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Published in Nov-Dec 2014

Pakistan’s cinema industry is finally out of the doldrums. But will this revival be sustainable?

As a young girl I was deprived of satellite television and would look forward to every Eid just so I could watch – and make digs at – the classic Pakistani films airing on state television. Despite my adolescent jeering, I developed a liking for the kitschy, over the top films of the 90s that many people consider to be the hallmark of the worst of local cinema.

I felt exactly the same exuberance, for the first time in almost 20 years, this Eid when two Pakistani films, Operation 021 and Na Maloom Afraad were simultaneously released. My excitement was fuelled by the change (some call it revolution) the film industry is undergoing. Everything has changed; the films, the actors, the cinemas, the media and most importantly the audience.

Cinematic renaissance

After years in the doldrums, Pakistan is heralding a new wave of cinema. Ever since Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye in 2006, Pakistan’s film industry has been haltingly resuscitated film-by-film. After a stagnation of decades, a succession of independent films, starting with self indulgent Slackistan to the intricately woven Zinda Bhaag, have redefined the cliché of mainstream masala and paved the way for popular films to move into unexplored territory. Now films are proudly branded as Pakistan’s ‘first ever’ sports/war/ spy thriller/animation production. In an industry where experimenting used to be taboo, it has now become trendy. Although far from silverscreen masterpieces, the films released over the past seven years are different, intelligent and ambitious, particularly in the last two years. Some have done good business at the box-office, others have won festival prizes and all of them have drafted in new talent. After the successful run of seven films in 2013 and six in 2014, industry insiders are finally daring to hope that the new age is here to stay. Small independent film projects have proved that Pakistan has no shortage of talent. Entries like Seedlings and Zinda Bhaag received critical acclaim during their commercial and international releases. Even the weakest of these independent films like Slackistan, created a ripple that continues to have an impact on cinema culture. 

Digital revolution

The digital revolution has enabled anyone with access to a DSLR camera and a story to tell to become a filmmaker. This culture of film and the notion that ‘anyone can be a filmmaker’ is what this revival is about. The days of recording on film and mini DV are gone and DSLR cameras have ensured that filmmakers with miniscule budgets have at their disposal the same lenses, depth-of-field, and HD quality that once divided the amateurs from the professionals. To put it simply, DSLRs have transformed film school graduates and bored rich kids into potential game changers. Taking advantage of this technology, filmmakers can distribute their productions online, and if not for commercial success, they can always make films for a festival, thereby propelling the industry forward. 

Trickledown effect

As more Pakistanis have become more educated, aspirational, upwardly mobile and exposed, their taste in film has also evolved. Audiences demand more substance and sophistication and the standard of local films could no longer afford to stagnate. These new tastes have trickled down to mainstream cinema and even traditional filmmakers like Syed Noor are rethinking their formulas. Noor has said that he feels audiences have evolved to the point where simple ‘masala entertainers’ are no longer acceptable. His latest film Bhai Wanted focuses on a social message. Further drilling home the point, the films that did try to play on old conventions this year (Sultanat, The System, Ishq Khuda) bombed at the box office. To further appeal to the new audience demands, celebrities have been imported from TV into film – a platform once relegated to the lower middle class has become both acceptable and glamorous. When we say that cinema has suddenly become more popular, much of this has hinged upon its increased acceptability among all classes. The audience has shifted, with urban centres now dominating. While single screen cinemas are struggling and many theatres in the rural areas have had to shut down, urban audiences in multiplexes have increased exponentially. At the moment, while content has undoubtedly increased and improved, infrastructure to support it is playing catch-up. 

Festival films versus entertainers

Not all is well in the ongoing cinema boom however. Although audiences have become more discerning, there remains a wide socio-political and economic gap between them, and the makers of art house films such as Josh and Zinda Bhaag barely play on screens. Festival selections have little bearing on big screen releases. A section of film professionals will respect and appreciate films that are selected at international festivals, but these accolades often backfire. Audiences back home assume such movies must be dark, edgy or slow due to preconceived notions and so these films get only a token release. The film industry is struggling to understand and connect with audiences at this level. Unlike Bollywood, in Pakistan a film is either for the ‘smart audience’ or the ‘stupid audience’. Films are divided into morbid ‘poverty porn’ which exploit the lives of people in unfortunate circumstances in order to generate sympathy or outrage and ‘escapist films’, with stock situations and no link to reality. This dichotomy has created two different markets resulting in audiences celebrating one and decrying the other, just because one or the other does not match their taste. Jaswal’s Jalaibee is a Guy Ritchie style crime caper due for release in 2015 that the director proudly states to be ‘purely entertainment’ as if entertainment and art cannot co-exist. Young filmmakers have yet to figure out how to balance commercial considerations with artistic imperatives.  

Promotional campaigns

An industry is not just made of filmmakers and audiences. As our cinema matures, producers are beginning to understand the importance of promo campaigns, media partnerships and dealing with the press. Smart promotional campaigns and media tie-ins have helped in the makeover of cinema and the packaging has proved almost as important as the film itself. However, the challenge is more daunting for independently-produced films that, unlike studio blockbusters, are usually unknown right up to the time of their release.

Foreign versus local

Over the past two years the industry has cashed in on audiences’ hyper-nationalism by positioning watching films as a patriotic duty. The content of these films, their packaging and promotion revolve around their being ‘local’ and audiences are told that they must do their part to support the industry. In a more nationalist perspective, Pakistani cinema, as a catalyst for cultural growth, has the power to engage audiences in stories that are close to home. Because of our constant exposure to international films, we have also been exposed to their reality and not ours. We have failed to make our own stories because of the fear of failure to break even and a shortage of creative influx among movie producers. Distribution is the virtual monopoly of one company which believes in saturation-bombing audiences with titles likely to pull in the crowds. Quirky new work from Pakistani directors barely gets a look. The industry has sacrificed a degree of quality over commerce, yet to achieve a sustainable revival, directors and producers will need to show more confidence in their own work. The new spate of independent films gives at least two reasons to rejoice. Firstly, they are the product of new talent and secondly, they prove, with their strong regional flavour, that there is life beyond the stagnant world of tedious copycat movies in Pakistan.

Faria Sahar Syed is editor at media and pop culture website HIP.