On January 1, Haris Hussain and Shehzad Baig finally made up their minds to watch The Legend of Maula Jatt (TLoMJ) at Capri Cinema on main M.A. Jinnah Road in Karachi. Their pal, Fahad Hussain, had already seen it, and didn’t mind tagging along; in fact, he vouched for the film and its cinema experience.

Returning viewers, who coaxed grousing, impassive friends and family to give the film a shot, have been instrumental in bringing TLoMJ’s domestic business haul to an unprecedented 100 crore rupees (the history-making figure was released on December 31).

Fahad, Haris and Shehzad’s contribution to TLoMJ’s kitty may have steered the film towards a prosperous 2023 where, presumably, it will continue its impressive run, but it has also brought bad news to the movie business.

The day the trio saw the movie was, quite likely, one of the last days of operation for Capri Cinema … at least for the foreseeable few weeks.

The soaring box office of The Legend of Maula Jatt might mislead people about the state of Pakistan’s cinema business. Given the ground realities — declining audience footfalls, a lack of upcoming high-profile films and perhaps even a halt of the import of international films — 2023 looks to be a trying year for film…

Capri has been pulling its shutters down for months, closing shop time and again during weekdays because the audience just isn’t interested in watching movies like they once were, Farrukh Rauf, the co-owner of the Capri Cinema tells Icon.

When Fahad, Haris and Shehzad saw the Fawad Khan, Hamza Ali Abbasi and Mahira Khan starrer, some 20 people sat in the gallery, and the ground floor hall had maybe 30 or 40 in attendance, Haris says.

The cinema has over 800 seats, but these negligible ticket sales still bettered most releases, because Capri has been reinserting TLoMJ in its line-up repeatedly, often at the sandwiched 6pm slot, even after the release of titles such as Tich Button, Zarrar and Avatar: The Way of Water, whose Urdu dubbed version had been running through most of December.

With exception to three blockbuster titles — TLoMJ, Punjab Nahin Jaungi and Top Gun: Maverick, and to some extent, Jurassic World: Dominion and Ghabrana Nahin Hai — the business of movies just wasn’t good in 2022.

Photos: Dawn Library
Photos: Dawn Library

Despite initial enthusiasm of being liberated from Covid-19 restrictions in late 2021, with the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, audience footfalls have been on a steady but steep nosedive.

Throughout the year, the slate of international titles dwindled in numbers as streaming services associated with Hollywood studios preferred increasing subscribers by offering quick or exclusive releases to their respective platforms, instead of enticing the cinema-going audience. On the other hand, Pakistani titles fell flat on their face because of bad blood, infantile bickering, contrite release schedules and, of course, an utter lack of quality.

Also, of course, inflation doesn’t help either — for the audience and cinema owners.

“The electricity cost alone is unbearable,” Rauf tells Icon. A cinema cannot run without turning on the air-conditioners, and paying the current rising tariff doesn’t leave enough to cover monthly expenditures, he says.

Even if the films find some way to make it to the screens in February, chances are that, if the audience response is unkind, Capri would probably remain a cinema that only powers up its projectors during weekends.

“Since we opened, I haven’t taken even a single penny home,” Rauf exclaims. Any profit — if, that is, the movies made any — were used to pay off outstanding IOUs, Rauf says.

Although his dues weren’t that much to begin with, debts are debts, Rauf emphasises.

Rauf says that he has no plans to reopen Capri until a good, commercially viable title comes out. The hiatus may be for a few days, weeks or maybe months, who knows.

At the very least, Capri could open its doors to the public around February, when Antman and Wasp: Quantum Mania and probably Pakistani films Babylicious, Dhai Chaal and Super Punjabi hit the screens.

The thing is: with barely a month left for release, the Syra Yusuf and Shahroz Sabzwari romantic-drama Babylicious still hasn’t announced a distributor. Unsubstantiated news on the grapevine is that the film also has some post-production work left.

The Shamoon Abbasi, Ayesha Omer and Humayun Ashraf starrer Dhai Chaal, based on the Kulbhushan Jadav incident, and Super Punjabi, starring Mohsin Abbas Haider and Saima Baloch, directed by Abu Aleeha, also do not list any distributors yet on their credits, nor do their PR campaigns exhibit any rush of urgency.

Even if the films find some way to make it to the screens in February, chances are that, if the audience response is unkind, Capri would probably remain a cinema that only powers up its projectors during weekends.

With exception to Aleeha, who is busy directing films like there’s no tomorrow — apart from Super Punjabi, he has the Sonya Hussyn-starring boxing actioner Daadal and the Gohar Rasheed, Juggan Kazim-starring comedy Shotcut, ready for release — most, if not every title set to come out in 2023, only seems to clear the remaining pre-Covid-19 backlog.

Of the high-profile titles, we have two Fawad Khan-starrers, Neelofer and Money Back Guarantee (MBG) — the former, a romance-drama reteaming the actor with his TLoMJ female lead Mahira Khan; the latter, an ensemble heist thriller directed by Faisal Qureshi (the Ufone guy; not Faysal Quraishi, the actor), again uniting the actor with another TLoMJ actor, Gohar Rasheed.

MBG is set for Eid-ul-Fitr, where it may potentially clash with the Shoaib Mansoor cross-border romance-drama-actioner Aasmaan Bolay Ga (ABG), starring Maya Ali and Emmad Irfani — though one hopes that is not the case, since both titles are distributed by Distribution Club (Eveready Pictures released Chakkar and Parde Mein Rehnay Do on the same day, to disastrous results last year).

Abhi, one of the few films lined up for release by Hum Films since last year, will also likely be an Eid release. The film stars singer-turned-actor Gohar Mumtaz and Kubra Khan.

One may also see low-budgeted (read: ‘indie’) fares such as John (Aashir Wajahat and Romaisa Khan) pop up during the year.

It goes without saying that leftover titles, such as Delhi Gate (another Shamoon Abbasi-starrer), will also eye either of the two Eids. The holidays, with their long weekends and the audience’s carefree, celebratory mood, give even mediocre films an opportunity to perform.

One of the films that may not target the Eid date is the animated feature Allahyar and the 100 Flowers of God. The Allahyar and the Legend of Markhor sequel has ditched former distributor ARY Films for Mandviwalla Entertainment, and will likely hit cinemas in time for the summer holidays.

Other than the 38-second teaser trailer, there is little information about the film. But Nadeem Mandviwalla, the owner of ME Cinemas in Karachi and Islamabad, once told this writer that it will be a visual experience.

Another high profile title that’s keeping mum is the Azfar Jaffri-directed, Usman Mukhtar, Farhan Tahir and Sanam Saeed-starrer Umro Ayyar — A New Beginning. Presumably, it is an epic action spectacle about ancient lore, djinns and magical lands (as written in the description of the 49-second title reveal video on YouTube).

One assumes three new productions — yes, only three — to make their way on to the sets in the coming months.

One of them is the Humayun Saeed-starrer Naram Garam, an ARY Films’ release penned by and co-starring Vasay Chaudhry and directed by Nadeem Baig. The second is the next Jamil Baig-Hassan Zia production collaboration after GNH, written by Zanjabeel Asim and directed by Farooq Rind, and — as per industry murmurs — the third is a Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza film.

The only hitch is that the screenplays of the first two of the three titles are still being tinkered with. Even if somehow these films make it to the sets, their releases will not happen until the tail-end of the year.

This poses a problem for exhibitors such as Cinepax, whose CEO, Tariq Mehmood, sees the lack of a yearly slate of movies a deterrent for cinema’s well-being. Mehmood tells Icon that, with no clear indication of a release schedule, neither the audience nor the exhibitors have any idea of what’s coming next. Everything is pretty much up in the air, he says, during a long conversation.

Cinepax which, by the way, is still Pakistan’s biggest cinema chain, and their distribution shingle Footprint, represents UIP in the country. UIP — United International Pictures — is an international distribution joint venture between Universal and Paramount, and their slate for the year includes Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Part One and Fast X. Both films are two-part culminating chapters for the long-running franchises.

Also, expect both titles will be big this year because the audience still craves the cinema experience. Top Gun: Maverick, for example, was one of the highest grossing films of the past year, raking in nearly 20 crore rupees (19.92 crores to be exact) in Pakistan. Jurassic World:Dominion, also a Cinepax/Footprint release, was no slouch either with its 16.8 crore rupees gross business.

Other big foreign titles will likely be from Marvel and a handful of others — and, as we’ve seen this past year, the audience response varies. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever did so-so at the box-office, while the non-Marvel title Avatar: The Way of Water is hanging on to its screens because there are no other releases at the moment.

Still, expect big movies to rake in the big bucks… that is, if distributors are still able to import international movies this year.

According to industry sources, in the last six months, domestic distributors have not been able to send box-office receipts to their international partners. Without timely payments, international studios may simply stop sending movies to Pakistan.

This particular problem began when the State Bank of Pakistan introduced capital control on foreign transactions back in July, restricting the flow of imports to the country.

If the issue is not cleared up — and soon — Pakistani cinemas may lose out on Hollywood fare entirely.

Given the ground realities of the business — a lack of high-profile films, no release schedule, fewer tentpole Hollywood titles, perhaps even a halt of international films, inflation — how will cinema survive in Pakistan? Would cinema chains resort to Rauf’s plan of shutting down their doors for the weekdays, or entertain the notion of sporadic hiatuses?

Although, I am not a proponent of government bailouts, I fear the film business cannot survive on its own without one at this point.

There is a mix of distress and happiness in Mandviwalla’s tone when we speak on the phone.

“This is a lifelong dream come true,” he says about TLoMJ’s box-office, which he says will likely run right up till summer, maybe even Eid-ul-Fitr.

Mandviwalla, though, knows that one film cannot save the entire film business, no matter how many benchmarks it makes.

When we talk about the state of the film business, Mandviwalla tells Icon that it does not look good.

“You’re going for a shutdown, but that we knew in 2021. We were expecting the backlog to run out eventually, and now that it is [nearly] finished, how can the year work with just a handful of titles?” he asks.

Mandviwalla professes that he doesn’t know what titles will work at the box-office.

According to the veteran distributor and exhibitor, “Maula Jatt has created a new perception of the market. The problem is that [given the spectacle, production and storytelling quality], Pakistani filmmakers cannot follow Maula Jatt — and even if they are able to do that [to whatever measure achievable], it will take another two years [until we see a film like this].”

If at all, I add. The film did prove that well-made action films can do good business in Pakistan. The keyword being “well-made.”

“It’s about what you are playing in the cinemas,” Mandviwalla says, irrespective of whether the film comes from Hollywood or Pakistan.

With what we have in hand, and the serious problem the movie business faces, it looks like 2023 will be a trying year for cinema in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 8th, 2023

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