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Pashto cinema: Phoenix rising?

November 10, 2013

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While serious efforts are being made to revive Pashto cinema, the law and order situation, demolition of cinema houses and proliferation of pirated DVDs are just a few of the many hurdles in the way of the promotion of cine culture in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

More than a dozen cine-theatres in Peshawar have been turned into shopping plazas, and out of the remaining nine, three are soon to be demolished. Under these circumstances, a bleak future awaits Pashto cinema. However, some industry-watchers claim the introduction of digital cineplexes can help bring Pashto cine culture back to life.

The golden age

Pashto cinema made an impact with the release of the super-hit film Yousaf Khan Sherbano in December 1970. It had a script by celebrated folk poet Ali Haider Joshi and was directed by Aziz Shamim, with Yasmin Khan and Badar Munir playing the main lead. The film inevitably proved to be a milestone for the Pashto film industry.

A powerful storyline and quality music were the strength of the Pashto movies of yore which kept audiences captivated and spellbound for almost two decades (1970-90). The invaluable contributions made by the large number of seasoned directors, writers, musicians, playback singers, actresses and actors to create what has since come to be known as the golden era of Pashto entertainment industry can never be erased from memory.

The romantic tale of Yousaf Khan and Sherbano set the tone for cultural and social films for the Pakhtuns. Later, Adam Khan Durkhani, Orbol (old), Khanabadosh, Kochwan, Alqaghair, Darra Khyber, Deedan, Dehkaan, Ajab Khan Afridi, Musa Khan Gul Makai, Iqrar, Angar, Mairanai ror, Jirga, Sandar Gharey, Ilzaam, Da Godar Ghazara, Jawargar, Arman, Insaf, Zartaja and many other quality productions continued to make their mark on this form of regional cinema.

It was also the time when superstars such as Yasmin Khan, Suriya Khan, Shahnaz, Musarrat Shaheen, Badar Munir, Asif Khan, Niamat Sarhadi, Umar Daraz, Tariq Shah and Jamil Babar ruled Pashto cinema. Playback singers Khayal Mohammad, Hidayatullah, Gulnar Begum, Kishwar Sultana, Mahjabeen Qazalbash, Mashooq Sultana and Gulraiz Tabassum would supplement the success of these films with their vocal talent to create everlasting ditties. Similarly, the efforts of music directors such as Rafiq Shinwari, Rahdat Hussain, S.T. Sunny, Master Ali Haider with noted writers Amir Ghulam Sadiq, Murad Shinwari, Younas Qiasi, Sardar Khan Fana, Ghazi Sial and others resulted in many Pashto films becoming box office hits. But the industry has suffered from countless upheavals since those glory days.

The fall of Nishtar Hall & the rise of Pashto tele films

The early ’90s witnessed a sharp downfall in the quality of Pashto cinema. With obscenity replacing substance, senior music directors, writers and artistes distanced themselves from an industry that until then used to be their pride and joy.

Pashto cinema soon became synonymous with obscenity and violence and for well over a decade hardly any serious efforts were undertaken to purge it of such anti-social elements. Bomb blasts and a worsening law and order situation in and around the KP capital of Peshawar added further fuel to the blazing fire that was stirred up post-9/11.

More grim and harsh times followed, which saw the lone theatre of Peshawar city, Nishtar Hall, close its doors for all kinds of cultural activities during the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) government that came into power in 2002. Soon, cinema billboards, hoardings and ads featuring female models were put under a strictly-enforced ban. But there was a backlash and Pashto tele films and privately-made films on CDs could be freely purchased in Nishtarabad which has since become a hub of DVD sales in the city.

A huge cache of new talent emerged as a direct result of this trend, and the private film industry earned itself the title of Pollywood with a big market in KP, Fata and Afghanistan, and even the Gulf region with a sizable Pakhtun expatriate community.

Unfortunately, with no check and balance in place, it too succumbed to violence and obscenity, and invited the wrath of extremists and militants who not only targeted the selling hub of all such CDs/DVDs but also artists, performers and singers.

Resurrection of sorts

Meena Qurbani Ghawari (2003) was the first successful attempt by Arbaz Khan, son of veteran film star Asif Khan, towards putting Pashto filmmaking on the right track. Superstars Ajab Gul, Shahid Khan, Arbaz Khan and Jahangir Khan with Sanu Lal, Virda Khan, Asma Lata, Sobia Khan and Nazo were single handedly responsible for bringing back serious Pashto film buffs to cinemas through their brave efforts.

While speaking to Images on Sunday, Asif Khan, the ‘chocolate hero’ of the glory days of Pashto cinema, says, “Hamza Baba, a legendary Sufi Pashto poet, once wrote a storyline and songs for our films. The industry has suffered countless setbacks and serious efforts are now needed for its revival. The future of Pashto movies is now linked to the KP law and order situation, construction of digital modern cine-houses and a fully functional and responsible film censor board.”

Renowned TV and film actor Ajab Gul says that the regional film industry has the potential to produce quality films but stresses on the fact that only the renovation of dilapidated cinema houses and the building of cineplexes can give a much-needed boost to the business. He added that Pashto films are now consciously tackling social issues in order to provide standard entertainment and educate cinegoers. Actor/producer Shahid Khan who is behind film projects such as Orbol and Zargia Khwarshe is hopeful of the success of such efforts.

“I am positive about my new projects and working in Pashto movies is sheer pleasure. My role is central to the plot and I am focusing on delivering a truly memorable performance,” a notably cheerful Meera assured this scribe on being approached for her reaction. Regional film enthusiasts were treated to four Pashto Eid releases this year — Orbol, Zargia Khwarshe, Gandageer and Ghairat. According to Shahid Khan, Eidul Fitr releases were screened in Swat, Peshawar, Mardan, Karachi and Kabul. “People in Kabul prefer Pashto films over Bollywood movies any day. We have now purged the industry of obscenity and brought strong storylines, music and sound subjects. Entertainment and peace go hand in hand.”

On the flip side, Shabaz Ali, 25, a movie-buff, says that the worst possible law and order situation, violence and vulgarity in Pashto flicks coupled with the pitiful conditions of cinema houses in and around Peshawar is still keeping families and serious-minded movie-buffs like him wary. “Among other factors, these Pashto runs are still not compatible with Pakhtun social norms and cultural values. One can only wish for their betterment in future otherwise there seems to be no hope for Pashto cinema yet,” he added regretfully.