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Is Pakistani cinema dead?

By Paaras Abbas

February 10th 2012

In an era when Pakistan holds centre stage in world news for stories ranging from match fixing to harbouring terrorists, to see it get attention for achievements of its film industry is refreshing for Pakistanis and the rest of the world alike. The release of blockbusters such as Bol, as well as the first ever Oscar nomination for a Pakistani director not only boosted the country’s image in the global arena, but also changed the atmosphere at home.

Pakistan’s film industry has encountered many obstacles in its lifetime. Since the creation of Pakistan, the small industry, based in Lahore, operated under the shadow of the fully established film industry in Bombay. Many well-educated women initially avoided joining the industry, assuming the so-called religious ideological base the country was founded upon meant it would appear impious to act and dance onstage. It was the advent of television that brought some well-educated women into the acting business. The television industry boomed, and as many television artists were encouraged to accept roles in movies, the film industry began changing. However, another blow came in the form of the loss of talent in 1971, when a large portion of the industry, including the magnificent Runa Laila left for the new-born Bangladesh. Then followed the restrictions imposed by Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation scheme. Despite all that, and the rise in religious fundamentalism in the last decade, the last few years have seen a boom in the industry, marked by a conscious effort by the young directors, producers and actors in Pakistan to experiment with new themes and styles.

The history of Pakistan’s film industry was not always as bleak as most imagine. With the 60s witnessing the introduction of colour in films, the 70s went on to become what is now referred to as the golden age of Pakistani cinema. Waheed Murad, Noor Jehan, Shamim Ara, Sabiha Khanum, Ahmed Rushdie among many more became household names for subsequent generations. The 1970s not only saw exceptional acting and singing talent, but also experimentation in filmmaking, with Javed Jabbar’s Beyond the Last Mountain being the first Pakistani English movie in 1976. The 80s saw a decline in the production of films as well as trips to the cinema. Zia-ul-Haq’s strict Islamic laws banned the display of affection in movies, and a general stigma was attached to the notion of female actresses. However, this bleak period in the history of Pakistani cinema came to an end in the 2000s, and there has been a significant increase in the production of films in the past decade. Experimentation in filmmaking has also been revived in the last few years, with filmmakers addressing a wide range of issues, dabbing in different techniques and reaching over to a variety of genres.

The content of films produced in Pakistan has largely moved beyond a Bollywood framework, with a conscious attempt to replace melodrama with a style reminiscent of every day life. The young filmmaking community in Pakistan has also decided to address the problems that concern the majority of the population, such as the upcoming movie ‘Waar’, which is an English language movie based on the war on terror. This theme was first touched upon by Shoaib Mansoor’s directorial debut Khuda Ke Liye, which also lifted a four decade long ban when screened in India. His second movie Bol, released last year, addressed various social issues prevalent in Pakistani society, from the oppression of women to the mistreatment of transexuals and the dynamics between various classes in Pakistan. It holds a mirror to the audience, pressing the Pakistani society to re-examine its values and their concepts of social norms. These movies and documentaries addressing social and political issues are an excellent tool to raise awareness both at home and abroad, and are an important step towards social change.

However, there is more to Pakistan than madrassas and militants, and Pakistani filmmakers have attempted to move beyond the theme of terrorism while depicting life in the country. Attempts to portray Pakistani society by addressing more universal issues, can be seen in Hammad Khan’s coming-of-age film ‘Slackistan’, and Mansoor Mujahid’s upcoming ‘Seedlings’, which tells the story of loss and forgiveness. Branching out to explore all kinds of stories that captivate audiences, from horror to redemption, is a great step for the industry, and one that will make it comparable to other larger film industries in the world.

The filmmakers of this decade have also decided to stand up to political pressures. Such pressures have always affected film production in Pakistan; even during the ‘golden age’, films were edited based on the effect they may have on the country’s foreign relations; the 1971 film Tehzeeb was edited in case one of the songs rocked the country’s relationship with Egypt. However, this generation of directors has decided to take a stand. Hammad Khan’s refusal to edit his film Slackistan at the request of Pakistan’s censor board may have led to the banning of his film in the country, but it also demonstrated that the only way for the industry and the country as a whole to progress is by rejecting such oppression in the first place.

With movie makers producing films ranging from comedy to sci-fi and horror to documentaries, the hope for Pakistan’s film industry is increasing with each new production. Schools such as NAPA and Indus Valley are giving the young a platform to discover and use their talents, and the success they see on screen provides the much needed motivation. The recent Oscar nomination for Emmy award winning documentary maker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is the first ever for a Pakistani, and should be a source of inspiration for this entire generation. For all the young Pakistanis who feel that a career in film is a dead-end, never has the time to enter the film industry been better than now. With each new documentary and film, respect for the industry is increasing, and the preconceptions the world has about Pakistan are changing.

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