try to illegally enter an alien country.
A mosque of the area where the film takes place in is often heard announcing (on the loudspeaker) news of the deaths of young men who had died trying to slip into Europe.
But Zinda Bhaag is not a serious commentary on the perils of illegal immigration or the kind of desperation and obsession that makes so many Pakistanis take all kinds of dangerous routes and avenues to enter more prosperous countries.
Instead, it’s a black comedy giving Farjad and Meenu enough space to take quick-fire jabs at certain incidents that take place around the characters’ everyday lives but are the complete opposite of the on-ground realities of the class that they belong to.
In a 1970s film a lower-middle/working-class character would have judged this clash by rhetorically denouncing the opposite reality as something that was amoral and pitched against his class as an exploitative tool.
But Zinda Bhaag’s main characters (the friends) do not judge what is not in their reach. Instead, they either aspire to make it their own, or completely ignore it.
The film’s main character – a lowly-paid, 20-something electrician (Khalidi) and his buddies get drunk and dream about Europe (and in the case of Khalidi, also about a girl he met in a public bus where she was selling handmade soaps called ‘Facelook’).
They are a cynical lot – the kind of young people the fist-waving youth of Chambaili would hate!
They do not have a political ideology. They can’t afford to. But their goal is clear: To somehow slip into a Western country and drive a Taxi. That’s what most young men from their class dream about.
Each one of them is focused on discovering ways of making more money than what their day jobs pay. The guys work as cooks and electricians; they gamble at illegal and shady gambling dens; and some even work (on the side) for a local thug (played by Naseerudin Shah).
The girl (who eventually becomes Khalidi’s girlfriend), aggressively makes her way from selling soaps on buses to making sure they find some space on supermarket shelves.
They’re not just dreamers, but doers as well, despite going against the grain of middle-class morality and ethics in their ways.
The film’s characters do not judge the unreachable/unaffordable as something to do with the exploitation of their class. But in situations where they are placed in surroundings that are almost completely alien to the social and material dynamics of their class, the film takes the opportunity to satirise certain traits and idiosyncrasies of the new Pakistani middle-classes.
For example, in a scene where Khalidi and his colleague/friend enter a huge bungalow to fix a malfunctioning air-conditioning unit, there is a women’s Dars taking place in the house.
Dars – a gathering where an Islamic scholar delivers commentaries on Islamic rituals and traditions – has increasingly become popular among a growing number of urban middle-class women in Pakistan, especially in the last decade or so.
Such gatherings (in the above-mentioned context) usually take place in bungalows owned by well-to-do families and are attended by women who also come from wealthy and middle-class backgrounds.
The film alludes that the piety of the middle-classes may seem alien and distant to the concept of faith of the classes below them.
But, again, the characters, when they come across this particular aspect of the alien and the unaffordable, do not judge it.
Instead, they are simply amused when they see the main lady preacher at the Dars tell her swaying audience: ‘Remember, sisters, we have to think in terms of horizontal and vertical.’
Then prompting the gathering for a response, she uses swift hand gestures to ask: ‘So, sisters, the horizontal is us, and the vertical is …?’
The gathering enthusiastically answers: ‘Allah!’
Khalidi and his friend simply look at each other and raise an eyebrow, as if trying to figure out what on earth the rich aunty was going on about.
The film also takes a tongue-in-cheek dig at the popularity of Indian TV soap operas that have become all the rage in the region. We see one particular soap called ‘Auqat’ in the film.
Every time a TV is present in a scene, it is running this soap. The families of the friends watch it, people in the market watch it; heck, in one scene, even the dreaded thug is watching it!
Again, when it comes to satirising certain aspects of the Pakistani society, the film lets the scenes do all the talking without using any explanatory dialogue.
In another scene, we see some of the friends working as waiters and cooks at a rich man’s party. The film once again puts them in a situation that is alien to the class they come from. At one point we see the rich man ordering a security guard to check the pockets of the servants who might have stolen his BlackBerry.
It turns out that the device was actually taken away by the man’s young son to play games on. The episode is quickly forgotten, but not for those who were humiliatingly interrogated for a crime that they had not committed.
In a 1970s film, the humiliated would have launched into a speech lamenting the arrogant ways of the rich.
But in Zinda Bhaag, the cooks and the waiters launch into a song (in the kitchen) culled from poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Hum Daikhien Gey’ (We Shall See) and authored for the film by famous novelist and journalist, Mohammad Hanif.
It’s an old revolutionary tune. But in the film it is used as a statement of irony because over the years it has become a favourite of classes and ideologies it was originally pitched against.
This becomes even more apparent when we see guests at the party discussing ‘revolution’ and ‘change’ for the people they just interrogated for stealing.
As mentioned earlier, the film plays like a black comedy. It is objective to the point of being cynical. Because that’s what reality is like in the situations it is set in.
The characters do not enjoy any cinematic exaggerations. They are quite real, warts and all. But they have an emotionality and spirituality that seems to be inherent in their class and which can even be catered to by the simple act of sitting quietly outside a Sufi saint’s shrine.
Thus, the film finds no reason or need to show them praying or thumping their chests while waving a Pakistani flag. In fact, they are only seen praying at the funerals of boys who came back dead.
The cynical aspect of it all is played to the hilt in a powerful sequence in the film that shows one friend getting a hold of the passport of a fallen friend, getting the picture changed, and slipping out, only to die and leaving the passport for another friend to use.
The film gets darker as the main hero, Khalidi, gets even more desperate to slip out. He first tries the legal way, but his visa is rejected. Then he tries to get a student’s visa for a hefty price from a shady travel agent, but fails to gather the amount needed for such a visa.
All the while he gambles frantically, betting on horse-racing, playing flush and games of dice. He gets frustrated and loses his girlfriend and buddies in the process – until the body of a friend arrives who died half-way through his journey to a European city.
This is the moment one would expect the film to take a moralistic twist and make Khalidi realise the perils of his obsession and cynicism. Not quite.
The last scene sees him approaching the grieving father of the dead son. Again, the audience are by now expecting him to break down and renounce his obsession. But something else happens.
To many people, the film's ending would seem inconclusive, especially in a South Asian film. But though Zinda Bhaag rejects the notion of a happy ending, it’s not a tragic ending either.
It’s just what heroism would mean to an anti-hero.
Apart from legendary Indian actor, Naseeruddin Shah, and well-known Pakistani fashion model, Amna Illyas, the bulk of the actors used in the film are first-timers.
What’s more, most of them come from exactly the class that is shown in the film.
Shah, as the calm-talking but firm extortionist and thug, is surprisingly not all there, expect in one scene in which he is peeved at a young man wanting to quit his gang.
This is when one sees the usually witty and stoic thug’s violent side coming out, not through an act of violence, but through a tone that trembles with controlled anger and biting sarcasm.
Maybe the fact that Shah had to speak in Punjabi throughout the film made him seem unsure of his role, because apart from being an extroverted language, Punjabi is also a very physical language. Let’s just say he didn't make a very convincing Lahori from an area situated in the old parts of the city.
Amna Illyas was good – though sometimes a tad too bubbly for a young woman who sweats it out making cheap soaps and selling them on public buses.
The pick of the new actors was undoubtedly, Khurram Patras, as Khalidi. What a debut indeed. I overheard a lady at the premier saying that his character reminded her of the men who come to fix her air-conditioning or those she sees driving taxis.
Patras’ portrayal seems to have drawn in the middle-class audience who were curious to find out exactly what happens in the daily lives of those whom they only see as people not with names or personalities, but with labels like ‘bijli wallah’ (electrician), ‘repair man’, etc.
His acting remains consistent, in spite of the fact that (like a complex and multi-layered cinematic anti-hero),he had to convince the audience that Khalidi actually draws strength from his flaws and emotions.
His portrayal of a new kind of an anti-hero in Pakistani cinema is successful in actually and eventually gaining the sympathy of the audience – though with a pinch of salt and maybe some middle-class guilt.