February Issue 2015

By | Arts & Culture | Published 9 years ago

The presenters fumbled with the gold envelope and then made the announcement,  “And the Oscar goes to…Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy…” The rest, as they say, is history. It was February 2012 and Pakistan was bringing home its first Academy Award.

I grew up listening to stories of our glorious cinematic past. About the hustle and bustle at Bari Studios, the dozens of live orchestras producing music for our film industry, about enigmatic heroes like Waheed Murad and melodious divas like Noor Jehan. And of star-studded premieres, award ceremonies and long lines at cinema halls. But they were just stories to me, because by the time I came into my own, our cinema industry was in  shambles. Producers and directors had switched professions, cinema owners had shut down their businesses, musicians had abandoned their instruments and the once bustling studios now stood silent.

Depending on who one spoke to, several factors were said to have to contributed to this gradual decline, among them lack of patronage, additional taxes, state apathy and the Islamisation of Pakistan. We went from having close to 1,200 cinemas and producing over 100 feature films in the 1970s, to producing two dozen films a year, screened in the paltry hundred cinemas that exist today.

DVDs of films from Hollywood and Bollywood were extremely popular across the country and for a good two decades very few people went to the movies. The only time I remember going to a cinema house was when Jurassic Park was released and the school administration took our class as an after-school activity. Ours was a generation devoid of local cinema heroes and heroines. You were more likely to find Shahrukh Khan or Tom Cruise posters tacked on walls in bedrooms rather than any of our own heroes.


In 2012, when I returned home with the golden statue to much fanfare, the tide was beginning to turn. The advent of digital cinema had opened up the world to young filmmakers who no longer had to rely on expensive equipment and reels of films to make their cinematic dreams come true.

The ban on Bollywood films since 1965 had been lifted in 2007 and cinema owners saw a resurgence of audiences. Investors started looking seriously at local cinema and a new crop of producers and directors began working on films.

The tide had turned. Enrolment in film-related programmes in universities rose. In conversations with students, I often encountered a level of optimism and hope that I hadn’t felt when I began my career in 2002. This, despite the fact that there was no state patronage. It seemed that filmmakers didn’t care anymore, they just wanted to make films.

Waar, a post 9/11 modern-day action film that was primarily in English, made box-office history in Pakistan in 2013 by earning over two million dollars, proving that Pakistani films could turn in a profit.

That same year a group of us came together to revive Pakistan’s Oscar Committee. Since the 1950s, Pakistan had not sent in a single film in the Foreign Language category to the Academy Awards. We wanted to change that and provide local filmmakers an opportunity to showcase their work to the rest of the world. A significant number of films were sent in to the committee and the one that stood out was Zinda Bhaag, based on the theme of migration. A film whose script was written in a regional language, Punjabi, Zinda Bhaag had relatively unknown actors, but it was a story that resonated with audiences and while it did not make it to the Oscars’ Long or Short List, the filmmakers were invited to several international film festivals and garnered a number of awards.


Local box office hits are still hard to come by. Hollywood and Bollywood films have sent the cash registers ringing, but in 2014 Na Maloom Afraad, a film that had a relatively small budget, surprised everyone by earning close to 1.5 million dollars at the box office. A comedy with a popular soundtrack and actors that brought ordinary characters to life on screen outshone its competitors. For the first time filmmakers had stumbled upon a winning combination, and audiences convinced the cinema owners to keep the film playing well past the routine two-week mark.

Pakistan’s entry to the Academy Awards in 2014 was Dukhtar. An independent film by filmmaker Afia Nathaniel, it saw limited release in Pakistan, but premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to great fanfare. Investing her own savings in the film, Nathaniel captured beautifully the story of a young girl sold into marriage and a mother’s struggle to free her.

Pakistani actors and actresses have also found a footing in Bollywood. Ali Zafar, an actor and a singer, has appeared in some successful films across the border and more recently Fawad Khan, a television actor, played a central character in India’s first Disney film, Khubsoorat, to rave reviews. Another TV actor, Mahira Khan has been offered a role opposite the Indian idol, Shahrukh Khan. Pakistan needs superstars and now that these actors and actresses have access to bigger markets and audiences, hopefully some superstars will be born in Pakistan as well.

The nascent film industry in Pakistan is slowly beginning to stand on its own two feet, but there are troubling signs on many fronts.

Nishat Cinema, an iconic landmark, was burned and destroyed in 2012 by angry mobs that attacked six cinemas in Karachi and Peshawar. Demonstrating against a film released on the Internet, that was said to be anti-Islam, the mob chose to vent their anger at cinema theatres that had nothing to do with the film. Nishat Cinema never recovered from the incident and recently went up for sale.

Peshawar, once a vibrant hub for regional Pashto language films, barely has any cinemas left. Threats by the Taliban and attacks on cinemas have forced the owners to shut down the majority of them. In 2014, 13 people were killed, when three grenades were thrown at audiences watching a film inside a cinema hall. Most actors, musicians and producers associated with the industry have fled the city.


However, the good news is that 45 digital screens have come up in recent years in over eight cities of Pakistan. But with ticket prices ranging between Rs 250 to Rs 1000, i.e. $2.50 to $10, it is economically difficult for the lower middle class and the low income groups to have access to them. Additionally, the cinema owners take away 50 per cent of all proceeds, leaving the distributors and the filmmakers to fight for the rest.

January 2015 brought with it the announcement that over 10 local films would be released this year. Jami will be releasing his long-awaited movie Moor, which has been filmed in Balochistan and promises to be a visual treat. Sarmad Khoosat, a television director, will be making his film debut with a historical movie about the famous writer Manto. A series of comedies that include Jalaibee, Ishq Kamla and Kambakht will also be hitting cinemas soon. Whether these films are box-office hits or not, the silver lining is that they are grooming the next generation of filmmakers, assistants, cameramen and support staff in a country where cinema was long dead. Our billboards still feature more Hollywood and Bollywood stars than our own, but I see a time coming when all that may change and to be part of that movement, to experience and to live through it, is magical.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2015 issue.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is an award-winning filmmaker who won Pakistan’s first Academy Award for her documentary, Saving Face.