By Bina Shah
15 January, 2014
After years of economic doldrums and creative drought, Pakistani movies are pulling in crowds at home and garnering awards at international film festivals. It’s a miraculous restart for an industry that has seen more highs and lows than a three-hour Bollywood blockbuster. Taking the power of storytelling into their own hands, Pakistani filmmakers are fashioning much-needed, nuanced portraits of their country — and cultivating a degree of national pride that hasn’t been felt for a long time.
In 2012, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s “Saving Face,” about victims of acid attacks in Pakistan, earned the country its first Academy Award, in the best short documentary category. For local film buffs, the win was a harbinger of good things to come. In preparation for this year’s Oscars, for the first time in half a century Pakistan submitted a film for consideration in the best foreign-language film category. While the entry, “Zinda Bhaag” (“Run For Your Life”), failed to make the short list for nomination, “the very fact that we could select a movie that would represent us at the Oscars makes us proud,” says Ms. Obaid-Chinoy. The director believes that 2013 will “go down in history as the year that Pakistani cinema was reborn.”
Pakistani cinema thrived in the 1960s, with political and romantic films like “Bombay-Wallah” (1961), “Shaheed” (“Martyr,” 1962) and “Armaan” (“Desire,” 1966), featuring the screen legends Waheed Murad, Nadeem Baig and the actress Shabnam, among others. It survived the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, and went on to peak in the early 1970s with classics like “Umrao Jaan Ada” (“The Courtesan of Lucknow,” 1972) and “Aina” (“The Mirror,” 1977).
At the height of the glory days, by conservative estimates, Pakistani studios released more than 100 films a year and some 700 cinemas were operating.
In the 1980s, Mohammad Zia ul-Haq’s military dictatorship censored any films that tried to address weighty issues. That decade’s ultraconservative mores discouraged the participation of talented Pakistanis, especially women. The collapse was swift: “Lollywood,” Pakistan’s affectionate nickname for its Lahore-based film industry, churned out tasteless films replete with violence, choreographed disco numbers, melodramatic plotlines and poor acting. By the end of the 1990s, production had slowed to about 50 films each year. Hundreds of cinemas across the country were torn down.
In 2006, Pervez Musharraf, as president, began to ease restrictions on the importation of Indian films, which had been banned in Pakistan since the war between the countries in 1965. The newly available Bollywood productions drew so many viewers that multiplexes were built to meet the demand. The new capacity, in turn, gave a new generation of Pakistanis, either trained abroad or already working in television and advertising, an incentive to start making movies of their own. With advances in digital filmmaking permitting lower budgets and an audience already exposed to high-quality international cinema, Pakistanis began to produce bold works.
Eight years later, high import taxes on equipment and lack of government support still impede industry growth, and financial investment by wealthy producers remains difficult to find. But Ms. Obaid-Chinoy is optimistic. The approximately 100 cinemas now operating in Pakistan (for a population of over 180 million) are “more than I’ve seen in my entire life,” she says.
Tired of the one-dimensionality of the portrayal of Pakistanis on Western screens (as terrorists, bombers, victims or collaborators), independent Pakistani filmmakers are telling other, more sophisticated, stories.
With more than 20 films released in 2013, production is rising. One of last year’s releases, “Main Hoon Shahid Afridi” (“I Am Shahid Afridi”), about a small-time cricket league in the northeastern city of Sialkot, sends a powerful message of religious tolerance. “Josh” (“Against the Grain”), in which an upper-class woman investigates the kidnapping of her maid, imagines a world where social justice isn’t beyond the reach of the poor. In the deceptively quiet “Lamha” (“Seedlings”), the son of a wealthy couple is accidentally killed by a rickshaw driver. The film looks even-handedly and with compassion at the different griefs suffered by the couple and the driver.
“Zinda Bhaag,” the country’s 2014 Oscar entry, pays loving tribute to Lahore and 1970s Lollywood. The directors, Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi, enlisted real Lahoris in the depiction of the grim realities faced by Pakistanis who attempt to escape economic hardship through illegal emigration. Equally unconventional were decisions to cast the Bollywood legend Naseeruddin Shah in a lead role, and to take postproduction to India instead of Malaysia or Thailand. These fresh approaches augur well for greater Indo-Pakistani cooperation, and have jump-started an industry declared all but dead a few years ago.
Last year, Lollywood, too, stepped up its game. In “Waar” (“Strike”), an English-language thriller inspired by the 2009 Taliban attack on a police training centre near Lahore, Pakistan is rived by the pressures of the “war on terror.” The film’s unabashed patriotism attracted huge audiences nationwide. “Waar,” which was Pakistan’s first big-budget film, earned some $1.9 million in just over one month, making it also the country’s highest-grossing film to date. Its success signals the eagerness of Pakistanis to discuss terrorism on their own terms. “We want to have the right to represent and choose our own narrative,” Ms. Obaid-Chinoy says, “rather than a narrative that is imposed on us.”
Gloria Steinem has said that “every social justice movement that I know of” started with people “telling their life stories.” By this formulation, Pakistani cinema’s new wave hints at a country on the cusp of a major shift. Each film is at once a window into a dynamic country going through difficult times, and a blueprint for how its people might find their way to better days ahead.
Bina Shah is the author of several novels, including “Slum Child,” and short-story collections.