WHEN I became an actor, our film industry was at its peak,” says the veteran Pakistani star Javed Sheikh. His time in the business coincided with a period of intense productivity. Five or six major studios, all based in Lahore, the country’s cultural hub, churned out hundreds of films for an avid audience. “There was not a moment when our studios were empty,” Sheikh recalls.
For about a decade, since the mid-1970s, he was one of Lollywood’s top leading men. The nickname ‘Lollywood’ is, of course, a nod to the Bombay film industry and an indication of Pakistani cinema’s commercial ambitions, energy and starry glamour. Sheikh, now approaching 60, is still a regular on Pakistani screens, albeit of the small variety. The old studio system of which he was so prominent a part has disappeared. A precipitous decline in the culture of cinema-going in the mid-1980s destroyed Pakistan’s many theatres. And consequently the need to make movies. Last year was a new low, with only three locally made films being released.
For the first time in decades, though, there is talk of revival. Of a new Pakistani film industry emerging in the monied port city of Karachi and bolstered by a vibrant culture of television drama screened on privately financed channels. The rise of private television in Pakistan has been rapid, from two or three state-run channels in 2002, to over 50 privately owned channels in 2008, with dozens more added every year. Based in Karachi, the TV industry gave a new lease of life to actors, directors and producers long discarded by the moribund Lollywood.
It is from these ranks that Pakistani film is being revived. In the last week of April, Pakistani audiences flocked to Chambaili, the first commercial film released in the country since Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol (2011). Chambaili is a modern political thriller that focusses on themes of patriotism, corruption and politics, topics that would have once been taboo for fear of censorship. “We wanted to address the lack of leadership in Pakistan. We no longer want to leave the sacred cows untouched,” says Shahzad Nawaz, the film’s co-producer and writer, who’s also acted in it.
Chambaili is just the first of many films financed by people from the television fraternity. Four films are slated for release during the Eid holidays in August — Ishq Khuda, Waar, Josh and the intriguingly titled Main Hoon Shahid Afridi. Abdullah Kidwai, Nawaz’s fellow producer on Chambaili and a famous figure in Pakistani television, is hoping to release two more films by the end of next year.
“In the past, films were either left on the cutting room floor or subject to delays,” says Nawaz. Easily accessible technology, he argues, has made a difference. It’s cheaper and quicker to make films with digital cameras. Television has so far been a more flexible medium, but technology has erased that advantage. It’s no surprise then that television directors want to try their hand in films.
Sarmad Khoosat, too, is drawn to the wider canvas of the cinema. “When we started out, a lot of us were doing TV. But we all wanted to do films,” he says. Khoosat is now working on his first film on writer Saadat Hasan Manto, something he says wouldn’t be possible a few years ago. The success of his TV drama Humsafar has opened doors for corporate and multinational sponsors. “Now, the environment is such that young people feel motivated to contribute their ideas,” Khoosat says.
If television provided the necessary creative impetus, the game changer has been the arrival of the multiplexes. Cinema owners and distributors were reluctant to screen local Pakistani films, claiming that they lacked quality. But as multiplexes have become the norm, local content has become necessary.
The creation of a cinema going culture in Pakistan has taken time, but it has also been, in a sense, inevitable. As Hammad Choudhary of HKC Entertainment, a leading distributor, points out: “We don’t have clubs or pubs in Pakistan. Cinema is the only viable form of entertainment.” His company, which has distributed many leading Bollywood films, will be distributing Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Pakistan’s multiplex revolution was spurred by the government’s policy changes, including the decision to waive a controversial entertainment tax. Once the theatres began to be built, the government had to find a solution for the lack of content. It found itself with no options; so, on 2008, the import ban on Indian films that had been creakily in place since 1965 was eased. Just two years ago, in 2006, HKC had to negotiate for 18 months before it could screen British director Gurinder Chaddha’s Bride and Prejudice.
Earlier this year, as if in recognition of that absence, the still incumbent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government initiated the process to create a new film policy. The PPP also recognised the propaganda possibilities, the potential to use cinema to promote a positive image of the country. The proposed policy was the first attempt in many years to incentivise Pakistani cinema. Of course, the initiative, begun so late in the PPP’s term, is on hold and the question remains what attention the new government will pay to the proposals.
The government’s policies did need changing, says Nadeem Mandviwalla, who was among the first to build multiplexes in Pakistan, including Karachi’s well-known Atrium. But he remains cautious about the effect even good policy can have on the Pakistani film industry. There is, he argues, the problem of generating revenues. Piracy is so widespread, Mandviwalla says, that filmmakers will have to rely on multiplexes to make profit. Still, he adds, “the time has come to make films as now we have developed enough cinemas to show them”. It will need the sort of nimble thinking and cost control that the old studios Javed Sheikh knew don’t have a hope of making a comeback.
It may mean that Bollywood should no longer be the model for the new Lollywood. Actor Ahsan Khan, one of Pakistan’s biggest TV stars, feels the nascent Pakistani industry should “look to Iran and France, to more meaningful cinema”. For the first time, he says, he’s been offered roles in films he finds intere sting. He stars in the much awaited Ishq Khuda, whose soundtrack features Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Shazia Mansoor and an item number sung by Sanam Marvi. The film also has international talent in the form of Moroccan actress Wiam Dahmani.
“One thing is certain,” says Khan, “cinema in Pakistan is making a return.” A Pakistani film industry — cosmopolitan, sophisticated and sharp — is waiting to be born. All it needs is an extra push.
Khan is a reporter with The Express Tribune