As long-closed cinemas are restored and new multiplexes open across the country, is Pakistani cinema finally emerging on the world stage?

After being in the shadow of giants, cinema in Pakistan is coming of age. Hip in Pakistan

By Samira Shackle | January 8, 2018

In November 2017, the unheard of happened: Nearly every cinema in Pakistan sold out of tickets for the opening night of Verna (Or Else), a locally produced film by acclaimed director Shoaib Mansoor.

Usually, homegrown cinema loses out to the latest blockbuster offering from Hollywood or Bollywood. The hype around Verna was, ironically, triggered by a censorship row: The film was effectively promoted by the people who sought to restrict it. Verna tells the story of Sara, a teacher who is abducted, held captive, and raped by the son of a local politician. She escapes and seeks help from the justice system. When this fails, Sara takes matters into her own hands to exact revenge.

On November 14, days before it was due for public release, Pakistan’s federal film board refused to give Verna a certificate, citing “edgy content” and saying it showed the government in a “bad light”. The censors demanded 12 cuts, all reportedly related to the political content of the storyline. On social media, a campaign under the hashtag #UnbanVerna quickly spread. The hashtag was in part inspired by #MeToo, and discussion of the film became a vehicle for Pakistani women to talk about sexual assault. Hours before the scheduled release, the censors conceded, and the film aired.

This battle demonstrates the constraints on filmmakers in a country where conservative religious groups hold disproportionate power, and where criticizing the authorities can lead to intimidation or censorship. Satish Anand, chairperson of a Karachi-based production house and one of the distributors of Verna, was at the frontline of the battle with the censors, whose decisions he has often found arbitrary. “If you talk to production houses overseas about the cuts our censors require, it sounds crazy – you don’t take a scissor and cut things off with a day’s notice. There should be an entire process, you have to realign the story.”

In 2016, Anand was distributing an Indian film, a comedy called Freaky Ali. An individual censor, a Shiite, took exception to the name, as Ali is a sacred figure in Shia Islam. “The problem was with the name, not the film – so at the last moment, we scrubbed it from all the promotional materials and released the film as Ali.”

A revival in film

Despite these challenges, Pakistani cinema is going through a revival. Verna finally aired in its original form, a victory over the censors that took on a symbolic dimension. Pakistan’s film industry has suffered years of decline, largely due to a sharp swerve towards religious conservatism and authoritarianism in the 1970s. The fact that the censors’ attempts to ban Verna were overturned is a sign of the increasing power of filmmakers and their steadily growing audiences.

Over the last decade, a new generation of filmmakers has begun to develop an artistic identity distinct from the more prominent films produced over the border in India. Mansoor, the director of Verna, has been at the forefront of this movement, producing films that explore social issues while using the visual and stylistic language of commercial cinema. The film examines the failure of the Pakistani state to properly investigate crimes against women, but tells the story as a highly stylized thriller with elements of noir. This socially conscious and female-led narrative speaks to a broader trend of pushing boundaries in contemporary Pakistani cinema. Moor (Mother), a 2015 film directed by Jamshed Mahmood Raza, explored the struggles of a family working on Pakistan’s declining railways in the marginalized province of Balochistan. A review in Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper said its “breathtaking emotional journey … gives us hope that Pakistani cinema will not only be taken as an extension of Bollywood”.

Today, Pakistan is producing more cinema than it has for decades. Although the most popular genres are comedies and musicals – some of which echo the output of Bollywood’s multi-billion dollar studios – industry professionals argue that Pakistani films retain a distinct flavor. As long-closed cinemas are restored and new multiplexes open across the country, is Pakistani cinema finally coming out of the shadows?

The story of Pakistani cinema is one of stops and starts. Pre-Partition India’s nascent film industry, centered in Lahore, began in the 1920s, at about the same time as Hollywood. When the country of Pakistan was born out of the bloody Partition of India in 1947, it was not just lives that were lost as Muslims migrated to Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs to India. Buildings and infrastructure were destroyed too, among them cinemas and film studios. Almost every prominent Hindu actor and director migrated to India. Films already in production stalled as cast and crew were suddenly on opposite sides of the new border. Noor Jehan, India’s most famous actress and singer prior to the Partition, stayed in Pakistan.

As nation-building began in earnest, the studios damaged during the 1947 riots were rebuilt and others opened in Lahore and Karachi. The first film produced in Pakistan after Partition was Teri Yaad (Your Memory), released in 1948. Like other films of its era, it was characterized by limited funding and equipment. The first successful Pakistani film after Partition was Do Ansoo (A Pair of Tears), released in 1950 starring popular husband and wife duo Santosh Kumar and Sabiha Khanum. It screened for 25 weeks and was seen as a clear indicator of imminent recovery. In those early days, Noor Jehan propped up the industry with her immense fame. Her first post-Partition screen appearance was in 1951 with Chan Wey (Oh My Love), a film she co-directed. Her 1952 hit, Dupatta (Scarf), was also released in India, and on both sides of the border its soundtrack quickly acquired the status of a classic. New stars were born too, celebrities who mostly lived around the studios in Lahore. Across the water in Dhaka – then part of East Pakistan – a crossover industry produced some hit films and a constellation of its own stars. By the early 1960s, Pakistan’s cinematic golden age was truly underway.

The shadow of Bollywood

Although the industry rose from the ashes of Partition, it has always been haunted by its more powerful, more popular, and better resourced rival, Bollywood. From 1947, some actors and directors in Pakistan campaigned for a ban on Indian cinema, arguing that Bollywood – with its superior budgets and production values – was hindering local cinema. A partial ban was established in 1952, and during the 1965 war between Pakistan and India, it was upgraded to a total ban.

But a double blow was in store for the industry: the advent of the VCR, and political changes following a 1977 coup by military dictator Zia Ul-Haq, who imposed a sweeping program of “Islamization” on the nation. One of the first casualties was the film industry. A new regulation required film producers to be degree holders. Many were not, and production crashed. Simultaneously, numerous cinemas in Lahore were forcibly closed. New taxes on entertainment further decreased cinema attendance. In conjunction with the growing popularity of pirated Indian movies on VCR, the Pakistani film industry collapsed. “There was a total closure of local production,” said Anand. There were about 700 cinemas in Pakistan when Haq took control; two decades later, there were fewer than 100. Old cinema buildings were repurposed as shopping centers or event halls for weddings.

Urdu, the national tongue, was the preferred language for most films that targeted a mass audience. But while the production of these Urdu-language films declined sharply after 1977 – from about 100 films per year to just one or two – regional cinema flourished. Punjabi films made in Lahore, colloquially known as Lollywood, were churned out regularly. These films, often telling the stories of land disputes or tribal feuds, were immensely popular from the 1970s onward. Punjabi stars such as Sultan Rahi and Ghulam Mustafa, with their exaggerated style and bouffant wigs, became icons for their mainly working-class audiences. Pashto cinema aimed at the conservative north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa (KPK) also grew in popularity.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the cultural conservatism associated with this province, Pashto films past and present tend to be pulpy and brash – violent stories with sexual innuendo sometimes verging on soft porn. Since the 1970s, Peshawar, the capital of KPK, has been home to a number of porn cinemas screening titillating Pashto films with names like Friendship, as well as, more recently, Western porn dubbed in Pashto. Both Pashto and Punjabi films are produced on extremely low budgets, with posters featuring macho men smoking three cigarettes at once and wielding swords. Their poor quality and insalubrious content contributed to a widely held sense that Pakistani cinema was an embarrassment.

The film scene opens up

By 2007, much had changed: There was a new military dictator in power, Pervez Musharraf, and relations with India had cooled to a détente. After a disastrous earthquake in northern Pakistan that same year, Musharraf agreed that the Indian-produced film Taj Mahal, a love story about the genesis of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s famous monument to his beloved wife, could be released in Pakistan. The proceeds would go to earthquake victims.

Anand’s production company, Eveready, was asked to release the film. “The local film industry had been monopolistic since 1965 – there was this idea that until the Kashmir issue is settled we won’t allow Indian film,” he recalled. “But this film was a non-controversial topic, it focused on a common heritage.” The successful release of Taj Mahal opened the door to more Indian films.

The Metro Pole cinema in Lahore is one of the few theatres operating in the city. Stuart Goodwin/WSJ

Bollywood was back in Pakistan – and with it came new audiences. Far from crowding out Pakistani film, Bollywood brought people back to the cinema and in the process kick-started a national industry that was almost defunct. In 2015 and 2016, Pakistani cinemas screened more than 200 Indian films, a record high. While cinema infrastructure has yet to return to its 1970s peak, there are now more than 250 cinemas, with plans in progress for more screens in all of Pakistan’s major cities. As the number of physical cinemas has increased, so too has the potential market for locally produced films.

Amid this renewed energy, a new wave of Pakistani filmmakers have begun to produce highly inventive films. Mansoor made waves in 2007 with Khuda Kay Liye (For God’s Sake), which explored the impact of radicalization on a Pakistani family. The low-budget film was a surprise box office hit, bringing the middle classes out to the cinema with its pressing subject matter. Despite opposition from religious groups, within Pakistan it was one of the most popular homegrown films in years. In 2008, it became the first Pakistani film in 43 years to be released in India.

A new wave of cinema

Mansoor’s following film came out in 2011. Titled Bol (Speak), it focused on an imam with a transgender daughter, a uniquely Pakistani exploration of the global question of gender identity. Alongside these boundary-pushing films, action movies set against Pakistan’s tumultuous political terrain gained popularity. In 2013, Waar (The Strike), an action film about a retired army officer returning to foil a terror plot, became Pakistan’s highest-grossing film on record. For all the film’s slick and modern visual language, the politics underlying it were traditional, casting India as a terrorist bogeyman conspiring to harm Pakistan.

Today, although Pakistani cinema is flourishing creatively, it still operates on much lower budgets than Bollywood. “Do not compare the rich big brother with the young poor one,” said Aijazz Gul, head of the film division at Pakistan’s National Council of the Arts. “What India spends on one film would cover the budget of a dozen films here.” However, some suggest that tight funding has spurred Pakistani filmmakers to create works with their own distinctive flavor.

In the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, journalist Nadeem Peracha described the country’s new-wave cinema as “stark art-house meditation on life but bear[ing] the soul of lively commercial cinema”. This is evident in Verna, where rape and the justice system are explored as a revenge thriller that references both Japanese and American cinema. The 2014 film Dukhtar (Daughter) dealt with arranged marriage, not as a staid social commentary movie but as a thriller. The 2017 film Yalghaar (Attack), made by the same director as Waar, is an action-packed war epic centered on the Pakistani army’s fight against the Taliban. Tub-thumping nationalism is popular with Pakistani audiences, although some film critics and journalists have questioned the role of the country’s powerful intelligence service in funding films and facilitating access to difficult-to-reach areas.

Pakistani filmmakers still face difficulties, from restricted budgets to capricious censors. The severe lack of physical cinemas limits how much income Pakistani films can make domestically, which is one reason many are increasingly seeking international releases – not just in India, but also in Britain, where there is a large Pakistani diaspora. “The shortage of cinema screens is our biggest problem,” said Gul. “For a country of over 200m, 250 cinemas are simply not sufficient – we need at least 4,000.”

Given its long period of decline, Pakistan’s film industry is effectively starting from scratch. And for a new cinema, its output is remarkably diverse. Along with the usual mix of musical romances, films pegged for release this year include Azaad (Freedom), a comedy drama exploring media freedom, and Wujood (Existence), a revenge thriller focusing on an independent young woman. “In Bollywood, the canvas is bigger and the resources are better, so Pakistani filmmakers have to bring in a local touch that people can relate to and appreciate,” said Anand. “It’s quite a challenge. And yet people are doing well in spite of that.”

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist based in London and has been covering Pakistan since 2011. She tweets at @samirashackle

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