The last week’s column concluded thus: “the film industry nudged by narrow state ideology dug its own grave. Now it lies there decomposed under its own debris. Can it be revived”?
The revival is difficult if not impossible. Before making attempts at its resuscitation, one must try to understand why and how it has almost died. One major factor for the slow death of film industry is unquestionably the state’s ideological stance. Butlet’s start from the start. The Partition plan unleashed unprecedented communal riots and triggered a process of genocide in Punjab with ghoulish laughter. All the film studios in Lahore numbering eight were owned by Hindu Punjabis who were forced to cross borders. Some of the studios were vandalised and eventually consumed by the fires ignited by communal hatred. The remaining were treated as booty and distributed among the influential by the state.
Noor Jahan and Shaukat Rizvi got R.L Shori’s studios and renamed it as Shahnoor Studios. Dilsukh Pancholi and his manager Sardari Lal managed to keep their studios functional even after the holocaust. Both left Lahore in 1951 when [singer] Malika Pukhraj came to Lahore from India and got Pancholi’s Pardhan studios transferred to her on the pretext of its being evacuee property. Studios were treated no differently from the houses, commercial properties and farm lands left by fleeing non-Muslim Punjabis. The powerful plundered the evacuated non-Muslim properties and made fortune through means fair and foul. No holds barred policy suited all those who had political and social clout.
The emergent state of Pakistan being based on an exclusive Islamic notion of nationhood had intrinsic bias against creative expressions especially against film and performing arts. It naturally paid no heed to safeguard the cultural assets bequeathed by diverse pre-Partition society. It rather encouraged the tendency that led to erasure of the past, cultural and social that reflected diversity. The monolithic structure of the state bred monolithic vision of society that would result in cultural impoverishment.
Slowly and gradually the film production picked up. The most successful first Pakistani film was “Pheray” in Punjabi language. Sauran Lata and Nazeer played the leading roles. Another memorable film was Kartar Singh. One of its melodies “Veer Mera Ghori Charhiya” composed by Salim Iqbal attained the status of an ever green folk-song. With the passage of time production of Punjabi and Urdu films increased many fold. Bureaucracy dominated by Urdu speakers from Uttar Pradesh discriminated against films of Punjabi languages they were beholden to the illogical concept of one nation one language in a society that had a long history of rich linguistic diversity. They in fact wanted their own mother tongue to be Pakistan’s sole national language. Despite all the odds at one point in time it seemed as if Pakistani film industry had struck its root firmly. But two important interrelated factors impeded such a development. One, no worthwhile investment was done by the studios owners and people concerned with film business to keep pace with technological developments taking place in the field of film production at international level. Two, the state didn’t bother to set up or help set up a film institute or academy to train actors, directors, script writers, cameramen, designers, sound- engineers and other crew.
Nowhere in colleges and universities film studies was offered as a subject. Orthodox segment of population, which had and still has strong influence on social life, treated film as vulgarity. The clergy outrightly rejected it as something that militated against their religious ethos. Private individuals concerned with film making and studios owners didn’t bother to upgrade their studios and equipment. Film making depends as much on creativity as it does on technology. Creativity is not something that is purely intuitive and spontaneous. It has to be nurtured by knowledge and skill. How one can create a character without knowing human psyche or how can one produce a moving image without knowing the camera craft and lighting. All such stuff has to be learnt. So at private level there was neither an urge nor resources to keep abreast of the latest technological developments taking place globally in the film world. And at official level the ill-conceived ideological imperatives paralysed the official mind and it failed to protect and promote the film making. Consequently neither a film institute was established nor was film making declared an industry.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that we don’t have educated and qualified actors, directors, story writers and technical crew. It becomes embarrassing when someone tries a comparison with Indian film wallahs who are formally educated, trained and innovative. Since film making wasn’t an industry despite generating good revenue for the state and no bank loans were available for studios’ upgradation and film making. There came a time when paucity of resources and intellect forced the film making stop dead in its tracks.
Zia’s dictatorship underpinned by religious opportunism and politically motivated self-piety allowed senseless violence and ugly machismo to be outlandishly displayed in films. Ill-gotten money was given the licence to finance the films which were not only violent but also blatantly vulgar. It’s not that illegal money isn’t involved in the film industry elsewhere. But here it were low level caste-ridden gangsters who dictated the story and roles in the films they financed. The net result was that middle classes and families stopped going to cinema houses. They rather enjoyed technically sound and culturally acceptable Indian movies at home.
What we have forgotten is that our films, if made sensibly with a creative touch, could have painted soft image of our society and state beyond our borders. Hollywood and Bollywood have very successfully done this for their countries. They have paved the way for American and Indian cultural hegemony in almost every corner of the globe.
In a nutshell, film production can be revived if following steps, for example, are taken in earnest. 1, the state should stop looking at film making through ideological prism. It needs to revisit its blinkered cultural policy that has killed a very potent medium, to say the least. Film making should be declared an industry ensuring that bank loans are available if and when needed. It should be treated like any other formal sector of economy. 2, the state should set up a high quality film and television institute with the help of qualified foreign professionals. There is no other way since good professionals are few in the country. 3, the state should initiate a process of gradual cultural transformation aimed at removing the stigma associated with film world in this country by introducing film studies as a subject in universities. 4, Film people must unlearn what they have learnt and decondition themselves in order to evolve a new framework which is compatible with the contemporary social, cultural and artistic needs. Will we be able to do all this? “Is man no more than this”? , wonders King Lear. I think we can be more than what we hitherto have been. — email@example.com
Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2021