“Sixteen Hindi films were screened in Pakistan last year after a nearly four-decade ban... But strained ties …following the Mumbai terror attack coupled with dipping fortunes of the Pakistani film industry may signal the end of this short-lived ‘golden phase’.”
This January 3, 2009, news story said the Pakistani censors were planning to again ban Indian movies as it was “destroying the local film industry”.
Syed Noor, the star filmmaker, joined in: “Some people with vested interests don’t want our industry to flourish…our focus will be to produce films which would attract people.”
That is essentially where the focus has always been but what has changed five years later is the approach. Noor is no more anti-Indian films. He has come a long way from being a patriotic Pakistani bravely trying to save the national cinema. He is now eager to uphold the rule of law. “What I am opposed to is illegal import of films,” he says.
The change has come after a lot of convincing – but the reasons for the present positioning are, as always, economical. Back then, the Pakistani film industry, or what remained of it, was scared of being trampled by the superior-quality Indian invasion. Now, many hope to gain from Mumbai’s revival of cinema-watching culture in Pakistan.
“We must save Pakistan cinema,” Noor says, as he speaks hopefully about a Memorandum of Understanding signed between Pakistani film producers and exhibitors. The MoU promises “50 per cent adjustment”, meaning the Pakistani films will be given a quota in the air time in theatres in the country.
The legal issue Noor raises has its roots in Gen Pervez Musharraf’s SRO that opened the door a crack for an intended surreptitious arrival of the Hindi fare. The SRO sought to camouflage the package by setting certain conditions for the import. In essence, the origins of the product had to be faked.
The issue of legality resurfaced from time to time, most recently, and poignantly, when a case was filed against the import of Dhoom-3. The film was given clearance after much debate and it appears the MoU Noor cites did play a part.
Those favouring the import of Indian films since long argue that already quite a few positives have accrued to the Pakistan cinema. Hasan Zaidi, the director of the Kara-Film Festival, agrees the Hindi formula is bringing the audience back to the theatres. He recalls the grim times when cinema houses were being razed in Pakistan to build commercial plazas and says there has been an increase in the number of theatres in the country since the entry of the Indian films.
“We would tell them that there will be a shock initially but then Pakistan cinema will benefit from the Indian import,” Zaidi says of those who once dreaded the Indian film, some calling it a Hindu cultural bomb. “They stuck to their position for a while, but there has been a change in thinking in recent years.”
By then the profits had been coming in for some time, establishing the Indian films as an economically viable option. Much investment had gone into building multiplexes in Pakistani cities and in the words of Syed Noor, “we must save this investment.”
The investment in multiplexes is increasing over time. While 20 per cent of the revenue generated by film screening in the country is still estimated to come from a Karachi multiplex, cinema halls have cropped up or ‘become functional’ in cities like Multan and Faisalabad.
Pakistanis are quite liking the idea of being able to consume more openly what they had never made a secret of having in their homes. They have for long, if not always, considered the Mumbai masala far superior to what was being cooked in their own backyard. The vacuum was there and this is why the film found a way into the Pakistani territory once the economy was opened up. Other Indian products, generally, are struggling to cross the bar.
Ultimately, however, the Indian film import could be a trailer for other things from across Wagah. The choice for Pakistan would be to compete or create something different to sell.
The Pakistani film industry has been indulging in the same genre as the more resourceful and culturally more conducive Mumbai did. Unlike some in India who tried to carve a niche for themselves by introducing subtle and nuanced changes, say adding a dash of realism to their ventures to suit their resources, Pakistani cinema was bent upon following the Mumbai masala, albeit in its own limited way.
But then Pakistanis have never disowned Mumbai. They reminisce so fondly about the creative contribution to Bollywood by faces, minds and voices from ‘here’. Mumbai now reciprocates.