A week into Chikkar’s release, the film’s ticket is selling for 640 rupees instead of the usual 800 rupees. The discount, I learn from the staff at Karachi’s Atrium Cinema, is the distributor’s prerogative. The distributor, in this case, is Nadeem Mandviwalla, who runs Atrium and Centaurus cinemas as an exhibitor.

At its 8:15pm show, less than 20 people sit idly mumuring. Their attire suggests they belong to the upper-middle class tier of society. The mature gent sitting on my opposite row seems like the niche audience that cares for dry, socially driven stories.

As Chikkar continues, the gent’s head tilts to rest on his shoulder. His eyes, half-closed behind big prescription glasses, struggle to keep up with the intermission-less, near-three-hour length of the film. One can see that he wants the film to get to the point.

There is no applause when the end credits roll. The only sound is that of small moans as bodies stretched to bring the joints back to life. When people walk out of the movie, one can guess that their reaction isn’t bad, but it isn’t excellent either.

New arthouse fare is making its way to screens in a time of desolation for the country’s mainstream cinema industry. But too many filmmakers are refusing to learn the delicate balance between telling good stories and the demands of commercial film. And audiences are staying away…

In the opposite cinema hall, The Legend of Maula Jatt’s show still brings in people by the dozens. An average show, on a less-than-appealing time slot, brings in 30-40 people for the one-and-a-half-year-old film. Better shows have about 40 percent ticket sales (this writer took the wifey to see TLoMJ a month ago at a midday show on a non-holiday weekday, and the film nearly had 40 percent occupancy).

With TLoMJ barely keeping the film business afloat, one realises that Mandviwalla’s cinema has seen better days.

Hollywood movies that used to fill the large waiting area connecting to the three screens, barely have people waiting for shows. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and Wonka are duds. The listing at the ticket window shows that the Urdu dub of Nun II has been running without fanfare for weeks now (the response, I hear, is still lacklustre).

Pakistani films hardly stay for two weeks before being pulled out for non-attendance. The cinema owner, out of obligation for a dead industry, gives the producer some time to recover money from stragglers who walk into the show.

A film used to need 20 percent ticket sales per show to break even; with the current inflation in electricity prices, every show needs 30-35 percent ticket sales to even muster up the courage to run their projectors. Cinemas instead choose the easy way out, by not playing the film at all. The math doesn’t add up.

In the hall, a gent, probably more wise to the way movies are made and shown in cinemas, asks me my opinion about the lack of footfall, and why films such as Dhaai Chaal didn’t make money. It seems like he already had the answers and is looking for audience feedback. Judging from his expression, he doesn’t like the blunt answer that I give him.

Pakistani filmmakers don’t know what they’re doing. The few who have experience are biding their time, refining scripts or making money from their day jobs, directing dramas. As a consequence, the 18 releases of 2023 were mostly financial disasters. As the saying goes: it was a sh*t show, both financially and creatively.

Pakistani filmmakers don’t know what they’re doing. The few who have experience are biding their time, refining scripts or making money from their day jobs, directing dramas. As a consequence, the 18 releases of 2023 were mostly financial disasters. As the saying goes: it was a sh*t show, both financially and creatively.

One film, Teri Meri Kahaniyaan, broke even by the slightest of margins. The year 2022’s TLoMJ has been the only steady earner for over 15 months and, with few big budget titles coming in 2024 that would stir the audience out of their stupor, the coming year looks as gloomy as the last — the Mahira Khan-Fawad Khan-starrer Neelofer, Shoaib Mansoor’s Aasmaan Bolay Ga, the Azfer Jaffri-directed Usman Mukhtar-starrer Umro Ayyar and the Gohar Rasheed-starring Shoaib Akhter biopic Rawalpindi Express are the only topliners.

In times like these, when clunkers such as Dhaai Chaal, 13 and Aar Paar have pushed audiences away from the movies, cinemas’ survival could be in films such as Chikkar, Gunjal, Wakhri and Nayab — the small, indie-minded productions that choose socially relevant storytelling and acting skills over commercial viability. But they have to be engaging enough to keep their audiences awake and interested (a tall order, it seems).

Business-wise, it is a bad model and, ironically, smaller films that highlight social issues have been misses with the critics as well.

However, for all intents and purposes, this is the ‘Iran-like’ indie-cinema the critics of big, flashy films wanted. Films that tell fictionalised stories grounded in facts. Stories about minorities, human rights and human plight, that seek little from domestic box-office, because they know that money is to be made through international release…after acclaim is gathered from film festivals, that is. At the very least, it secures a somewhat high-paying international gig for the director.

The game is different from the one most Pakistani filmmakers prefer to play but, with hindsight, the journey is much more rewarding… from one point of view, that is.

Take, for example, In Flames, the psychological horror film that leaves important questions of the story up in the air in favour of highlighting issues that help turn heads of international sales agents and festival juries. The story honed in on the physical and emotional abuse of women, and how it leads to the manifestation of a woman’s inner horror.

In Flames, released internationally by US-based horror-specialist distributor XYZ Films, didn’t make much money in Pakistan, and the few reviews it got gave it a lukewarm but positive verdict. The local release, however, made In Flames eligible for Oscars submission from Pakistan (Madaari and John were better candidates in my opinion).

Chikkar, Gunjal and Nayab don’t fit into the In Flames strategy (Wakhri, I can’t attest for, yet).

Chikkar and Gunjal are social dramas about the exploitation of human rights that raise awareness of religious crimes in Pakistan. Both are slow-moving mystery-drama thrillers without much mystery, drama or thrills (or high points or action), and their overlap of genre and tone, and the stupefyingly close release dates are a deterrent — but the display of restraint in telling a non-exploitative story and the applause-worthy ensemble performances by their cast make these films a value addition for Pakistani cinema.

Wakhri, which should be playing in cinemas by the time you read this, stands on the borders between Chikkar, Gunjal and In Flames.

According to the film’s logline, Wakhri is “about a school teacher who becomes a viral sensation overnight when she accidentally unleashes her unabashed opinions on social media. This newfound fame comes with its own challenges, as she has to navigate archaic mindsets and secret identities.”

Wakhri stars Faryal Mehmood as the teacher who dons a brightly coloured afro wig and revealing clothes in her alter-ego as a social media influencer. The film is directed by Iram Parveen Bilal, whose 2013 NGO-minded film Josh: Against the Grain was released by The Platform (a distribution collaboration between Nadeem Mandviwalla and ARY Films that shuttered its doors after just one release).

Bilal’s most recent film, I’ll Meet You There, starring Farhan Tahir and the late Qavi Khan, was denied a censor certificate from the Central Board of Film Certifications in Pakistan because the film did “not reflect true Pakistani culture, [and] portrayed a negative image of Muslims.” Internationally, the film was selected for the SXSW narrative feature competition before the coronavirus pandemic forced the festival’s cancellation.

Nayab’s story, like Wakhri, is also about empowerment — although the aesthetics and the approach are totally different. The Yumna Zaidi starrer is about a lower-middle class girl who has aspirations of a career in cricket — a plot point that was used fleetingly in Chikkar (Ushna Shah plays Usman Mukhtar’s professional cricketer wife).

Nayab, however, looks to be the most commercial of the lot — and this, I believe, should be the sweet spot filmmakers should aim for. Telling stories that matter, but in a more commercial setting.

In this writer’s opinion, 2024 could be a game-changer for Pakistani cinema, if smaller but better made films were released in monthly intervals alongside bigger, flashier blockbusters. Neither can work without the other.

Titles such as Gunjal, Chikkar, Wakhri and Nayab — the first two were favourably reviewed irrespective of their lacks — have the unique advantage to explore genres and stories bigger films don’t have the luxury to indulge in.

These films give Pakistani cinema credibility in international film circles, and their eventual successes may open doors for international collaboration, and lead to inroads to big streaming services that have yet to officially buy Pakistani wares.

This, of course, is wishful thinking — but one that is realistically achievable, if filmmakers can curb their own enthusiasm, listen to advice and stop making bad decisions in their films (both Gunjal and Chikkar have narrative shortfalls that could have been easily rectified in the edit).

As I wrote earlier, this could be the ‘Irani’ cinema we’re striving for. One that doesn’t work financially — at least for the time being — but whose consistency in quality storytelling will compliment big, dumb blockbusters, and eventually carve out a bigger niche of the audience that cares about seeing good stories on the big-screen.

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 7th, 2024

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