Film actors Rani and Shahid in the culminating film of director Hasan Tariq’s trilogy, which was a 1972 blockbuster produced in Lahore and adapted from the novel Umrao Jaan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa written in 1899. - Photo: White Star
Film actors Rani and Shahid in the culminating film of director Hasan Tariq’s trilogy, which was a 1972 blockbuster produced in Lahore and adapted from the novel Umrao Jaan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa written in 1899. - Photo: White Star

IN a scene in the 1977 film Aaina, protagonist Iqbal’s (Nadeem) motorcycle breaks down when he and his wife Najma (Shabnam) are heading to a party. They happen to be in front of Karachi’s Bambino cinema when our hero attempts to kick-start his motorcycle. The sign of another cinema, Lyric, can also be seen in the background. When the motorcycle refuses to cooperate, the couple decides to take a taxi instead.

Class conflict is at the heart of this film. The scene playing out in front of cinemas is, thus, a fitting choice (or, more likely, a happy accident). Cinema, after all, was considered the great leveller at the time. Before multiplexes, which alienate certain audiences, single-screen theatres, such as Bambino, attracted people from different walks of life. They may have sat on different levels, but they watched the same film together and shared a rare communal experience.

Aaina went on to become a smashing success, setting a box office record that was not broken until the late 1990s.

Over four decades later, the Saddar strip we see in the film has completely transformed. Lyric is no longer around, and there is no trace of many other single-screen cinemas that were torn down to make way for shopping malls and other commercial buildings.

In the face of insurmountable odds like state regulation, bans and limited funding, Pakistani filmmakers continue the attempt to realise their potential — just like their pioneering predecessors did in the early days after 1947.

The single screens that still stand are struggling. The last straw for some came in September 2012, when multiple cinemas in Karachi and Peshawar were horrifically set on fire by angry mobs. Bambino was one of the cinemas targeted. While Bambino eventually reopened, it was barely hanging on and has practically remained closed since the Covid pandemic. Nishat, another historic cinema that was torched, did not survive the blaze.

The history of cinema in Pakistan is full of ups and downs. Unfortunately, the lows outnumber the highs. Much has been written about the golden age, decline and the so-called revival — or rebirth — of the industry. But these linear retellings often look at the past with rose-tinted glasses. In truth, even during the ‘golden age’, the odds were stacked against filmmaking in the country. And filmmakers then had to fight uphill battles, much like the filmmakers of today.

Act I: Challenging beginnings

“Pakistan’s share of everything is meagre,” Saadat Hasan Manto wrote in an essay on Pakistani films, originally published in Urdu daily Imroze under the editorship of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and translated and republished in Ali Nobil Ahmad and Ali Khan’s Film and Cinephilia in Pakistan (2020). “The industry is practically non-existent, its future unclear,” Manto said.

“Government support was never there to begin with and nor will it be in times to come. Perhaps the reason the government does not give the plight of films much attention is because it faces many other complicated problems, which need to be fixed as a priority.”

Over seven decades later, Manto’s words continue to ring true. The country is still facing ‘unprecedented’ challenges, and cinema, and the arts in general, still rank low on the list of priorities.

This has been the case since the creation of Pakistan. In his book, Pakistani Cinema 1947-1997 (Second edition, 2019), Mushtaq Gazdar — introduced by I.A. Rehman as the “pioneering film historian of Pakistan” — writes that after Partition, the Pakistani film industry was too small to cope with demand. “Unrestricted imports of Indian films kept cinema houses running…” he says.

In 1948, when Pakistan’s first film, Teri Yaad, was finally released, it flopped badly. Only a handful of films came out the following year, and those, too, could not impress at the box office. This spell of unsuccessful films was broken by Pheray (1949). Gazdar notes that the film that was made on a shoestring budget of Rs65,000 went on to become the first film produced in Pakistan to celebrate a silver jubilee; running for 25 weeks.

However, with limited funds and outdated equipment and facilities, there were many challenges faced by the industry developing in Lahore. A big one was the lack of bankable film stars. “Except for Noor Jehan, all the others who came from Bombay and Calcutta were either veterans, good only for character roles, or those whose careers were on the decline,” Gazdar writes.

With time, stars were discovered and made. By 1956, according to Gazdar, “Pakistani cinema emerged from the debris of social, political and economic catastrophe.”

Act II: Highs and lows

Gazdar calls 1957-66, “A decade of reformation”. A lot was happening on the political front at the time, and cinema was not immune to these developments and disturbances. In 1954, Roohi became the first Pakistani film to be banned “on the charges of creating class hate …” This was only the beginning of state interference and curbs on free expression. After the first martial law, censorship became more common, and Ayub Khan started using documentary films as a tool for government propaganda.

But even in the face of censorship, the industry continued developing. Naila (1965) became the first successful colour film in Pakistan. Armaan (1966) “claimed its place as the first platinum jubilee (75-week run) movie of Pakistan,” writes Gazdar. It also launched Waheed Murad and Zeba into superstardom.

As the 1970s arrived, tensions remained high. Regimes changed. And Bangladesh was created. All of this had an impact on cinema. Seeing the industry struggling, the government organised a seminar in 1973 to establish the National Film Development Corporation (Nafdec). But Nafdec and a fund set aside for it, Gazdar observes, failed to give “anything tangible to the film industry”.

In more encouraging developments, the 1970s saw the rise of Sultan Rahi, an ordinary-looking man who became an unparalleled star. Rahi received legendary status when his film Maula Jatt (1979) was released during martial law. Rahi’s everyman hero even fought bans that were placed on the film for being too violent (by a regime that carried out public floggings).

Zia’s imprint on cinema and society has been well documented. This was felt even in the 1990s when watching pirated films at home became the norm, and cinemas started to be seen as family-unfriendly places for sasti masti (cheap thrills).

Act III: Rising from the ashes

The early 2000s saw a boom in television channels. And eventually, with this boom came talk of ‘reviving’ the film industry. Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye (2007) and Bol (2011) were among the first films that managed to bring urban audiences back to the theatres. Undoubtedly, the lifting of a decades-long Bollywood ban and the rise of the multiplex culture also helped.

In 2013, Bilal Lashari’s Waar went on to become a blockbuster. We have seen more patriotic films and drama productions since then, many of which have been supported by the ISPR.

The same year, Meenu Gaur and Farzad Nabi’s Zinda Bhaag became Pakistan’s first entry in 50 years for the Foreign Film category at the Oscars. The filmmakers paid homage to the dying Lollywood industry. Their marketing included hand-painted artwork by Sarfaraz Iqbal, the last surviving artist of the film poster industry. When industries die or relocate, thousands are rendered jobless.

Over time, the industry has moved to Karachi, where all the major television channels are run from. Bigger budget films, produced by television giants and media houses, have become more common. These have included commercial successes, such as Jawani Phir Nahi Ani (2015).

Independent filmmakers have continued to make waves internationally, too. Documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has won multiple Academy Awards and Emmys. And Saim Sadiq recently made history with his film Joyland becoming Pakistan’s first official selection at Cannes.

Still, today’s filmmakers are fighting familiar battles. Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, who co-produced Joyland, had to face a ban on his film Zindagi Tamasha. The film, which premiered at the Busan International Film Festival, is yet to be shown at home.

The debate that producers are currently having about fighting for screens with international films and the counterpoints being presented is the same “tug of war” (as Gazdar calls it) that the filmmakers and distributors were having in 1949.

Censorship, bans and limited support and funding opportunities continue to rob filmmakers of the opportunity to truly realise their potential. The number of films produced remains low, as does the footfall at cinemas, which have been struggling even more since the pandemic.

Manto’s assessment of the state of the industry remains apt decades later. “If they [film companies] proceed sensibly and there is at least a partial reduction in the government’s neglect, there might just be grounds for optimism,” he wrote. “Life could be breathed into a film industry, which, once resuscitated, would be in a position to stand on its own two feet.”

As French critic Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr said, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Simply put, that is the story of Pakistan’s film industry.

The writer is a visual artist and filmmaker.

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