The filmy rise and fall of Lahore's Bari Studios

The studio has become a relic of days gone by.
Published Oct 04, 2019 04:01pm

Off Multan Road in Lahore is a fascinating piece of celluloid history reeling in slow decay.

Built in the early 1950s by producer Malik Bari, Bari Studios was where many a hit Lollywood film was shot. The studio housed multiple halls, studio rooms, film sets, a laboratory and all the necessary equipment for filming and post-production. Today, its walls are crumbling. But as they are, they’re also telling tales of a heyday that’s difficult to reminisce without wistful nostalgia.

Malik Akbar is one such bastion of nostalgia. Identifying himself as an ‘extra supplier’, Akbar loses no time in getting to his sales pitch. He tells us he can arrange any extra or background actor needed for a film — from eight to 80 years, any body type, man or woman.

He himself has been an extra in many films. He enthusiastically recalls playing a small role in the film Malangi (1965) during which he gets bludgeoned on the head. He stumbles a little as he enacts the impact of the strike on him. It is not difficult to imagine him as an entertainer.

Like Bari Studios, Akbar’s best days are behind him. He now narrates how some of the biggest actors he worked with did not hear his plea for financial help when his daughters were getting married. But then, Akbar has nine children: five daughters and four sons.

Once occupied solely by film production offices, dressmakers and other celluloid-related professions, the rooms in this building now also house warehouses for food-manufacturing companies. Access to the top of the tower seen in the centre of the building has been blocked by a concrete wall erected on one flight of stairs and a padlocked door on another. — All photos by Nad-i-Ali
Once occupied solely by film production offices, dressmakers and other celluloid-related professions, the rooms in this building now also house warehouses for food-manufacturing companies. Access to the top of the tower seen in the centre of the building has been blocked by a concrete wall erected on one flight of stairs and a padlocked door on another. — All photos by Nad-i-Ali
Some structures at Bari Studios are older and weaker than others. The one pictured here is one of the earliest and has grass growing out from every nook and cranny.
Some structures at Bari Studios are older and weaker than others. The one pictured here is one of the earliest and has grass growing out from every nook and cranny.
There are multiple entrance points and gates at Bari Studios. This gate, though, has come off its hinges and can no longer be shut.
There are multiple entrance points and gates at Bari Studios. This gate, though, has come off its hinges and can no longer be shut.
An aerial view of the derelict structure often used to depict a village setting in Lollywood films.
An aerial view of the derelict structure often used to depict a village setting in Lollywood films.

Bari Studios was a village before it was a film set. And not everyone was pleased with the takeover, with at least one posthumous protester. After the studio was built and filming started within its premises, strange things started happening. Akbar recalls Sultan Rahi shooting for a film whose title he doesn’t remember. The actor was tied up to a tree but for some reason couldn’t climb down even after the shot was over — as if a supernatural force was keeping him up there. Others say a wedding procession was being filmed when the girl playing the bride suddenly fell off her doli and fractured her leg. There were also instances of fire breaking out on the sets.

Frustrated, the management went to the village folk to ask why so many accidents were taking place at the studio. They were told a saint buried on the premises was probably not pleased with all the commotion around him. And so, sometime in the 90s, a small shrine was built in honour of Hazrat Janab Ghaib Shah Wali Hyderi Qalandari, an alias that describes his conspicuous absence. The gate of the shrine now remains locked — even though its low boundary wall is easy to leap over — to keep out vagrants.

The entrance to a hall meant for green screen shoots remains locked more often than not.
The entrance to a hall meant for green screen shoots remains locked more often than not.
Not all doors lead to rooms at Bari Studios. Some, like the ones pictured here, are just facades to give the illusion of living quarters.
Not all doors lead to rooms at Bari Studios. Some, like the ones pictured here, are just facades to give the illusion of living quarters.
Graffiti, advertisements and posters cover nearly every wall of Bari Studios. Some continue to be visible even with layers of paint over them.
Graffiti, advertisements and posters cover nearly every wall of Bari Studios. Some continue to be visible even with layers of paint over them.
The shrine of Hazrat Janab Ghaib Shah Wali Hyderi Qalandari was built after the management was told a saint buried on the premises of the studio was responsible for the freak accidents taking place on set during filming.
The shrine of Hazrat Janab Ghaib Shah Wali Hyderi Qalandari was built after the management was told a saint buried on the premises of the studio was responsible for the freak accidents taking place on set during filming.
When Bari Studios was a village, this well was a crucial source of water for the villagers. It has now dried up and is full of garbage.
When Bari Studios was a village, this well was a crucial source of water for the villagers. It has now dried up and is full of garbage.

It is not easy to keep people away from Bari Studios. Baba Gulzar Ahmed is an ageing man with very few teeth and silvery white hair, which used to flow down below his shoulders until recently. A septuagenarian now, Gulzar came to Lahore from Gujranwala when he was a young man with dreams of making it big as a film hero. He regrets not being able to land any prominent role.

After a series of insignificant appearances as an extra and background dancer, Gulzar turned to casting extras like Akbar and doing odd jobs that came up during film productions. His two sons, Nauman, 21, and Zaman, who appears to be in his 40s, have both followed in his footsteps: they run an agency that supplies locations and actors for films and dramas.

Malik Akbar is an ‘extra supplier’ who has also performed in small acting roles in the past. He is quick to recount the past glories of Bari Studios and his own contribution to it.
Malik Akbar is an ‘extra supplier’ who has also performed in small acting roles in the past. He is quick to recount the past glories of Bari Studios and his own contribution to it.
Baba Gulzar Ahmed regrets not having made it as an actor, but remains connected to the film industry, supplying extras and locations for films along with his two sons.
Baba Gulzar Ahmed regrets not having made it as an actor, but remains connected to the film industry, supplying extras and locations for films along with his two sons.
Posters of old and new films alike are plastered all over Bari Studios. This one, for a film titled ‘I love you Lahore’, seems to have all the ingredients of a Lollywood production: violence, romance, and an affinity for the walled-city.
Posters of old and new films alike are plastered all over Bari Studios. This one, for a film titled ‘I love you Lahore’, seems to have all the ingredients of a Lollywood production: violence, romance, and an affinity for the walled-city.
Old sofas, probably once used for props, are now used by the people working at Bari Studios for their own seating arrangements.
Old sofas, probably once used for props, are now used by the people working at Bari Studios for their own seating arrangements.
This freshly-painted pink room is one of many small, open-air spaces inside the studio. Soon after the room was painted, a thick covering of algae began to peek through the emulsion.
This freshly-painted pink room is one of many small, open-air spaces inside the studio. Soon after the room was painted, a thick covering of algae began to peek through the emulsion.
Trash and debris can be seen strewn around in corners of Bari Studios. This crumbling staircase is just one of the reminders of the neglect it has been subjected to.
Trash and debris can be seen strewn around in corners of Bari Studios. This crumbling staircase is just one of the reminders of the neglect it has been subjected to.

Ghulam Abbas is another lasting fixture of Bari Studios. He came there 30 years ago and has since designed costumes dresses for countless films. So many, in fact, that he doesn’t even remember their names. He pulls out a bunch of posters instead: Bandish, Jeeva Gujjar, Baghawat, Khan Khela.

There are others like Gulzar and Abbas who wander the premises of Bari Studios telling stories of the past, lamenting the lack of work and livelihood. Raees Ahmed, 59, calls himself a stuntman, fight director and production manager. He stresses how important it is to get his designations right. Waheed Awan is a director and disciple of Pervez Rana. His film Fauja (1996) was shot at Bari Studios, he points out, while his last film Lahori Shehzaday (2006) was shot at Evernew Studios next door. He is currently working on a production titled Hatyaar.

Along with the studio, these men have become relics of days gone by. They are pining for the time when someone told them those three magic words. The three words they didn’t want whispered into their ears, but for someone to scream at the top of their lungs: Lights, Camera, Action!

Text by Ali Haider Habib; photos by Nad-i-Ali


This photo feature is part of a collaboration with Justice Project Pakistan, a non-profit organisation based in Lahore that represents the most vulnerable prisoners, at home and abroad. To commemorate the World Day Against The Death Penalty on October 10, 2019, JPP will be hosting an immersive live art experience at Bari Studios from 5:30pm till 10pm.