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Madness in the Multiverse of Pakistani Cinema

Published in May-Jun 2022

Was Dr Strange the reason for Pakistani films not performing well during Eid-ul-Fitr?

It is not the first time that Pakistani actors and producers have publicly expressed their disapproval of foreign film releases in Pakistan. This has happened not only with Bollywood films; it has happened with Turkish content when Aşk-ı Memnu (Ishq-e-Mamnu) was viewed by 90 million Pakistanis. The same thing happened with Ertuğrul which was watched by 133 million Pakistanis. On both occasions, several Pakistani film and drama producers raised their concerns regarding Turkish content. It was not, therefore, surprising, when on May 9, Adnan Siddiqui, a Pakistani actor and producer, shared his views on Twitter about the release of Marvel’s Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Dr Strange 2) – (“Home-grown cinema has more right any day”) followed by similar comments by Farhan Saeed and Amar Khan. 

Photograph: Showbiz Pakistan Facebook
Photograph: Showbiz Pakistan Facebook

This second instalment of Dr Strange had already been banned in several Gulf countries due to the inclusion of an LGBTQ+ character, and it was because of this reason that the Chairman of the Central Board of Film Censor (CBFC) Pakistan, Arshad Munir, allegedly confirmed that the film would not be given a censor certificate. Subsequently, a week before Eid, a headline surfaced on social media according to which the release date of Dr Strange 2 in Pakistan had been delayed. Fans were not happy as the film’s initial release was delayed in 2021 due to the pandemic. However, two of the three operative censor boards in Pakistan (Sindh and Punjab) had already issued the certificate of censorship to the film. As a result, the film played in theatres on May 6, with enthusiastic Marvel fans filling out all its shows, rather than watching the five Pakistani films especially released on Eid (May 3).

Releasing films on festivals such as Eid has been a long deployed strategy not only in Lollywood but in Bollywood too, so it was understandable that Siddiqui was disappointed when all five Pakistani films did not do well at the box office, especially when, after running fairly successfully during the three Eid holidays, they lost 50% of their audiences to Dr Strange 2 when it was released. In fact, Dr Strange 2 had a significant impact on their ticket sales, so much so that their producers called an urgent press conference on May 7 (after the Pakistan Film Producers Association [PFPA] had already made an appeal to the government in April to delay the release of Dr Strange 2), where both Siddiqui and Yasir Nawaz expressed their disappointment that even after their request for a delay, Dr Strange 2 was released on schedule. 

Their concerns have merit. They spent sizeable budgets on their films and they wanted a good return, and who else will support Pakistani content if not Pakistanis? However, was Dr Strange 2 really the cause of the below than average ticket sales? Or could it be time for Pakistani producers to start working on improving the quality of their storytelling? For example, several Twitter users, in response to Siddiqui’s tweet, said that given the quality content available on Netflix, they were unwilling to put up with mediocre storylines anymore. Some went as far as calling Pakistani films “Pakistani drama serial pro max.” The fact of the matter is that gone are the days when audiences found entertainment in anodyne action sequences, off-beat humour and out-of-place item numbers. Today, these audiences are finding better content on Netflix and other web channels.

Pakistani producers need to take this fact into account. In the past, people might have given their time to mediocre entertainment but with web channels releasing good content almost every day, audiences want depth. They do not want to spend Rs 900 to watch a two-hour-long version of a story that they may have already seen via foreign content. The bottom line is that audiences want quality content and Pakistani filmmakers have to pull up their socks and match global standards or else they will keep losing viewers to a strange doctor wearing a red cape.