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SPOTLIGHT: THE INVISIBLE GENRE

November 25, 2018

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Illustration by: Soonhal Khan
Illustration by: Soonhal Khan

“Aab-e-Hayat!” [Elixir of Life] screams a sophisticated-looking mad scientist in the first frames of director Khwaja Sarfaraz’s Zinda Laash (1967), an openly credited adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and widely considered to be the first Pakistani horror film.

The chief question one would ask then is: what does the elixir of life have to do with Dracula?

The answer: it was an easy solution to Dracula’s immortality in order to sidestep religious wrath — an action that is a greater source of fear than any demonic possession for the film industry.

Such is one of the many woes of a film industry, where even successful genres such as romance and comedy are badly presented all year round.

Considering the present state of horror films (which we will get to in linear fashion), back then our filmmakers were comparatively intellectually evolved when it came to making movies.

The horror genre, by default, is inexpensive and can potentially rake in huge box office numbers. Why, then, has Pakistani cinema seen so little of it?

In a flash of brilliance, Zinda Laash (aka The Living Corpse and Dracula in Pakistan) contemporised Count Dracula as a present day scientist who discovers the formula for eternal life by becoming a vampire, chucking out the anti-religious, God-defying theme of Bram Stoker’s villain (in consequence, the story also loses the romantic angle between Dracula and Mina Harker).

A poster of Zinda Laash (1967)
A poster of Zinda Laash (1967)

The film starred Rehan as a picture-perfect stand-in for Christopher Lee, actress Nasreen as his sultry secretary, Deeba in place of victim Mina Harker and Alauddin and Habib as the baffled heroes who ultimately save the world from the undead creature of the night.

Technically though, Zinda Laash should not be considered Pakistan’s first niche genre film. Director Zahoor Raja’s Deewana, a lesser known title with almost the same cast (Habib, Rehan, Deeba and Nasreen) and much of the same solid filmmaking aesthetic, had come out three years before, in 1964.

Like Dracula, Deewana was also inspired by another horror icon: H.G. Wells’s Invisible Man; it was, by weird coincidence, the same year Mr. X in Bombay came out (the film starred Kishore Kumar as the titular invisible character).

In Deewana, a trio of apprentice scientists come under a serious (though mostly inept) police detective’s suspicion when women with beauty marks on their faces are disfigured and then killed by an invisible man with sadistic tendencies.

One of the victims, a tantalising inductee with the scientists, played by Nasreen, is visibly groped and manhandled by invisible forces. One of the trickier shots in the scene has her face and nose squashed by, what I can assume is, a forceful kiss. As if this wasn’t scandalous enough in the early ’60s, the screenplay also entertains voyeurism, showing the invisible man peeking at Nasreen and Deeba as they change into their nightgowns.

Deewana’s adult take on the unhinged psychological nature of a deranged man with peeping Tom tendencies predates Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (starring Kevin Bacon) by three-and-a-half decades. It was a surprise, then, when Zinda Laash became the first film to get an A certificate, when Deewana was just as — if not more — salacious.

Despite being tagged as horror, both Deewana and Zinda Laash rely on science fiction elements as narrative springboards. This trait of science fiction in horror (reminiscent of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein) was picked up three decades later by producer-director Saeed Rizvi in Sar Kata Insaan (1992).

In Rizvi’s story, a mad scientist (Mohammed Qavi Khan, hammy as they come) has a mob boss (Asif Khan) gruesomely hack off a dead cop’s head (played by Ghulam Mohiuddin) and forces it on top of a local dacoit’s body. The body, in a pure Frankenstein’s monster moment, jolts up alive after being bombarded by 30,000 volts of electricity, kills most of the scientists, escapes into the sewers and then strolls on to the Sea View strip where he meets and falls in love with a reporter (Babra Sharif).

Rizvi’s film, surprisingly, was not devoid of rationality. In a Ying-Yang moment of internal conflict, the good cop’s head overpowers the villain’s body during the daytime, and at night the villain’s body takes the head off and sets off on a killing spree (it could even drive the car without seeing).

In another intelligent twist, Rizvi had set up a dramatic pre-condition in the screenplay: the re-animated man’s body could only survive for four days before dying indefinitely (similar to his earlier film Shaani, Pakistan’s first science fiction film, the plot held steadfast on religious teachings).

With scandal, perspicuity and the fear of God going hand-in-hand, it is a wonder why horror didn’t develop into a bona fide genre in Pakistan — even well after Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime.

On research, the only other handful of horror titles that came up — and this writer saw for research — were Pushto films such as Adam Khor (1991), an unintelligible mess starring Badar Munir, featuring a man-eating hairy monster-demon and a lot of Lycra-clad women quaking on what could never be called dance numbers. As if that shock wasn’t enough (believe me, it was), the filmmaker chose to include a savagely acted, rain-drenched lesbian lip-lock that ran for four seconds without cut. Adam Khor, inexplicably, was a blockbuster that also nabbed the Best Pushto Film at the Nigar Awards that year.

Munir’s next horror film, Balaa (1992), was as stomach-turning, this time starring an intangible witch, depravity and necrophilia.

Thank God then, for writer-director Omar Ali Khan’s Zibahkhana (2007) — a much-hyped mix of zombie and slasher genres that came out before the current new wave of Pakistani cinema.

Zibahkhana (aka Hell’s Ground) is a quirky salute to the norms of the genre that snubbed the earlier mindset of science and religion. In the movie, five youngsters board a van on a road trip that is vividly decorated by pop-culture artwork from Pakistani films.

Barely wasting minutes, they are attacked by zombies, spooked by a mad medicine man (Saleem Mairaj), cared for by an off-kilter old woman and then hacked to death by her burka-clad, mace-wielding son whom the old woman refers to as her daughter.

While it may not have opened the doors for commercial cinema (that distinction goes to 2013’s Siyaah directed by Azfar Jafri which historically had cut the ribbon on today’s cinema at 80 minutes), Zibahkhana is a hoot.

Siyaah, meanwhile, was more commercial fare, made by a sensible mindset. Written by producer Imran Kazmi, Osman Khalid Butt (who was one of the actors in Zibahkhana) and Azfar Jafri, Siyaah worked around the more formulaic norms of horror genre. In the story, a childless couple (Hareem Farooq and Jabbar Naeem) adopt an orphan girl who is possessed by a demon.

Reviewing the movie for Icon, I felt Siyaah was a fairly decent film let down by a double climax that tried to be too intelligent for its own good. I figured, as optimists often do, that better films were on the horizon.

Perhaps I should have watched Adam Khor back then.

Between 2013 and today, with Siyaah, Maya, Hotal, Aksbandh and Pari, horror is the third most-produced genre in Pakistan after romantic dramedies and action; every title (with exception to Siyaah) is hair-raising — but solely in an appalling way.

The horror genre is, unsurprisingly, seen as a quick and dirty way to make a mark in the industry. Unlike Siyaah or Zibahkhana, both made with the same intentions, the rest are half-wit exercises in bad characterisations, worse acting and even worse camerawork and lighting. Not one from this set of filmmakers has an idea on how to develop a story, let alone structure it as a film.

Maya (directed by Jawad Bashir) and Aksbandh (director: Emran Hussain), in particular, had the same premise — a group of youngsters vacationing on a getaway house away from civilisation when a demonic entity fancies on playing peek-a-boo with them.

The strange low-IQ appeal of the premise seems to be alluring to young filmmakers because it wiggled its way on to director Rafay Rashdi’s Thora Jee Lay, a drama film about misguided youth, drugs and intervention that had no need for it at all. In this movie too, a group of youngsters, again, travel to a faraway farm house that is haunted by a witch. Common sense was a late bloomer in this case, because the witch disappears from the plot after three or four spooky scenes.

Of note is that all of these films bank on the concept of demonic possession and not science fiction. For some confounding reason, today foreign literary or pop-culture aspirations are tenaciously shied away from. The practice is a hard contrast from yesteryear filmmakers who actually showed propensity and panache to localise concepts that may seem far-fetched or alien to local religious beliefs.

Zinda Laash, in particular, reminds me of The Night of the Living Dead in its dexterity to execute a well-made production on meagre resources — which, in all intents, is what filmmakers are doing today, without much (if any) success.

Interestingly, after binge-watching the above-mentioned titles, one also discovers another crucial fact: not one of the films, either from the past, or the present, are actually horror films. Yes, they do fall into the genre, but their primary interest appears to be lost in translation, in a large part due to amateurish filmmaking choices.

In a stark contrast, Hollywood films such as The Nun, Conjuring and Annabelle have been ramping up their numbers at the box office, denoting an already established market for well-made and well-written genre films.

A few years back, Korean cinema cashed in on the genre after Japan, gaining international notoriety with slickly made horror titles. Korea as a country is a clash of cultures and religion, yet titles such as The Priests (2015), about two priests who exorcise a possessed child, bank on the audience’s familiarity with Hollywood to deliver a low-key, high-concept spectacle.

The Wailing, another example, takes an overtly intellectual stance that requires immediate research to make sense of what one has seen; surprisingly, the post-process makes the film all the more appealing.

The genre, by default, is inexpensive; its one and only prerequisite is to draft a shrewd — if not intelligent — piece of fiction that goes ‘Boo!’ at the right time. For some reason, however, that formula still continues to elude Pakistani cinema. And instead of a diversity of film genres, all we get is military-style action and romantic comedies.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 25th, 2018

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