Readers of articles on Pakistani cinema are by now sick of terms like ‘revival’, ‘rebirth’ and ‘new wave’ to quote only a few offending cliches.

Cinema and filmmaking in Pakistan did make a wonderful comeback in the year 2013. While the release of around seven Pakistani films throughout the country gave a much-needed push to aspiring local film-makers, it also produced a hyper-sentimental wave about the rise of Pakistan cinema, which masked the realities on the ground. The current year holds more promise for Pakistani cinema as more than two dozen productions are reportedly on the floor.

So exactly where does Pakistani cinema stand and where is it heading to?

Welcome the ugly

Multiplex cinema originally suffered in Pakistan not solely because of ‘bad films’, it collapsed because it stopped making business sense to the most important player in the chain of film business — the exhibitor.

The saying goes: “those who can’t do; teach”. Well here we have a doer, the producer of our home-grown hit Zinda Bhaag, who reflects on the challenges, perils and pitfalls of new-age filmmaking and the factors that can eventually lead to the rise of new cinema in Pakistan

And it sprung back exactly when it started making money for the cinema owners, i.e. since 2006 with the easing of governmental control on the import of Indian content, and to some extent censorship policies. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the current attention that Pakistani cinema enjoys owes a lot to both Hollywood and Bollywood. It is the content from these two giant film industries which made way for the re-opening of old cinemas and the construction of new ones. While this import of ‘new and shiny’ products brought the class of cine-goers who had stopped going anywhere near a theatre since 1980s back to cinema halls, it also caused much destruction in its wake.

There is no harm in being romantic for a bit and lamenting how the new and ugly multiplex killed the charming single screen cinemas of years gone by. But then it is this multiplex, however unattractive to some, which got the footfalls back to the theatre halls and got us all thinking of making films again. While everywhere else in the world the arrival of multiplex changed the experience of watching cinema, in a country like Pakistan it has also been influencing the content itself. Higher ticket pricing structures and geographical location of new screens in urban centres automatically determine what kind of films can possibly be supported by the audience.

So, the new cinema of Pakistan has to cater to a new cinema audience.

Embrace thy neighbour

For an audience which is relatively more critical and has the ability to constantly compare local content with the foreign films they watch, it is essential that films produced locally should have a global appeal. It is critical also because given the current state of screens in Pakistan, no film can make business sense unless its varied revenue streams, other than home release, are exploited.

There are roughly 66 screens in the country out of which mostly 40 are capable of generating revenue. The good news is that many more screens are under construction but the bad news is that till the time when we have at least 80-100 screens, no film can make profit unless of course if someone tries to change the colour of their money or has institutional support and doesn’t care about making profit from a production. The theatrical release in the country of production is only one of the many revenue streams of a film.

Cinema audiences from Toronto to Sydney are keen to see the rest of the world on the big screen. This doesn’t in any way imply that film-makers have to make compromises on creativity; that’s a lame excuse. Any good film-maker has the ability to tell a local story in its true context in ways that it can appeal to audiences everywhere.

For the sake of argument if we forget the international audience, why not look eastward? After all, we are only a few kilometres away from one of the world’s largest cinema-going audience and have no language or cultural barriers as such, unless of course you believe that the people of Amritsar speak Swahili and the population of Delhi has never seen a shalwar kameez in its entire life.

While there may be some truth to the argument of some Pakistani industries that they face the curse of non-tariff barriers in Indo-Pak trade, most claims about Pakistan’s film industry not being able to make it to the Indian market are based on mere assumptions and half-hearted efforts.

We know for a fact that at least one of the two Pakistani films released in India during the last 10 years has done really well. Wouldn’t that be a rate of 50 per cent success by simple calculation? Shouldn’t Pakistani producers and film-makers be gearing up to exploit such a huge opportunity literally lying next door?

Naseeruddin Shah with the production crew 
of Zinda Bhaag during 
a shooting spell
Naseeruddin Shah with the production crew of Zinda Bhaag during a shooting spell

Apart from theatrical release in different territories, there are many other possible revenue streams of a film — namely music rights, satellite, direct to home, video on demand, pay TV, iTunes, Netflix, airborne rights, etc. In order to exploit all these possibilities, a person from production needs to keep the overall bigger picture in mind and that person usually is the producer. And yes, a producer is not the person with a big suitcase full of money. Instead, he is the person who has to look over the whole project, from script development to production to post-production to planning the festival circuit run to the actual release and subsequently exploiting auxiliary rights which can be equally profitable in some cases.

Film is not TV

So a critical audience and stiff competition from global content and a desire to export your cultural product beyond the borders obviously demands rigorous planning and execution. The first challenge is the script which takes up a paramount importance in these conditions. Like all other departments in a film crew, we have a shortage of film script writers. No doubt some of last year’s releases showed a lot of promise but we still have a long way to go. A note of caution here is necessary: film is not TV.

Audiences consume TV in very different ways. It’s free, it’s inside the comfort of a home, and in most cases it almost works as an interlude between various domestic chores. It’s technically and sensually an altogether different experience. Cinema, on the other hand, is a social activity, you make an appointment to view something mostly with friends and family, it’s visually and audibly a much richer and demanding experience and above all, you pay for it. So yes, while TV can help evolve some content for cinema, it will have to be very non-TV to make it to the big screen.

Who will carry the lights?

The lack of resources is not only limited to developing content for films. It permeates all other areas of film production. Primarily because Pakistan has suffered what can only be described as a complete disconnect from its tradition of cinema production in the most brutal of ways. While Pakistani cinema was in almost complete hibernation in the 1990s, things changed quite drastically on the surface. Not only did the mode of film production undergo substantial changes, with the introduction of digital cinema the methods of delivery have also seen revolutionary alterations. So we have the desire and the passion to make cinema, we have new theatre halls to exhibit our labour of love but do we have the human resource to produce that work of art that we so want to cherish?

The establishment of various film schools in major urban centres during the last few years has trained an enthusiastic lot of film-makers. But in the absence of a fully functioning film industry, which could employ the trained human resource and thus develop a symbiotic relationship, these institutions are yet to exploit their own true potential. For a fully functioning film industry — still a distant goal — we not only need film directors but also some of the other most crucial members of a film crew such as assistant directors, unit production managers, gaffers, directors of photography, to name a few. Unlike some other art forms, film is a completely collaborative venture.

Simply put, good directors can’t make good films unless they have excellent first assistant directors or meticulous location managers. Film schools need to produce those too. We simply do not want to end up with hundreds of film directors and no sound designer or continuity script supervisor or no one to carry the lights.

Small is beautiful

All these creative challenges have solutions and the good people who are making films in Pakistan are finding ways to deal with them every day and making do with what they have. After all, we have seen the release of seven films last year and many are promised for 2014. But there are other, rather less creative things to worry about, things which are beyond the control of film-makers and producers.

Like all other media products, cinema is also dependant on both private and public money everywhere in the world. While the idea of expecting public money to subsidise cinema in a country like Pakistan is fundamentally fraught with danger, it is the private money which has yet to display faith in local cinema.

The idea of a film as a possible product of message delivery has yet to sink in with either the corporates or the non-governmental sector. We saw partial corporate sponsorships in some of the films released last year, but that was primarily because of cricket being the subject of the film rather than film as a product. Like exhibitors, corporates are also finding the convenient route too convenient to experiment anything new. If a sponsor knows they are going to get loads of mileage by putting money on say, Fast & Furious, which is an established brand in itself, why would they choose a local film? The corporate brand managers make it sound very logical though the reality is far from it. The possible mileage for a corporate brand from a local film can be way higher than any foreign film simply because it has a lot more opportunities available such as product placement, developing advertising content around the film, using the cast for promotions, to mention a few. Surely these opportunities offer way more than merely putting their brands on the posters of Fast & Furious!

Beyond the hyper sentiments mixed with patriotic pride about the rise of Pakistani cinema, all these challenges are real but clearly not impossible to deal with. There is loads of promise and the passion to make local films is inspiring, but to develop a local film industry various elements need to come together and form a synergy. In the face of such challenges, independent film-makers and producers should focus on low-budget productions till we have a mature film economy which can respond and contribute to the growth of local cinema.

The writer is producer of the Pakistani film Zinda Bhaag and runs Matteela Films


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