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The death of video

December 11, 2016

BACK in the 1980s — an era still vaguely vivid in memory — one used to undergo an adrenaline rush when going out to rent movies. These were simpler times, when people weren’t in a constant state of media overkill and movies still had a measure of fanciful allure to them, despite the varying level of intellectual and aesthetic merit.

In the midst of then-routine citywide shutdowns brought on by impromptu strikes, the video rental business was booming. Every other lane (if not every lane), had a pint-sized, makeshift video shop, brightly lit by 100 watt tungsten bulbs, with flashy, slightly serrated posters of popular Bollywood flicks hastily pasted over one another. (As for Hollywood, there was a plentiful collection of B-grade actioners and gory horror-fests — sometimes with killer monkeys or vampires — and an unending variety of Chinese imports to choose from).

Back then, even dreadful entertainers like Jadugar or Main Azaad Hoon (a rehash of the classic Meet John Doe) were rented out by the hour, because all it took to grab one’s attention was a harshly cut poster-image of Amitabh Bachchan’s bloodied, angry face. Families — especially the women — would send a list of titles for the weekend (this was when weekends were Fridays and Saturdays); in luckier days, they would get most films from the list. Cousins (and aunties) would huddle in front of 21-inch (or smaller) TVs and someone close to the VCR would rewind the print, pause it for breaks, or tighten it with a key-screw when the reels became loose or were gnawed off by the VCR’s head.

The business of movie rentals was big. Two shops I remember in particular — Abba Video in North Nazimabad near Donisal, (whose name undoubtedly owes a lot to the popular disco group of the 70s), and Dolly Video, on main Aisha Manzil — had an extensive library running in the tens of thousands. The prints were numbered in silver or gold glittered markers, for customer tracking. This count was more or less arbitrary, because they were overwritten. (No one had time to update the films’ entry in the registers, or later, in the PC database; renumbering was far easier).

When Dolly Video closed in the mid-2000s, the once treasured collection was dumped off in bulk, stuffed one over the other in big disposable plastic bags. The going cost per video cassette was Rs50. The pricier ones, about Rs100 per pop, belonged to Pulse Global and Communication City, two companies that released officially licensed titles from Hollywood studios. These prints were originally priced at Rs350, with sharp, vibrant quality and the over-the-top incentive of Urdu subtitles.

In Pakistan, pirated prints, pilfered fresh from the cinemas, have always been a fact of life. Actually, I doubt if anyone has truly brought a movie that benefitted its real distributor.

Regardless of peculiarities, the VHS craze reigned supreme for a time, replaced by laser discs, and then subsequently CDs and DVDs; each technologically advanced stop was a step down for the rental business.

Today, the glitz of the video-wallas has been snuffed out. In their place are the less popular, and lesser populated, DVD sellers. Renting movies doesn’t make sense when one can buy a DVD with three movies, rather than rent two for the same price.

Vendors in the once-proud hub of video piracy, Rainbow Centre (Saddar), have accepted their fate with a feeble whimper: where there were once exclusive film shops now hang clothes and computer paraphernalia. Nearly 60pc of the market has changed its focus with the growth of the internet, the popularity of the torrent sites, and most importantly of illegal servers that accumulate thousands of movies, downloadable in minutes, by the click of a button.

The situation is not exclusive to Pakistan. At the top of their game, Blockbuster, one of the giants of the video rental business in America, had 9,000 stores. Today they have 11. That’s probably the number of video rental stores still active in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn December 11th, 2016