Just reborn, our film industry already needs a rescue

Published August 17, 2015
Naseeruddin Shah in character during the shoot of 'Zinda Bhaag'.
Naseeruddin Shah in character during the shoot of 'Zinda Bhaag'.

If you have drudged through the recent string of inarticulate mazes that are modern movie plots featuring meaningless song and dance, then perhaps your faith in the revival of this industry runs the risk of wavering.

At least mine was, which is why I was glad to have the opportunity to sit down with independent filmmakers Qasim Roy (director) and Hira Tariq (producer), and talk about the state of Pakistan’s film industry. Below, I'm sharing some of the insights gleaned from that discussion.

The industry is split in two – the storytellers and the moneymakers

There are those who have visions for the medium and its power to affect people; they want to tell stories and they want to entertain the audiences – let’s call them ‘Group A’. On the other end of that spectrum, we have people whose interests are strictly financial – let’s call them ‘Group B’.

Both groups might be working with the same plot, but they will end up making vastly different movies.

In Group A, people will be fretting over every little detail behind a great story, finding good actors who can best portray these roles and choosing the best way to produce the whole thing. Nothing in this process is arbitrary, everything is done meticulously.

In Group B, the focus is strictly on profits. Story, acting and all that takes a back seat to massive marketing campaigns focused on whatever is trending. There are cases of principal photography beginning before the script is even finalised, because in these situations, the movie just needs to satisfy certain criteria, like an “item song”, needless explosions, etc. These are closer to ads than they are to movies.

See, when our cinema was being revived, thanks to Khuda Ke Liye and Bol, we could have gone a thousand different ways, just as long as we were distancing ourselves from the past.

However, it is not uncommon for Group B to want to mimic India’s methods of success. This mindset is more evident in our creative industry than anywhere else. They keep anchoring these mediocre products with an emotional rein that we must watch these movies to support the industry, e.g. “Pakistan’s first animated movie”, “Pakistan’s first road trip movie”, etc.

Why copy Indian filmmakers when you can afford not to?

The problem in this situation is that Indian movies have baggage – they are stuck in their ways (as we might have been, had the industry not shut down at one point), and their audiences are conditioned to appreciate entertainment only in a certain way. This point seems to be lost on some people; they think just because an Indian film did well, our copy of it will also do well. This is on par with thinking that faking a British accent will get you a passport.

Also read: Family film? Wrong No is more like a stereotypical guy flick

“We started off with no baggage and the world was open to us,” said Qasim. “But seeing the release of Bin Roye, Wrong Number, and Karachi Se Lahore Tak, that world seems to be getting narrower.”

He added, “But, there is still hope, from films like Moor, Shah, and an upcoming science fiction romance that is in production these days.”

'Moor' trailer.

These films are not strictly low budget, but they are not making an effort to conform to someone’s arbitrary rules of success in cinema. These are movies made for the sake of being movies.

It is not like this is Pakistan’s first venture into creative filmmaking either, our audiences are used to seeing good films since even before Pakistan was created. We have had the likes of Salakhain, and a film by Ashfaq Ahmed called Dhoop aur Saaye – an artistic film inspired by Federico Fellini and other Italian new wave directors.

To top it off, the Rafi Peer-starrer Neecha Nagar was featured at Cannes film festival spotlight back in 1946. That was pre-Partition, so technically it was Indian, but we inherited it. Anyway, the point is, we have a rich history of extraordinary filmmaking.

Short-term profiteering versus long-term quality concerns

Now, if you are thinking, “Art movies don’t make money”, that would be a sound argument. There are two ways of looking at it. Either you seek immediate profits, or you lay the groundwork for the future. Immediate profits work, but groundwork for the future is a more economically viable decision.

If we hold the current era of filmmaking as a golden standard, then keep in mind that nowadays, Michael Bay and Fast 7 make billions, but neither are considered the pinnacle of Hollywood’s talent. That title resides in the ’70s, with The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars, Rocky, Superman, Exorcist, Taxi Driver and so on.

Pakistan, these days, is potentially now where Hollywood was in the ’70s; this is the time we get out our Apocalypse Now, and The French Connection. We are due our dawn of new age filmmakers, like the ’70s created Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, William Friedkin, Brian de Palma, etc.

'Karachi se Lahore' cast and crew filming a song. — Photo Courtesy: KSL's Facebook page
'Karachi se Lahore' cast and crew filming a song. — Photo Courtesy: KSL's Facebook page

Of course, motivation is only half the issue. There are costs to consider. If you have a great idea, but cannot afford to make your movie yourself, then you must rely on an outside beneficiary. Sometimes, the said beneficiary will have their own vision for the movie, turning a well-thought out indie, into a “masala flick”. Realistically, people who spend the big bucks don’t do it for the sake of art; they are looking to make profits.

Hira proposed an intriguing remedy for this problem: create a platform (like the ones available to thousands of startups in Pakistan) that eliminates this dependency on individuals.

Indie films are recognised by their limited budget and an almost artistic nature of storytelling. They talk about issues, or at the very least, they present some semblance of reality that the audience can relate to, and none of this stops them from being extremely entertaining to watch.

Even Zinda Bhaag managed to get some songs in without compromising the storyline. Incidentally, Zinda Bhaag is doing quite well in the international market even today (it was even in running for an Oscar nomination and it did not follow any formulas).

Also read: Local humour in 'Karachi se Lahore' will make it worth watching

Investors know that the newly revived Pakistani film industry is still in its infancy stage. Our greatest financial success made 19 crore (Waar), the average is closer to 3-5 crores. One would be cautious in investing large sums if there is a risk of that sum tanking.

The go-to response is for filmmakers to take their work to international markets, in hopes to recover some of these costs, ala Zinda Bhaag.

This kind of shortsighted profit-centric thinking interferes with long-term success. Businessmen will look at the Indian market and nurse dreams of blockbuster revenues, fueling the need to meet their audience’s expectations through item songs and big explosions.

More indie films should be a great idea right now

Fortunately, despite not always generating gazillions in revenue, indie films can ensure a greater rate of return than blockbusters. Here’s how:

If, for example, a movie costs 30 million to make and manages to generate 70 million (even that is quite rare), it has recovered its cost 2.3 times over. However, if something costs a paltry 3 million to make and generates around 10 million (not that rare), it has actually generated a larger profit margin (by 3.3). This is why a movie with a wafer-thin budget like Shah, has every reason to succeed (doesn’t require a lot to make its money back).

The trailer of 'Shah'.

This would not make for a runaway box office success story, which should not be our goal right now. We can maximise profits through better filmmaking rather than treating our Industry as a stepping stone to greater personal fortune.

Small budget indie film makers can reach out to numerous tiny investors and make a decent film that can generate a couple of crores and still be economically viable. Item songs, I am happy to tell you, have little to no impact on the success of a movie (maybe YouTube and social media activity, but not the movie itself).

I personally believe they can throw in as many 'kabooms' and semi-naked people in there as they want, but the Pakistani audience won’t substitute it for a decent movie-watching experience.

Both our audiences and investors have to make a very important decision right now. If we let weak plots tethered with flashy jingles thrive simply because they have a bigger marketing budget, we risk letting our creative pool dry up. Some filmmakers will find a place elsewhere in the world, others will give up altogether and we will be right back where we started, hoping for another revival of Pakistani cinema.

That would be bad, because we just got here.


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