Teri Meri Kahaniyaan
Teri Meri Kahaniyaan

For the makers of the Mehwish Hayat- and Ali Rehman Khan-starrer Daghabaaz Dil, this may very well be a one-of-a-kind Eid-ul-Fitr — and chances are that Pakistani audiences will see many more Eids like this in the near future.

Daghabaaz Dil, you see, may very well be the only Pakistani film to come out at the end of Ramazan. Until there is a dramatic change in the way films are made, released — and, most importantly welcomed by the audience — consider this the new normal.

Just nine months ago, six titles — Teri Meri Kahaniyaan (TMK), Allahyar and the 100 Flowers of God, VIP, Babylicious, Madaari and Aar Paar — duked it out for screen space during Eid-ul-Azha in 2023; only one film, TMK, made money.

Daghabaaz Dil
Daghabaaz Dil

Two months prior, on Eid-ul-Fitr, the competition was between four titles, Money Back Guarantee (MBG), Daadal, Daurr and Huye Tum Ajnabi; not one film made enough to break even its investment.

A string of flops in the past has led to filmmakers becoming apprehensive about putting their money on the line this year. So we might be witness to a new phenomenon this Eid — instead of the usual jostling for screens, only a single Pakistani film being released in cinemas

Sijjin
Sijjin

A year prior, in 2022, the two Eids had eight releases — London Nahin Jaunga (LNJ), Quaid-i-Azam Zindabad (QAZ) and Lafangey on Eid-ul-Azha, and Tere Baajre Di Rakhi, Parday Mein Rehnay Do (PMRD), Dum Mastam, Chakkar, Ghabrana Nahin Hai (GNH) on Eid-ul-Fitr.

LNJ was a resounding financial success, GNH made good on its investment and then some (I’d call it a minor hit, considering its cost of production), and PMRD, made with a conservative budget, broke even, though not from the ticket sales.

Given the 11-year history of Pakistani films, the mad rush during Eid has been an oft-expected spectacle, and their disastrous failures and confounding successes were hardly surprising.

Filmmakers, fearing that their films would not do well outside of Eid, would press distributors to find a spot within an already hectic holiday line-up. The distributors, seeing the immense financial potential of the four Eid holidays — which at one time ranged between 22-25 crore rupees — would feign reluctance, but give in.

Hum Tum Aur Woo
Hum Tum Aur Woo

This year’s Eid, however, brings a brand new problem to the table: the near lack of content.

Daghabaaz Dil (DBZ), being primed for release in the nick of time, has been a quickie project, Icon has learned. It was made with the express intention of filling in the space cinema had in Eid-ul-Fitr. It is also, by far, the only “Eid-like” film in the schedule — and by proxy, could be the only big winner.

Jee Ve Sohneye Jee
Jee Ve Sohneye Jee

Directed by Wajahat Rauf, DBZ is a family entertainer with a bit of a twist (it’s too early to reveal what the surprising twist is right now; suffice it to say, the film is not just the wedding-rom-com one assumes it to be from the teaser).

In the interim, however, the cost of film production has become absurdly high. Films that could have been made in five crore rupees earlier, now cost seven crore rupees. To compound matters, the lack of overall audience turn-out is forcing cinemas to close once again.

Other than DBZ, one other title, Hum Tum Aur Woo (HTW), may see release. HTW stars Junaid Khan and Amna Illyas, and is written, produced and directed by Nomaan Khan, the producer of Sherdil.

The Legend of Maula Jatt
The Legend of Maula Jatt

Up until the date of this article’s going to press, no distributor has been announced for the film, which makes one wonder if the filmmaker will do an independent release of the film — a decision that did not yield results for Babylicious, Madaari and Aar Paar.

In any case, people don’t have many options this Eid-ul-Fitr. With no clarity on Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire’s release (the film has already been released worldwide), the only definite big release from Hollywood will likely be Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire also already out in cinemas worldwide.

Smaller titles that may snatch screen space here and there include The First Omen, a continuation of the already-dead Omen horror film series, the ultra low-budget horror Algea: God of Pain, and the Indonesian horror films Pemukiman Setan and Pemandi Jenazah.

Carry On Jatta
Carry On Jatta

Indonesian horror, surprisingly, has been doing quite well in Pakistan. Take, for instance, Sijjin. The film released two months ago, is still going strong, along with The Legend of Maula Jatt which, given the weak line-up, may also run on Eid (it is still selling 30-50 tickets every day, Icon has learned).

While Hollywood’s weak showing this year is an indication of their efforts to re-strategise their approach on the production of blockbuster movies — they ruined their own formula spectacularly in the digital streaming wars — Pakistan faces an altogether different problem: an industry-wide state of disappointment and disarray that has led to fewer productions this year.

Godzilla x Kong — The New Empire
Godzilla x Kong — The New Empire

With the leftover lot of movies from the Covid-19 shutdown that dominated previous Eid line-ups nearly exhausted, Pakistani filmmakers are apprehensive about putting money on the line after seeing the recent string of flops in the past year. (The stragglers from the pandemic include the Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan-starrer Neelofer, Shoaib Mansoor’s air force drama Aasmaan Bolay Ga (ABG), the Shehroz Sabzwari-starrer Qulfi and the Gohar Mumtaz-Kubra Khan romance-drama Abhi — the last title will come out sooner than the others, if my sources are on the money).

Having incurred losses, or barely breaking even, producers are now waiting to either recoup their investments, or earn enough from television gigs, before even dreaming about investing in movies.

In the interim, however, the cost of film production has become absurdly high. Films that could have been made in five crore rupees now cost seven crore rupees. To compound matters, the lack of overall audience turn-out is forcing cinemas to close once again.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire
Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire

Of the 150-odd screens in 70-odd locations spread over Pakistan, only 124 screens in 54 locations remain operational, according to the data shared by Cinepax Ltd. Not all screens in these locations are open to the public, Icon has been told. For every screen that closes, the film business loses an annual potential business of 25 crores rupees.

“The business of movies is dead in Pakistan,” announces Amjad Rasheed, who was awarded the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz for his contribution to the business of movies on March 23.

Just a few months ago, Rasheed had been hopeful about cinema. His imports of Indo-Punjabi movies were doing well domestically. Carry on Jatta 3 (COJ), released last Eid alongside his other release, TMK, gobbled up over 25 crore rupees — an amount, the Pakistani film fraternity argue, could have been better distributed amongst local releases.

COJ3’s big business had prompted plans of international co-productions with British and Canadian Indo-Punjabi producers. The neutral countries of production would open doors for exhibition in India, and in proxy, that would open doors for Pakistani talent as well.

One of the big ones taken on by Rasheed was the Imran Abbas-starrer Jee Ve Sohneya Jee, that was stopped by the-powers-that-be after being passed twice by the three censor boards with only minor cuts. Chances are more imported productions would have their faults sniffed out the same way. This jeopardises plans for big releases that would have, presumably, come out during Eids, and profited in countries that have large Ino-Pak diasporas.

The action would have been bad news for Urdu language productions and run an entirely new monopoly of screens. Punjabi language co-productions would have become the next Hollywood — remember the discord between exhibitors and distributors during the days of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange — or how once Bollywood was the number one enemy of Pakistani cinema during Eid.

Clearly, this is a long-standing problem for Pakistani cinema — one the small film fraternity still prefers to butt heads over, and not solve.

Actions stopping co-productions, or chances of blockades on the import of Indo-Punjabi films, have crushed Rasheed’s spirits. Despite his deep-rooted love for the movies, he is now likely to pull back his financial support for the film business.

Rasheed tells Icon that his Indo-Punjabi releases, despite their semi-profitable runs in Punjab, are slowly losing the audience’s favour as well.

Their big business comes from Lahore and is in crores, not in lakhs, like most Pakistani releases this year. Yahya Saleem, the owner of Universal Cinemas in Lahore and Multan, tells Icon that Indo-Punjabi films are keeping cinemas afloat only by the skin of their teeth.

Hollywood titles, he says, work primarily in Karachi; the audience in Lahore — where nearly 50 percent of the country’s cinemas are located — only show up for the big franchises. Since Hollywood is going through its own tumultuous phase, and their present slate has been all but disastrous worldwide, the business, he says, is both sporadic and slow.

What the industry needs is a bailout. Well, that time is now. In fact, one big reason that we’re not seeing the usual slate of high-profile films this Eid is the promised support from the government, in the form of the one billion rupee film production grant.

The grant was — and to date, has been — one of the key reasons why filmmakers are keeping mum about projects, biding their time, or reluctantly moving forward.

A billion is not a big amount when it comes to production — it could hardly fund 10 majorfilms, or partially fund 20 films — but, as they say, any port in a storm.

Before we continue, a disclaimer: this writer is a part of the 14-member core committee that’s managing the film fund for the Directorate of Electronic Media and Publications’ Film department (a division of the Ministry of Information), and is also the focal person of a small select group of filmmakers and industry representatives charged with the duties of drafting the mandates and bylaws that would govern and disburse the fund.

While I cannot disclose the details or intricacies of the fund (at least until it comes to pass or lapses this June), what I can say, with utter confidence, is that, since the announcement of the grant, filmmakers have either halted or slowed down the production of motion pictures.

New productions, such as the Hareem Farooq-Faysal Quraishi-starrer Mango Jutt, the Farhan Saeed-starrer Luv Di Saun, and Humayun Saeed and Nadeem Baig’s Love Guru, are likely to enter or finish production reluctantly irrespective of the fund’s assistance, as would ventures by Nabeel Qureshi, Yasir Nawaz and Wajahat Rauf, as per this writer’s information. One, however, cannot bank on these titles for Eid-ul-Azha. They will, quite likely, be ready for next year’s two Eids.

By the look of things, it seems that Pakistani cinema has rolled back to the time when few unexciting Urdu and regional language films only came out, and flopped hard, on Eid. Back then, however, they would find some audience in the single screens; the audience of the multiplexes are a different breed altogether.

While a healthy choice of, at least, two high-profile titles are a minimum requirement for Eid, given the massive audience turnout in multiplexes, releasing films just on these holidays will not help the film business in the long run.

Today, even at its lowest of lows, Pakistan has 124 screens; in 2013, the country had only 25 screens. What the film business — and the audience — need are high concept ideas in diverse genres.

Call me a wishful thinker, but these could very well be the years that can reinvigorate the audience’s passion for movies; it is a golden opportunity too for Pakistani filmmakers, who whined and railed against Bollywood wares dominating Pakistani screens (Indian films had a 70 percent stake up until 2018).

While most filmmakers failed big time because audiences couldn’t care less for what they made — even those that were ‘good-enough’ weren’t good enough to earn people’s interest — in a time where the technology is readily available, and techniques can be easily learned through YouTube, a good film is just a good script and some smarts away.

Eid or no Eid.

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 31st, 2024

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