NON-FICTION: THE PHOENIX OF PAKISTANI CINEMA

11 Oct 2020

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Guddu Khan has spent much of his life building a treasure trove of Pakistani film memorabilia | Photos from the book
Guddu Khan has spent much of his life building a treasure trove of Pakistani film memorabilia | Photos from the book

When Jawaharlal Nehru was imprisoned by the British authorities during the 1930s, he set about writing a series of eloquent yet simple letters to his young daughter, Indira, in which he enlightened her about the history of mankind in a panoramic sweep.

Viewing the past, the present and the future he foresaw for his country, Nehru’s letters eventually formed the nucleus of his famous book, Glimpses of World History, that offered its readers an understanding of the rise and fall of great civilisations and how their cultures and art forms remained behind as skeleton monuments to the glorious apex human beings could achieve, and the creativity that is inherent in all civilisations.

It can be said that art and culture are windows into the soul of a great nation and its creativity. Whether the form was a painting, sculpture, monument, literature or cinema, what better way for future generations to grasp how once there existed an age of men and women where creativity was valued and encouraged? And even in places where art and culture were clamped down on by an oppressive regime, the natural vibrancy of that society could endure that repression and give the world examples of its genius.

The English philosopher, Francis Bacon, while marvelling at the civilisation of Classical Greece, said, “For have not the verses of Homer continued 2,500 years or more, without the loss of a syllable or letter; during which time infinite palaces, temples, castles, cities have been decayed and demolished?” Bacon was emphasising that though the ages of Pericles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus were long gone, their philosophy and writings remained to inspire endless generations through the centuries.

While reading Love, War and Other Longings: Essays on Cinema in Pakistan, superbly edited by Vazira Zamindar and Asad Ali, one gets the feeling that this collection of writings has an element of Nehru’s glimpses into a forgotten past, and Bacon’s admiration for a society’s culture and creativity that lives beyond its lifetime.

An anthology of essays on Pakistani cinema raises the question: what happens to a society when its cinema dies?

During its golden age of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Pakistan’s film industry was churning out hundreds of films a year. By the beginning of this century, its numbers were virtually dead and cinema halls were shutting down all over the country, left as ghostly relics of an art form that had all but died. To quote the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, when he wrote about the overthrow of the tsar and the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917, “You will not find another such sharp turn in history...”

To understand this ‘sharp turn’ in the history of cinema in Pakistan, the book’s editors have given a discourse by several contributors on the socio-economic, class, cultural and religious undercurrents that have affected Pakistani filmmaking. Like a great river, these undercurrents have carried forward the boat of Pakistani cinema through the decades, and eventually helped overturn it.

The distinguished contributors include Zamindar, Ali, (who organised the Harvard-Brown Pakistani film festivals in 2014 and 2015), Fahad Naveed, Ayesha Jalal, Kamran Asdar Ali, Iftikhar Dadi, Bani Abidi, Rachel Dwyer, Meenu Gaur and Adnan Madani. Each contributor gives a pearl of wisdom on culture and cinema, which eventually forms the beautiful necklace that is this book. Each pearl deals with a theme, such as feminism, sexuality, cultural taboos and religious piety, and forms a common insight into why Pakistani cinema has had such a roller coaster timeline over the past few decades.

The cliché is that cinema is the mirror of society. But the essays also put forward a disturbing question: what happens to a society when its cinema dies?

In a traditional Muslim society such as Pakistan, the visual arts have usually been frowned upon by reactionary voices, and those who are part of the filmmaking community regarded by conservative elements as though they belonged to a profession only one step above a brothel.

One of the book’s most poignant quotes comes from the essay ‘The Ghost in the Projector’ by Gaur and Madani, in which Nasir Adeeb, writer of the 1979 cult classic Maula Jatt says, “A nation that views its musicians as marasi, film personnel as kanjar and film heroines as gashti ... how can the industry of that country prosper.” Perhaps that is the root of the problem, that Pakistani filmmakers have not been given their due respect by a society that views their industry as ‘sinful’.

A violent example of this contempt for cinema, and a disturbing example of cultural vandalism, is the Sept 21, 2012 attacks on the Capri, Nishat and Prince cinemas in Karachi by a mob, in response to a YouTube video deemed offensive to Muslim sensitivities. A haunting photo feature — Abdi’s ‘Burnt Film Reels, Nishat Cinema’ — shows the charred remains of film reels from the film theatre that was destroyed during that day of mass lunacy. The photo feature perfectly illustrates two things that have plagued Pakistani society: an absence of the rule of law, and a free hand given by a negligent state to theocratic thugs to censor and destroy anything they deem offensive. Both factors have contributed to a shrinking space for Pakistani filmmakers to work in.

However, despite these difficulties, cinema in Pakistan has proven to be remarkably resilient, as the book explains. Pakistani film’s power centres have shifted over the decades from Karachi to Lahore and back to Karachi again. The industry has survived the 1971 loss of the market of East Pakistan, and the mutation from thoughtful dramas and romantic features of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s to the violent and crude Punjabi and Pashto films of the 1980s. The repressive dictatorship of Gen Ziaul Haq, and the advent of the video cassette recorder, may have crippled cinema-going audiences, but they did not set the final nail in the coffin for film fans in the country.

One of the best essays in the book revolves around an interview with dedicated film aficionado Guddu Khan, a great example of a diehard fan and the difference one person can make in keeping cinema alive. Khan has spent much of his life building his extraordinary collection of Pakistani film memorabilia, including posters, video and audio tapes, vinyls, newspaper cuttings and vintage postcards. He has taken upon himself the responsibility of the Pakistani state by making his own film archive and has kept a treasure trove of our cinematic heritage for others to appreciate. Whereas India has its National Film Archive of India, and Mexico has the National Film Archive and Film Institute of Mexico, Pakistan has the Guddu Film Archive! Whether that’s sad or inspiring, readers will have to decide.

Perusing this collection of film essays stirs within the reader a sense of sadness and optimism — sadness at the steep decline and optimism about a resilient filmmaking industry. The essays act in almost a Hegelian manner by fusing these two opposite feelings together, coming as they do from a diverse range of viewpoints, and allow readers to broaden their minds and understand the paradoxes of our cinema from feminist, Marxist, political and socio-economic perspectives.

Whether about having to deal with the enormous pressure of Indian cinema, or a patriarchal society, or the forces of religious orthodoxy and militaristic nationalism, or understanding the role that class and language differences have played in stunting our film-going culture, Love, War and Other Longings is a fascinating must-read for anyone who loves films.

The days of Waheed Murad, Sultan Rahi, Shamim Ara and Nayyar Sultana may be long gone, but the ‘new cinema’ of Pakistan has recently been trying to carve out its own identity, while coming to terms with the convoluted filmmaking legacy of its predecessors. Only time will tell what direction cinema in Pakistan will take in the coming decades. But perhaps the best answer to that question can be found in the imagery of the book’s front and back covers, which shows a blazing, phoenix-like inferno. Pakistani cinema, like the country itself, is a phoenix that represents strength and renewal. It may have died out at one point, but it will eventually rejuvenate and be reborn.

The reviewer is a writer and journalist. His interests include history, politics, music, literature and cinema. He tweets @razmat and can be contacted at rsayeed1984@gmail.com

Love, War and Other Longings: Essays on Cinema in Pakistan
Edited by Vazira Zamindar and Asad Ali
OUP, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0190701857
274pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 11th, 2020