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The story of Pakistan’s talkies

November 06, 2016


Photos from the book
Photos from the book

Every nation gets the cinema it deserves, quip the editors of this volume, and if Cinema and Society has an intertitle, it is that filmmakers, like countries, have to work with they’ve got. Ali Khan and Ali Nobil Ahmad are far too astute to reduce Pakistani cinema to the dreary question of what it means to call a film Pakistani. This book, instead, is a labour of love, not least because it preserves what is probably the largest collection of photographs and film posters from Pakistani cinema across the decades.

The extracts from Mushtaq Gazdar’s Pakistani Cinema: 1947–1997 are film history at a brisk trot: from Lahore’s first silent film, The Daughter of Today (1924), to the rise of the talkie and the fate of the studios that capsized just after Partition. Among Lahore’s filmmakers, Dalsukh Pancholi — who introduced Noor Jehan as a child star in Gul Bakawali — fled to Bombay in 1947, leaving his studio to sputter on for another two years. The last film it produced was somewhat ironically titled Ghalat Fehmi.

The wary relationship between cinema and the state is clear in the film history we rarely read about: that W.Z. Ahmed’s film Roohi (1954) was banned by the censor board for being dangerously laced with socialism; that Hasan Tariq’s film Neend (1959) was the unexpected story of a woman coal worker; and that the man indirectly responsible for the repressive Motion Pictures Ordinance of 1979 was a censor board official who spliced together the raunchiest negatives from different films to prove to Gen Ziaul Haq just how much trouble the country’s morals were in.

Alamgir Kabir’s account is important not only as film criticism in its own right, but also because he treats the former East and West Pakistani cinema as an integrated body of work, showing how Urdu cinema became the face of Pakistani cinema, while Dhaka’s filmmakers struggled to remain afloat. A fierce realist, Kabir’s disdain for commercial gimcrackery makes him no less an exacting critic of the few art house films being produced then: he concedes the “sincerity” of A.J. Kardar’s Jago Hua Savera (1959), but feels it does not capture “an authentic Bengaliness.”

A compilation of rare images and journalistic, scholarly and personal writings on our cinema history

Given the traditional mistrust between politics and cinema, Iftikhar Dadi’s reading of Armaan (1966) is interesting because it locates the Urdu social film within Gen Ayub Khan’s ambitions of modernity. Cinema was now seen as something the urban middle class would happily consume with guaranteed results — a sort of frobscottle of developmental politics. It was, therefore, worth the trouble of encouraging, and a number of commercially successful and critically acclaimed films were produced during this time. True to the genre, Armaan combines melodrama and realism to tackle moral and social dilemmas. Dadi describes the film as “very self-assured” in its exploration of modernity — a modernity Americanised for the 1960s with “a visual excess of Coke” forming the backdrop to the song ‘Ko Ko Korina’.

Kamran Asdar Ali’s reading of Behan Bhai (1968) makes a similar point. He interprets the plot as an allegory for the happily-ever-after promised by “modern urban life”. A family separated at Partition, whose children are dispersed across different ethnic households and classes, is reunited in the end. Gypsy pickpocket meets Pashtun pimp meets English-speaking lawyer meets rural Sindhi brother-and-sister duo against the backdrop of an exuberant, cosmopolitan Karachi. Rural meets urban, yes, but on the latter’s turf.

There was, of course, far more to Pakistani cinema than the comfortable universe of the mainstream Urdu ‘social’. Ali Khan and Ali Nobil Ahmad’s essay on horror and violence in Pakistani cinema shows that a handful of Urdu filmmakers went against the grain in producing the sort of films cynics were sure would flop. What possible appeal could a Dracula makeover have for Pakistani audiences? As it turned out, rather a lot. Zinda Laash (1967), the authors note, was produced to high aesthetic standards with considerable effort going into the choreography, stunts and costumes. Indeed, the producer’s friends “complained they could not sleep after watching it” and one viewer reportedly died of a heart attack. Notwithstanding the essay’s splendid anecdotes, the authors have a sharp eye for what makes art house horror: if the dastardly Professor Tabani wants eternal life at any cost, his female victims are remarkably self-possessed about the whole affair. The camera is bold enough to show that they are aware of their sway over other men and — in one unexpected shot — other women.

Photos from the book
Photos from the book

Meanwhile, the Urdu ‘social’, as the editors point out, became a medium for the middle class’s eternal fascination with brothels, out-of-wedlock pregnancy and anything else not in the manual. Under Gen Zia, however, the very act of cinema-going became a transgression. Ironically, if the Urdu ‘social’ lost its footing badly amid the cultural repression of the 1980s, Punjabi and Pashto films found ways to put the ‘sin’ back in ‘cinema’. As Ahmad says in his lively introduction, it fell to low-budget regional cinema to enact the “actual pleasures and discontents” of society. With this, the language of entertainment, too, changed. Tariq Rahman’s detailed essay on language and ideology in cinema shows that the Punjabi and Pashto of this new crop of films came with their own “internal codes of solidarity and intimacy” — the language of ordinary people to which the state, unwittingly, had no ingress.

It is easy to associate vernacular cinema with highly improbable action sequences, gratuitous displays of (female) flesh and a great deal of (male) bellowing … and to leave it at that. By the 1980s, a largely male, lower-middle-class audience had replaced the more affluent filmgoer. If cinema had become more interested in glorifying violence and masculine honour, it is worth reading this against the editors’ argument that it put a dent in the state’s monopoly on narratives of violence. The Punjabi hero, in the shape of a glowering Sultan Rahi, became a sort of subaltern male catharsis. Films such as Maula Jatt (1979) and Kaley Chor (1991) drew very clear class-battle lines between good and evil, where the hero in his lacha would burst into the local magistrate or landlord’s house and eviscerate him noisily on the spot. From the cinemagoer’s point of view, this was justice delivered because they certainly weren’t getting it any other way.

“The film industry’s decline hastened with the advent of satellite and cable television in the 1990s. More and more cinemas were converted into shopping plazas. A few films managed to do good business but the trend has been a steep downward spiral since the 1970s. An increasingly difficult security environment has further stunted attempts at revival. Since the 1970s, when Pakistan was home to around a thousand cinema halls, the number has plummeted to around a third of this figure according to press reports. The much-heralded revival of domestic Urdu cinema following Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Kay Liye (In the Name of God, 2007) is tenuous at best. The re-entry of Indian films has not energised local production. New digital technology has not yet triggered a significant increase in low-budget filmmaking; cinema halls, in any case, lack the equipment required to show digital films. At an international level, Urdu films have thus made disappointingly little impact in recent years.” — Excerpt from the book

Hashim bin Rashid and Sher Ali investigate the truth of Wehshi Gujjar (1979), inspired by the real-life gangster Jagga Gujjar. Like Maula Jatt, the script drew on Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi’s short story Gandasa — an irony that should not be lost on anyone. By the 1990s, the archetype of the reluctant goonda was already the stuff of legends. It was an archetype that both its creators and its audience intuitively felt was born “because it is society that needs him to be that way.” If these are heavy thoughts indeed, Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s deadpan humour in ‘The Foot Worshipper’s Guide to Watching Maula Jatt’ does a Monty Python on the plot — all the best characters land on their feet.

Pashto cinema, as Milan Hulsing notes, is “notorious” for its dubious aesthetics, but Pashto horror films are an entirely different kettle of piranhas. A handful of Pashto horror films turned the traditional misogyny of the genre on its head. In Adam Khor (1991), the redoubtable Shehnaz Begum battles a cannibal with a weakness for small children. In Da Khwar Lasme Spogmay (1995), her character transmogrifies into a cat-beast to wreak vengeance on her mother’s rapists.

Of course, such doughty heroines may be relatively acceptable to male audiences because they exist solely on a plane that has no interest in projecting reality. Their agency in a more kitchen-sink setting tends to nosedive into questions of ‘honour’ and ‘modesty’. As Sadaf Ahmad says in her essay on the symbolism of the thappar (slap) in commercial cinema, the act is constructed so as to put one “socially (read: sexually) deviant” woman — and therefore all women — in her place.

Ali Khan’s absorbing visual history of the film poster is as much about the subject of the billboard as its creator. If the expressionism of the “master painters” amplifies raw emotion for films such as Lakhon Mein Ek (1967), the slightly baffling poster for Joker (1966) has a woman perched coyly on a man’s nose. Caught dreamily in mid-fall in a corner of the poster is a pair of trapeze artists. The humour is in the details. Regrettably, the digital revolution has left most film painters out of work. The only posters they paint are for political rallies, says the author, and reminiscing over cups of tea at Evernew Studios is all they have left to show for a near-dead craft.

We may be more comfortable in the relatively highbrow world of film evoked by Sadaat Hassan Manto’s story ‘Neena: The Inscrutable Housewife’ and Ziauddin Sardar’s superb essay on the films of Guru Dutt and Dilip Kumar, but this is to assume that non-Urdu cinema is merely a glitch on the road to cinematic gentrification (with a beady eye on Bollywood). If there is no easy way to read Pakistan, there is certainly no easy way to read Pakistani cinema.

This is where to start.

The reviewer is a freelance editor.

Cinema and Society: Film and Social Change in Pakistan
Edited by Ali Khan and Ali Nobil Ahmad
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199402229

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 6th, 2016