February issue 2016

By | Movies | Published 4 years ago

Until recent years, cinema had been all but written off as a viable medium in Pakistan. Following a decline that had set in more than a decade ago, the industry had taken a steep plunge. Locally-produced feature films had dwindled, the number of cinema houses was at an all-time low and the country’s only film festival of note — the KARA Film Festival— had been suspended for economic reasons.

Suddenly, over the past year-and-a half, Pakistan is abuzz with claims of a ‘revival’ of cinema and all-time box office records seem to be falling by the wayside. Pakistani films are being released abroad regularly for the first time. The content ranges from biographies of the literati and boxers to corruption in the railways to gangster noir, children’s animated stories and masala comedies. The number of cinema screens has almost doubled. You can’t attend a social-do these days without running into someone who is making a film, or at least announcing that they are planning to make one.

This is probably the best time to make films in Pakistan. So how has the complexion of the local film industry changed? Lahore’s moribund industry had attributed the decline to the government’s 2007 decision to allow Indian films to be screened again in Pakistani theatres, after a gap of almost 45 years. Forty-five years, they argued, was too short a time frame to ensure the protection of local cinema. Contrary to this short-sighted view, the one thing that helped turn things around was, in fact, the removal of the ban on screening Indian films in Pakistani cinemas.

The return of audiences to cinemas to view legally on the big screen what they were watching anyway on pirated DVDs at home, sent the cash registers ringing and set the economic ball rolling. This, in turn, encouraged investors to establish new cinema houses. The setting up of state-of-the-art multiplexes provided an incentive to local producers to make heavy investments on quality production, as recovery no longer seemed a distant dream. But as advocates of re-opening Pakistan to Indian films had predicted, the process took a few years to make its effects felt, and those years were indeed painful for the existing local industry.

However, going through this difficult period was necessary for the Pakistani cinema industry to re-orient itself. Caught in a trap of poorly-funded and executed rural melodramas, Pakistani films desperately needed to move beyond catering exclusively to the patrons of the gandaasa-laacha themes, if it wanted to be any part of the international market into which the Indian (and other regional) film industries had made impressive forays. More importantly, as has been evidenced by the surge of new moviegoers domestically, there was a large middle-class, urban market in Pakistan that had been completely ignored by the earlier film producers.

The introduction of cheaper but high-end digital equipment and the entry of younger, more urbane filmmakers with different stories to tell, particularly from cities like Karachi, has certainly opened the audiences’ eyes to the potential of Pakistani cinema.

Of the films that created a buzz domestically, at least four (Nadeem Baig’s Jawani Phir Nahin Aani, Yasir Nawaz’s Wrong No., Shehzad Kashmiri and Momina Duraid’s Bin Roye and Wajahat Rauf’s Karachi Se Lahore Tak) managed to gross over 100 million rupees, a figure till recently considered the touchstone of success. Combined with new overseas revenues, at least three of them crossed the 200 million mark. ARYFilms’ Jawani Phir Nahin Aani actually made 400 million rupees in the domestic market alone, smashing by a wide margin the previous domestic gross record held by 2013’s Waar, which had notched up 235 million rupees.

There were some spectacular flops as well, most notably Asad-ul-Haq’s Dekh Magar Pyaar Se, Iqbal Kashmiri’sDevdas, Sabiha Sumar’s Good Morning, Karachi and Kamran Akbar’s Hulla Gulla. However, on the other hand, there were those that performed surprisingly well, such as Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Teen Bahadur, Pakistan’s first-ever animated feature film.

Sarmad Khoosat’s Manto, Adnan Sarwar’s Shah and Jami’s Moor, meanwhile, walked away with critical acclaim.Manto — which was adapted into a film as an afterthought from a yet-to-be-aired TV series — and Shah — whose very low budget was entirely funded by a corporate sponsor — also showed a profit on their books. Moorperformed below par domestically but it premiered internationally at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, Asia’s largest film festival. Following Farjad Nabi and Meenu Gaur’s 2013 Zinda Bhaag— a film that may have heralded the ‘new wave’ of Pakistani cinema— it was also nominated as Pakistan’s official entry to the Oscars.

Pakistani films aside, several foreign films also set the cash registers ringing across Pakistan, the biggest of them being the Van Diesel franchise Fast & Furious 7 and the Indian film Bajrangi Bhaijaan starring Salman Khan.Fast & Furious racked up almost 260 million rupees in Pakistan while Bajrangi grossed over 230 million. Overall, it was a good year to be a cinema owner.

At the risk of sounding like a spoilsport, I would still say that we are nowhere near a ‘revival.’ There are only about 80 operational screens in all of Pakistan. While cinema screens have doubled, it is still a far cry from the 1,300 screens that existed at the height of the country’s film distribution network in the early 1980s. Of the 43 feature films produced and distributed in 2015, only 12 Urdu films received anything resembling a wide release. Seventeen of the 43 were low-budget Pushto films that are usually released in Peshawar and parts of Karachi or go straight to DVD.

While the box office figures for the 12 Urdu films were very impressive, given the available domestic circuit, many of them would not have broken even without any corporate backing (which often heavy-handedly extracted its pound of flesh, much to the annoyance of viewers). What’s more, despite the apparent diversity of topics, less than a handful could dream of being acknowledged as ‘quality cinema’ internationally.

Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that the prospects for the growth of Pakistani cinema in 2016 are not as bright as 2015 might lead us to believe. The construction of new screens is not keeping pace with demand, partly because of bureaucratic red tape, and partly due to skyrocketing land prices, which make building stand alone cinemas prohibitive. Another 20-odd screens are expected to be added to the total this year, but it will not be until 2018 that the circuit might finally hit about 150 screens. It’s certainly better than nothing but consider that the US has 40,000 screens, China 30,000 and India 12,000. Even South Korea, with a population a quarter of Pakistan’s, has 2,000 screens.

According to industry insiders, the Pakistani films lined up for release in 2016 may not turn out to be out-and-out blockbusters like Jawani Phir Nahin Aani. And a downturn in revenues this year could put a damper on the current gung-ho momentum. As one leading film executive put it, “Expectations are high and audiences always want things to be bigger and better than before, which might mean they are in for a disappointment this year.”

Beyond the issue of box office returns, however, there is also the question of content. Pakistani cinema still suffers from a lack of imaginative screenwriters and producers who can nurture films from conception to completion. Most producers are attempting to emulate the breakout commercial and critical success of 2014’s Na Maloom Afraad — with varied results.

A few noteworthy films notwithstanding, Pakistani cinema has yet to find a distinct voice that sets it apart from similar fare being produced in Mumbai’s film industry. One can argue that this is a gradual process and that a distinctive voice will emerge only once a substantive number of films are produced, and that sustaining that growth requires the development of a revenue-generating mainstream cinema. This is a valid argument. But film executives and policy makers need to understand the dynamics of cinema and refrain from making masala fare their bottom line in order to rake in the moolah. It would be very easy for poor clones of Na Maloom Afraad to crowd out the cinema circuit.

Above all, faith in the process must be kept alive, despite the occasional downturns. Rebuilding the cinema industry will take time. Also, it is of critical importance that Pakistani producers realise the importance of working with original concepts and provide the means whereby struggling screenwriters can be nurtured with project development funds. Until and unless this realisation hits home, Pakistani cinema is unlikely to make any impact on the global stage.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2016 issue.