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What Makes the Revival of Pakistani Cinema an Uphill Task

By Layba Malik 

There was a time after the last iteration, in 2009, of the Kara Film Festival – the Karachi International Film Festival – that I began to avoid large gatherings. The reasons were entirely banal. I wanted to avoid being accosted continuously by random people asking why the festival was no longer taking place. It was not that I dislike interacting with strangers, especially well-meaning strangers, but the effort involved in explaining the complicated dynamics of Pakistan’s cinema scene, each time usually from scratch, had begun to get too draining. For those on the receiving end of explanations, it was probably a case of being overwhelmed by an information overload; they wanted short, sound bite-y answers when things are never that simple in Pakistan.

The logo for the Karachi International Film Festival, popularly known as, the Kara Film Festival.

We had discovered, for example, that while we could make an impact on short films and documentaries by providing a platform for them through the festival, boosting the quantity and quality of feature films in Pakistan required greater input and practical push from policymakers, simply because of the investments required in making and exhibiting feature films.

Often there were assumptions that bore little relation to reality. Kara’s deferment, for example, had more to do with the severe economic downturn in Pakistan from 2010 onwards than the country’s brittle security situation as most assumed, and no, it was not the same as organising a literature festival. Some idealists would offer lectures about how Pakistani film-makers should follow the Iranian model of films, without knowing anything about the reality of the Iranian model and seemingly divorced from what Pakistani audiences are actually willing to pay to watch.

But there was also an inability, understandable perhaps for people outside the ‘industry’, to grasp the nuances of putting together an international film festival that was also ultimately meant to bolster local cinema, which was riddled with myriad issues that needed simultaneously to be addressed — which obviously were not being addressed. We had discovered, for example, that while we could make an impact on short films and documentaries by providing a platform for them through the festival, boosting the quantity and quality of feature films in Pakistan required greater input and practical push from policymakers, simply because of the investments required in making and exhibiting feature films.

Towards this end, we had tried our best, putting forward as far back as 2005 a checklist of actions that needed to be taken (none of them, by the way, involved the government allocating money) and periodically participating in detailed presentations for government officials. But as is often the case in Pakistan, film (and anything to do with culture) is often at the back of the priority queue, especially when the country seems to be constantly going through political upheavals and ostensibly never-ending external security threats.

Left to Right: Actor in Law (2016), Janaan (2016), Zindagi Kitni Haseen Hai (2016).
Daaku, a Punjabi film starring Shan Shahid.

Then some of the fruits of our early advocacy, in the face of opposition from the Lahore-based film ‘industry’ and clueless hyper-nationalists, actually began to bear fruit. As we had predicted, when a ban on Indian films being shown in Pakistani cinemas was lifted in 2007 (primarily because we pushed for it), the return of audiences to cinemas began to fuel an economic cycle that resulted in increased box office earnings that, in turn, provided incentives to entrepreneurs to construct new cinemas.

In January 2015, writing for the Herald, I had sounded a note of cautious optimism about the future: “Despite the obvious trends, however, it is still too early to label the current phase as the one heralding the ‘revival of Pakistani cinema’, a phrase used with such alarming regularity over the past 20 years that it has lost any meaning it ever had.” I continued, “There are still too few screens and far too few feature film productions … Based on current projections, Pakistan will hopefully hit about 200 operating screens by 2017 — that is, if we are lucky.”

We have not been so lucky.

The severely ill-advised decision in September 2016 by local exhibitors to ban Indian films again (whether at behind-the-scenes official urging or not) dealt such a crippling blow to the nascent resurgence of cinema in Pakistan that we are still trying to recapture its momentum, despite the ban being eventually rescinded in January 2017. With Indian films – which generated some 70 per cent of the total revenue of cinemas – taken out, audiences simply stopped going to the cinema, leading to a drop in revenue even for Pakistani films.

More importantly, the capriciousness of the decision spooked investors and suddenly a number of productions and multiplex development projects ground to a halt. At the end of 2017, all of Pakistan still only has a total of 129 screens. That is about 0.62 screens for each million Pakistanis. Compare this with over 126 screens for each million Americans, 87 for each million Australians, 39 for each million Chinese and 12 for each million Indians. This is not mere statistics. It affects the investment going into films and their production quality.

With reference to increasing the production of feature films – the primary goal of this push for more cinema screens – I had written the following: “Given the time required to take a film from the conceptual stage to the finished product, there is usually a lag of one to two years between investors seeing promise and the results of their investments becoming a visible reality. Given the current scenario with respect to the local circuit, the real fruits of this renewed interest in making films will probably be not visible before 2018.” And I had added, “There is still a long way to go.”

Left: Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (2013), Waar (2013); Right: Khuda Kay Liye (2007), Bol (2011).

Three years later, there is still a long way to go.

This past year a mere 16 Urdu films were released in the country. I am referring primarily to Urdu films because these are the ones that receive some measure of a nationwide release. But Punjabi and Pashto films have not done any better. No number of idealistic and moralising theories can take the place of the logic of hard economics.

After the government intervened in January 2017 to provide hapless cinema owners with a face-saving measure to resume showing Indian films again — following a commercially disastrous gap of some four months — this past year was meant to be all about rebuilding. The damage had already been done but there was some hope that with a steady hand and with slow progress over time, some of the earlier optimism could be recaptured.

Crowd of locals outside an old local cinema.

Instead, what we got was the Islamabad censor board.

The Islamabad censor board – misleadingly still called the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) – decided, in its infinite wisdom, to ban the first big release, Raees, after the lifting of the ban. But it was not just a Shah Rukh Khan film, shorthand usually for blockbuster in India and Pakistan, but also starred Pakistani sweetheart Mahira Khan in her Indian film debut. Despite a hue and cry over the ban, whose logic most could not fathom, the film never made it to Pakistani cinemas, denying them the jump-start they desperately needed. Moreover, it further spooked already jittery investors.

Over the course of the year, the Islamabad censor board would go on to ban at least two other Bollywood blockbusters (both fronted by the bankable Salman Khan) as well as cause problems for the release of another highly awaited Pakistani film starring Mahira Khan, Verna.

Getting in on the act, the Punjab censor board would also cause some frustrating hiccups for the release of Na Maloom Afraad 2, one of the three or four Pakistani films last year that actually made its money back. In all these cases, the decision-making remained opaque and non-transparent. Nobody really understood on what basis objections were raised against the films.

In the case of Verna, eventually the government had to step in to override the decision of the Islamabad censor board. Whatever the merits of the film itself, having seen the film in its uncut entirety, I can at least confirm that there was absolutely nothing in it that merited the hoopla raised by the Islamabad censor board.

Left: Na Maloom Afraad 2 (2017) Right: Punjab Nahi Jaungi (2017)
Left to Right: Dukhtar (2014), Bin Roye (2015), Manto (2015).

But this is an issue that is not just about one or two or four films. Leaving aside the damage done by such arbitrary decision-making to the investment climate for cinema in the country, this cuts to the heart of policymaking about film in Pakistan. Are the powers that be in policymaking interested in promoting film production in the country or not? Because if they are – and they all claim they are – they have to understand the dynamics of creative film production. Simply put: you cannot hope to encourage a healthy film industry in the country while simultaneously trying to fit it into your narrow ideological parameters. That is just not how it works, here or anywhere else in the world.

We hear a lot of official talk about promoting Pakistani films in the world and improving their quality so that they can compete with films from India and around the globe. It is bad enough what the film fraternity in Pakistan has had to put up with over the past 40 years — the lack of attention to infrastructure, sources of funding and professional training make it an industry only in name. But instead of trying to seriously address those issues and providing incentives for film production, cultural policymakers are often actively pulling down even those who try and bootstrap themselves up from a barren landscape. Instead of introducing policies that facilitate the unleashing of the creative potential within Pakistan, what we get instead are more regulations and more restrictions.

Bol (2011)
Left: Arth (2017) Right: Rangreza (2017)