Pakistani Cinema and the Multiverse of Sadness
Published in Nov-Dec 2022
Last Eid, the cinemas were flooded with Pakistani films and the filmmakers behind these films held a press conference at the Karachi Arts Council, complaining that the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness should have been delayed to give the Pakistani films a shot at box office success. They maintained that it was unfair to pit their films against this Hollywood behemoth. The difference, they said, was in the budgets. A lot of people on social media raised their voices in support. I have one question: have they seen Pakistani movies? Bigger budgets would not be able to save most of them.
All over the world a lot of good films have been made with small budgets. Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi with a few thousand dollars. It was so entertaining that he got picked up by Hollywood and went on to make some of my favourite films. A Separation, a brilliant Iranian movie written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, was made with about half a million dollars. Even Manto and Cake from Pakistan were not bad, and they had small budgets – far less than the budgets of some unwatchable Pakistani films. There were no external factors that made those films good, or most of ours bad; we only have ourselves to blame.
At the end of the day, it’s the purpose behind the making of the film that counts. It seems that those that work are made by people who want to tell a story and they want to do it so badly they are unable to contain themselves. Then there are movies like Chakkar, which, forget about a story, don’t even seem to have any thought behind them. So why are most of our films like this?
Firstly, I would blame the lack of support from the state, or society at large. Any child showing artistic tendencies or capabilities is not encouraged to pursue their passion. The government has announced tax holidays and funds for filmmakers, so let’s see if this gives the industry a much-needed boost. In the meantime, what we are left with are the lucky few who somehow get their work released.
Unfortunately, their intention doesn’t seem to be to tell any kind of story. They seem to want either fame or money, or both. Or perhaps they want to learn from the experience, so that they can eventually make a good film. In other countries with established film industries, budding filmmakers often make student films, short films, work as assistant directors before they start directing features; we are often subjected to films by local filmmakers who haven’t gone through this process.
In many of the Pakistani films that I have watched, I see a lot of the same problems. Lack of attention to detail and cohesiveness and not enough emphasis on good storytelling. This was the problem when as a kid I went to see Guns and Roses: Ik Junoon directed by Shan Shahid, and it is the problem with recent films like Chakkar and even Ghabrana Nahi Hai. As far as writing is concerned, the screenplays need to be researched, written, shared, rewritten, read by the director, rewritten, read by the actors, rewritten, and then shot and rewritten again. Here, I would wager that what is being shot is probably the second draft; at least that is what it looks like.
As far as the look is concerned, although it is getting better – we have good cameras, lenses, lighting and crews easily available in all the major cities – yet, there are still cases, like Chakkar, that are shot like TV dramas: terrible lighting, no extreme wide shots to give a sense of cinematic grandeur, or extreme close-ups. Many of the shots are zoomed into in post-production and are pixelated as a result. Other films are shot by directors of photography, used to only shooting commercials – and one can tell. Next, if we analyse the editing, there are so many random shots (scenes in fact) that I would just delete them. I cannot for the life of me understand why they were left in. We don’t see characters develop; in fact, they are usually so superficial that it is almost impossible to identify with them.
Although Sarmad Khoosat’s latest, Kamli, was superior in its visuals, it was still lacking in the storytelling area; most importantly, it lost out by not having the sub-plots that would have given us a broader picture of life in the village where it was set. Art direction is an extremely important aspect of filmmaking where Kamli lost out, and it didn’t need a bigger budget to do that. For example, Saba Qamar’s wardrobe and make-up was not that of a village girl from anywhere. The look of films is decided by art directors and production designers, and these are essential roles in filmmaking. They design the sets, choose locations and how they are ‘dressed’. Costumes and make-up also come under this department and can make all the difference.
Sound is another area where we are severely lacking. Most local filmmakers don’t bother to record usable sound on set, because it requires a lot of effort and slows down the process. A good sound recordist will not let a shot roll unless there is absolute silence, and with up to 100 people on the set, that is no easy task. So what often happens is that rough sound is recorded at the shoot and then the actors do automated dialogue replacement (ADR) in the studio. There are two reasons why this ends up sounding fake.
Firstly, the actors are not on set when they are doing ADR, which means that they are not delivering the lines to another actor, they are just looking at themselves on a screen in a studio and trying to match what they think they were feeling when the scene was shot, so the emotion is missing. Secondly, the people who do the sound mix do not really mix it. They do not treat the mix so that it sounds like it was shot in the environment that is being shown. It sounds like it has been recorded in a soundproof room with padded walls that kill reverberation. In some scenes, I have noticed atmospheric sound has been added to make the scene sound a bit natural, but it doesn’t help. It still sounds fake, because the right kind of treatment is not done. If they were using the sound that had been recorded on set, the atmospheric sound would be more natural, and if required, the 30 seconds or so of ‘room tone’ (basically, silence) recorded at the end of a scene, would give the most natural ‘bed’ for the dialogue to sit on.
This is not to say that there are no talented people working in Pakistan. On the contrary, and I can imagine their frustration. Perhaps distributors are convinced that Pakistani audiences are not interested in watching good films and that the few good films that seeped through the cracks were like Trojan horses that filmmakers had somehow tricked distributors into thinking that they too were low-quality but then turned out to be decent films.
I am not saying that Pakistanis should make pretentious movies where nothing much happens (good films are not supposed to be like that). However, many of the people who saw Moor or Kamli thought they suffered from this problem. I think it’s important for audiences to be entertained. But we must allow new voices to emerge to see what works. Perhaps audiences would love to see something the distributors assume they won’t like? When they have drowned so much money on stories that may have sounded like sure-fire hits, why don’t they try something else? And while they’re at it, give them artistic freedom too. And compromise the budget in some areas so that they can record better sound while they shoot. Or hire an art director who knows what they are doing.
There is no point even thinking of trying to make a Dhoom 3 or a Doctor Strange, the point is to make something so unique and with a singular voice that people are simply drawn to it. And to the extent that they choose it over the Dhooms and Multiverses.
Nofil Naqvi is Head of Content, Z2C. email@example.com
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