Pakistan’s film industry and cinema culture

Updated December 15, 2010



Originally published on 15-12-2010

The death of Pakistani cinema

A curled moustache, a devious smile followed by booming evil laughter and the villain of a Pakistani film has captured the heroine. With her pleas for help, often followed by distressed movements to escape, the hero may enter the scene. A fight scene ensues, along with dhsoom sounds and long periods in between where the camera zooms up from the villain to the hero’s face.

This may take place in a field, an evil feudal lord’s haveli or in the foothills of a mountain. Wherever it is, and be it in Urdu, Punjabi or Pushto, the film is formulaic.

Since the decline of Pakistani cinema in the 1970s, mainstream films in the country have lost originality, a good script and an audience.

In the ‘golden days’ of Pakistani cinema, the film industry churned out more than 200 films annually, today it’s one-fifth of what it used to be. The Federal Bureau of Statistics shows that once the country boasted of having at least 700 cinemas operating in the country, this number has dwindled down to less than 170 by 2005.

Nowadays, be it in within the green walls of a dhabba, the garish pink paint of a beauty salon or a soft cream-coloured living room in suburbia, the film being played is most likely a Bollywood or Hollywood blockbuster.

A Revival

But like in the movies, no one ever dies without a fight. In the last five years, a private television studio and its subsidiary film company, made efforts towards what was dubbed as the 'revival of Pakistani cinema.' Along with this initiative the Pakistani government also lifted its 40-year ban on screening Indian movies in Pakistani cinemas.

With the sudden re-emergence of Bollywood in Pakistani cinemas and the success of Shoaib Mansoor’s film “Khuda Kai Liye,” there has been hope that the film industry may dust itself off and get back on its feet.

Khuda Kai Liye, was successful both in Pakistan and across the border, so far another film has not yet followed the same path. However the success of this film has made it clear – there is an audience just waiting for a good Pakistani movie.

Some may argue that the playing of Hollywood and Bollywood movies are ruining the chances of Pakistani films success on the big screen.

Mehreen Jabbar, director of Ramchand Pakistani, believes it’s hard to compete with the two largest film industries in the world. Sometimes Pakistani movies may not be preferred over others she thinks.

The screening of Bollywood movies is positive says Omar Ali Khan, a Pakistani filmmaker, “at least people are heading back to the cinemas after twenty years or so.”

He adds that the old school Lollywood lobby’s argument on banning Indian films isn’t the smartest of ideas.

“It’s a losing argument if you can’t survive in competition.”

With the re-development in cinema culture for Pakistani’s there has also been a turn in creating newer original Pakistani films.

At the moment Shoaib Mansoor’s new film Bol is being shot in Lahore, Jami’s film is under production along with Bilal Lashari and Sabiha Sumar’s films also being developed in the country this year.

It seems that the industry is finally getting the boost it needs in developing the film industry’s infrastructure again.

Umair Nasir, a recent graduate from the National College of Art’s film program, sees a bright future for the film industry.

Nasir thinks that since movies are being shot and produced in Pakistan again, a pool of technical people is being created.

Another good sign for the film industry? The young filmmakers emerging from schools all over the country.

“We have new film schools, this is the most positive sign,” says Nasir.

Szabist, National College of Arts, BNU, Iqra University and the Karachi University all now offer some sort of degree in film making or production. The Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture too is planning on starting its film program soon.

Jamshed Raza Mahmood, or Jami as he is more famously known, adds that with newer technology and the introduction of HDSLR camera’s being used for filming, the film industry has been revolutionized.

Jabbar would agree, “It’s time to take advantage of the digital revolution,” adding that filmmakers can distribute online and if not for commercial success they can always make films for a festival.

There are no excuses for filmmakers to not pick up a camera and shoot says Jami. “A pencil, paper, five friends – now go make a film.”

What about a camera? According to Jami – an iPhone costs more than an HDSLR camera.

“There is a lot of hot air, but very little comes forward” says Khan of those who keep saying they are ‘working on a film’.

With the digital revolution and social media sites being used by filmmakers all over the world, is it time for Pakistan to join in?

Lights! Camera! In-action?

It’s not that easy to kill a monster, defeat a villain, or win a girls heart – as with every movie there are bumps along the way.

A filmmaker may have an idea, the script, the equipment and the actors. Even with the digital revolution and a new age in filmmaking, a little bit of investment is required. Nothing comes for free, because let’s face it, this ain't the movies.

Filmmakers in Pakistan often finance their own films. There are no glitzy production houses willing to risk investing in films says Jibran Khan, a young filmmaker and recent graduate from Indus Valley School of Art. Jibran has been trying to sell his film for the last year.

“The industry is in the hands of a few millionaires, you have to be in good relations with these people for your film to be picked up,” he says. “I’ve been very disappointed.”

“As an independent filmmaker, you can never survive in Pakistan, you should give up and go commercial,” he says sighing. He thinks that investors want quick returns and don’t look at the big picture. “They just want the same saas-bahu stories again and again.”

Nasir, however does not feel the same way, “There are difficulties but you have to be flexible.”

Working commercially in making advertisements and music videos is a good thing in Nasir’s eyes. To him it gives young filmmakers the time needed to develop a style and gain experience.

This is what Jami had done, and now his latest projects have all been funded by money earned through directing TV commercials and music videos. The same with Jabbar, her film Ramchand Pakistani was financed by 19 different sources.

Afia Nathanial is another filmmaker looking for finance for her feature film. She says in Pakistan “there is a very different way of making films than in other countries, where financial and other incentives are given by the state to filmmakers to make films.”

Jabbar thinks it’s time to look at other sources of finance when the government does not have promoting film on its agenda.

“There are several rich Pakistanis who will spend money on charity balls and fashion shows, but not give to cinema,” she says.

It is under the leadership of wealthy Pakistanis who want to see a revival take place that we will see a change, says Jabbar.

For young filmmakers like Jibran, the only solution Jami sees when a film isn’t being picked up is Youtube. If it’s good people will watch it, he says.

Financing for a film is still tricky, especially in Pakistan where there is zero state funding and grants hard to come by.

“Money is tough to come by” says Jabbar sighing.

Time to develop Pakistani niche cinema

Recently there has also been an emergence of independent films being created by young filmmakers that fall into niche categories.

From Omar Ali Khan’s ‘Zibahkhana’ which won international awards, to the much awaited release of Hammad Khan’s ‘Slackistan’, to Shahbaz Shigri’s short ‘Sole Search’ and Afia Nathanial’s ‘Neither the Veil nor the Four Walls’.

Out of these indie films the ones that have got the most coverage originated in Islamabad – a city with no art schools, production houses or even celebrities. With Lollywood in Lahore and the media centre of the country being Karachi, is it possible Islamabad may become the new film capital of Pakistan?

These films fall into solid categories and are made with little money. As Jami puts it, “A lower budget means a higher profit margin.” He thinks a good story will sell no matter what. There is no need for Bollywood glamour or kung-fu moves as long as you have a good script.

Shahbaz Shigri, a filmmaker based in Islamabad, where his short film Sole Search is also set, feels that it is Islamabad’s theatre scene that has led to this trend of films emerging from the capital city.

“Theatre productions in Islamabad were never linked to schools and universities,” says Shigri, “people took their own initiative.”

It is this initiative that has perhaps led young actors and aspiring directors in Islamabad to take the step towards filmmaking.

Hammad Khan feels that the commercialisation and corporatisation of the TV industry in Karachi and Lahore may lead Islamabad to emerge as a center for independent film making.

“Karachi is so tied into the corporate environment, it’s a rat race,” he says.

Jami isn’t too sure about Islamabad yet “there is a lot of work happening in Karachi,” he says. “2010 is the year of the Dragon,” he says about filmmaking in Pakistan.