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Illustration by Leea Contractor
Illustration by Leea Contractor

Bumping into actor and filmmaker Humayun Saeed at an event a few days ago, I broached, in passing, the subject of what it was that ails Pakistan’s film industry. “It’s simple,” Saeed said. “We don’t have writers.”

Saeed was referring to film writers, not drama writers, and if you ask anyone in the industry today, the distinction between these mediums is as evident as night and day. This is also not the first time Saeed has said this; I remember him telling me once that he would make three films a year if he had three good ‘film scripts’.

Travelling to and from premieres via ride-sharing apps, I often ask the drivers if they follow Pakistani cinema. The conversation starts from the pick-up point and doesn’t really end by the drop-off. Nine out of ten don’t really watch local films. The few who have given better known Pakistani movies a shot, did not know of other films that come out each year. To them, titles such as Thora Jee Lay and Maan Jao Naa sound alien. “Are these Bollywood films?” some ask.

People tell me that they did not like the first Jawani Phir Nahin Aani, felt Janaan had a good message, thought Na Maloom Afraad was really fun and laughed at Wrong No.’s crude attempt at humour. While opinions vary, one point of contention remained universal: our stories don’t have the finesse of Bollywood.

Why do most Pakistani films falter at the cinema box office? Why do most Pakistanis think our films lack finesse? But even more importantly, why can’t Pakistani filmmakers seem to crack even the formula code?

Naturally, laymen can’t comprehend technicalities, and some, sympathetic of our drawbacks, start blaming bad camera work for badly-written scenes — an unthinkingly made argument that makes sense to a certain extent; choppily-written scenes are often shoddily shot, confusing people who can’t differentiate between the two.

Humayun Saeed in Punjab Nahin Jaungi
Humayun Saeed in Punjab Nahin Jaungi

“Why can’t we just write good films? Our dramas are still engaging,” these drivers argue.

Since 2013, I’ve accepted that Pakistani films have their own idiosyncratic tone and narrative structure. The stories we tell come in two flavours: simplistic or narratively uneven. Most (if not all) are made on a premise and not plots, stretching an inkling of an idea until it begins tearing at the seams by the intermission break. By the end of the film — be it any film — the audience leave cinemas without a sense of gratification or emotional closure.

The few films that do achieve this rarity have phenomenal box office numbers — such as Parwaaz Hai Junoon (PHJ), Teefa in Trouble, or any of Saeed’s recent productions. Their success is largely dependent on the whims and acumen of their producers. Saeed’s films, for example, were all written by different writers; Teefa was reliant on Ali Zafar’s personal preference to make the film as Bollywood-ish as possible; PHJ — or Bin Roye for that matter — had the unmistakable narrative stamp of producer Momina Durraid.

The feeling one takes home after the film ends has a lot to do with its success; it generates positive word of mouth — an aspect more important than all the publicity money the distributor spends. This brings us back to the dilemma: why isn’t everyone following suit. Surely, it couldn’t be that difficult of a job, could it?

The feeling one takes home after the film ends has a lot to do with its success; it generates positive word of mouth — an aspect more important than all the publicity money the distributor spends.

Nadeem Mandviwalla of Mandviwalla Entertainment, a veteran film producer, distributor and exhibitor, believes otherwise. In his four decade-long experience in the field, Mandviwalla says that he can tell if the story playing on the screen may or may not resonate with the audience. However, he cannot tell you how to make it — or write it — in a way that it connects to the masses. Mandviwalla says that screenwriting is a difficult, thoroughly technical, job; one that juggles creative aspects of the story while keeping view of what can be achieved on set.

Yasir Nawaz with his production crew
Yasir Nawaz with his production crew

For clarity let’s delve into the basic principles of the screenwriting practice. A screenplay (literally a combination of words screen and play) is what the audience see on screens. A writer can write world-ending catastrophes on paper, but that doesn’t mean that it is filmable.

Screenplays are made up of individual scenes that tell segments of the story. A collection of scenes completing one aspect of the story is called a sequence. How those sequences are written dictate the emotional tone of the film (scenes can be drama, comedy, or a mix of the two, thereby defining its audience and genre). Each of these aspects lie on top of an underlying foundation — a structure — often broken down into three specific segments called ‘Acts’ that deal with a beginning (which introduces the characters to the audience), a middle (which tells the actual point of the story) and an end (a climax of events). Refashioned from theatre, each act has its own set of storytelling rules in this “3-Act Structure”.

If one were to strip every Hollywood film to its barebones — be it critically acclaimed titles such as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Jurassic World, duds such as Skyscraper, or even recent Indian films Simba, Gully Boy or Kala Shah Kala — the underlying ‘3-Act Structure’ would be the same.

In Pakistan, eight times out of 10, directors are also the films’ screenwriters. Since directors aren’t natural-born writers, what they do is write a draft or two, and try to cover the lacks of the screenplay on set,” says Nasir Khan

In Pakistan, however, scenes are often written without contemplating character development, sequences, act breaks and structures. Without these fundamentals, stories appear disjointed, resulting in ineffective scenes that are a pain to watch and painful to stick together in edit (the recently released Gumm is a prime example).

Mahira Khan in 7 Din Mohabbat In
Mahira Khan in 7 Din Mohabbat In

It’s not that our filmmakers don’t understand this method; most producers and directors I’ve spoken to nodded affirmatively, accepted the lack in storytelling, and then continue to make the same mistakes. In a phone conversation, Nasir Khan, the director of Bachaana, tells me of one overlooked fact: “In Pakistan, eight times out of 10, directors are also the films’ screenwriters. Since directors aren’t natural-born writers, what they do is write a draft or two, and try to cover the lacks of the screenplay on set.

“Take you, for example,” Khan says. “What takes you an hour to write, takes me a day.” Khan, who is writing his next directorial venture (another rom-com), also brings up another lesser pondered technicality of screenwriting: the intermission break.

“In the 3-Act Structure, the high-point usually happens at the end of the second act [called the anti-climax, in screenwriting lingo], which is about three-quarters into the films’ running time. This means in Pakistan and India, one has to write two high-points. One for the intermission, another for the anti-climax, making difficult matters worse.

Sheheryar Munawwar, Meenu and Farjad in 7 Din Mohabbat In
Sheheryar Munawwar, Meenu and Farjad in 7 Din Mohabbat In

“It’s not that filmmakers don’t know what to do. They do,” Khan clarifies. “They might not be able to identify it, or explain it. But they know what should happen in the story on an instinctive level.”

These instincts undoubtedly lead to editorial inconsistencies, pressuring filmmakers to make narrative compromises, or take up silence for fear of embarrassment. These self-inflicted pressures are a pain for Amjad Rasheed, one of the most prominent film distributors in the country.

We don’t have academies or institutions teaching us, so everybody is learning by physically experimenting. You once had an infrastructure. Then we had a gap of 15-20 years. Today, we don’t even have a studio,” says Nadeem Mandviwalla

Rasheed, who has been a part of the film industry since 1953, is responsible for back-to-back Bollywood releases through his outfit Distribution Club (DC). However, with exception to a handful of films, even he is not invited to preview films he is releasing and financing until the last possible moment.

Adnan Sarwar with Sohai Ali Abro in Motorcycle Girl
Adnan Sarwar with Sohai Ali Abro in Motorcycle Girl

Rasheed has been vocal about his grievance — and with good reason. The list of projects he did not preview, yet financed or bought the rights to, include Load Wedding, Wajood, Project Ghazi (when it was released half-complete, a few months back) and the web series Enaaya — a project that has been ridiculed for its amateurish screenplay.

“Producers have started treating distributors as if they are financiers,” Rasheed tells me. “New filmmakers try to please themselves. They do not want to please the audience,” Rasheed continues. “Most of the films that lie completed right now are not worth releasing,” he says.

To date, DC has invested 39 crore rupees in the Pakistani film industry, and suffered losses of nearly 18 crore rupees.

The biggest impediment, Rasheed says, is the lack of screenwriters. With few options, DC has little choice but to approach veterans from television. Preposterously, one well-known television writer wanted one crore rupees for penning a film’s screenplay. Jami, a champion of purist cinema, is against this money-grubbing mindset.

“Cinema is about glory and prestige,” he says. “Movies should be made for the sake of good storytelling, and not for money alone. If we make movies to only make money, we lose good cinema.” Good cinema, Jami believes, is at an all-time low.

Jawed Sheikh and Ahsan Rahim on the set of Teefa in Trouble
Jawed Sheikh and Ahsan Rahim on the set of Teefa in Trouble

Films don’t have to appear complicated, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have context, Jami explains. “First Blood, if you look at it, is a simple movie. A former solider clashes with a corrupt local sheriff and decimates the latter’s town.

“Fine,” he adds after a moment. “But underneath this premise, there is a structure and a meaning. The story talked about the Vietnam war. At its core, it was an anti-war film. The corporates that run our industry don’t understand the subtlety or subtext. Everything we see in Pakistan is Bollywood-ised.

“You have to remove your blinders. Filmmakers are full of themselves, proclaiming that their films made this much money. Even porn makes money.”

There is one exception for Jami. “Punjab Nahin Jaungi (PNJ) was fantastic,” he says — a rare compliment from a hard-to-please individual. PNJ, of course, is a rarity — it was a critical and commercial success; an achievement one in 10 films make each year.

“That is the percentage all over the world,” says Mandviwalla. “India makes 250 Hindi films in a year, out of which 225 do not work.”

Is that percentage healthy for a nascent industry that is dependent on good movies, but only gets them once or twice a year, I ask?

“It’s not about being healthy for the industry. Filmmaking is a very difficult job,” reiterates Mandviwalla. “There are very few people in the world who know their craft. The rest keep trying. Experimenting.

“Making a connection with the audience is not easy. It’s not about ‘just’ telling a story. It’s about telling a story which you, as an audience, are interested in hearing. In the end, I have to tell a story that has to get you involved.”

Mandviwalla is of the opinion that there is no straight formula for a film structure. “There are many times when a film defies every norm, and still they are a great success.

“I don’t think there is any science to this,” he says, defending Pakistani filmmakers. “We’ve simply not been making films.”

Explaining why our films don’t have storytelling finesse, Mandviwalla continues. “We don’t have academies or institutions teaching us, so everybody is learning by physically experimenting. You once had an infrastructure. Then we had a gap of 15-20 years. Today, we don’t even have a studio,” he says.

“Either you learn from institutions, academia or you learn from studios. Once upon a time, when there were studios, a collective pool of talent came there, whether it was the actor, or the cameraman, or the assistant cameraman. Today, you don’t see a place like this. Everyone is making films in their own homes. We need to achieve an infrastructure.

“An academic institute teaches you the basics. When you get into the studio, it teaches you the reality. These are the people who have been working and getting a result. Their experience is as important as the basics,” he says.

That is true. However, does it apply to an industry that wants to make by-the-book commercial films, but only succeed 10 percent of the time — or for that matter often find excuses to not work out kinks in the story before nosediving into production?

I don’t think so.

In the age of the internet, one simply has to google screenwriting, structure, character development and a wealth of knowledge pops up (and I’m not even talking about academic-level visual essays, such as Every Frame a Painting by Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou).

Most of the filmmaking process is outlined in quick-to-grasp YouTube videos. Simply formulating one’s story on top of tried and tested fundamentals will help filmmakers streamline their narratives and reach a bigger audience.

It may not be perfect, but something is better than nothing.

It should be remembered that Pakistani cinema is still catering to a niche audience: one who specifically have to make up their minds to watch a domestically produced film.

Keep in mind, these are the very people who routinely watch Hollywood and Bollywood movies, and who subconsciously know what to expect from motion pictures — irrespective of how clichéd they are (Simba, for example, is as formulaic as they come).

The average cinema-goer doesn’t talk about, or even comprehend, particular technicalities of cinematography, edit or sound design. They may feel consistencies, but they may not be able to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. Their principal concern would be of how the story unfolded, and whether or not if they enjoyed the experience.

It’s the same instinct Khan and Mandviwalla talk about.

The key difference — and the point of this piece on the relevance of story and structure — is that it is not the audience’s job to buy into the filmmaker’s instincts. The audience is at the cinema for the experience. It’s the filmmaker’s job to figure out and deliver, despite drawbacks in the system. And the most obvious first step is to, simply, write a good, appealable, filmable screenplay.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 10th, 2019