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Not since a steady stream of films began populating our theatres has the Pakistani film industry been at a more crucial stage. With Indian films banned in the country since the two countries nearly went to war in February, there is an opportunity for Pakistani films to step up and prove their might and hopefully fill the void left behind by Bollywood big weights.
This is undoubtedly a daunting task, given Indian movies are released throughout the year and Pakistani movies usually appear in bulk on the two respective Eid holidays. Owning a cinema has been a risky business since the Zia era, what with the entertainment tax imposed on filmmakers, closure of cinemas, and the succeeding era of terrorism that followed, along with the on and off ban on Indian movies by respective governments, all of which have aided the downfall of our once imperial film empire.
Success of Jawani Phir Nahi Ani 2 (which made a jaw-dropping 70 crores, becoming the biggest film in Pakistani history), Punjab Nahi Jaungi and Teefa in Trouble has emboldened studios to be less stringent
In the past, governments have been gracious enough to delay Indian film releases, when they coincided with Pakistani movies to allow the latter to maximize their profit. But with Indian movies out of our multiplexes for some time, and our own films lacking the pull that a Salman Khan film brings, the industry is at a particularly precarious position. Furthermore, only a handful of Pakistani films are released each year, which leaves cinemas around the country starved for content, and leaning on Hollywood movies for support isn’t a viable solution, given that the audience for those films is far smaller in number.
The progress in the number of our films, their quality and most importantly, the confidence the Pakistani cinema-goers have shown towards our own new wave of films, is all quite promising. But whether they can continue to thrive in the post-Indian movie-ban era is yet to be seen.
So far, Pakistani films seem to be on three distinct tracks. We have our big budget romcoms-action flicks starring TV’s best and brightest and released with much fanfare by big TV channels turned film distributors, namely ARY, Hum and Geo. These films are purely entertainment based and it is hard to find a proper story let alone any morals in them. They also largely exhibit the worst tendencies from our filmmakers, with below the belt humor and raunchy item songs galore. Naturally, they are the ones that make the most money and include everything from your Jawani Phir Nahi Ani films to Karachi Say Lahore.
There is also a moderately better version of these films, released largely by the same distributors and often starring the same actors, where a social issue is tackled alongside the razzle-dazzle that comes with big budget Pakistani flicks. These films have done reasonably well and are much more respected than your standard Wrong No.-esque films. Load Wedding and Actor in Law are two examples of these topical films. And lastly, there are the less commercial and more experimental films with Laal Kabootar, Zinda Bhaag leading the pack.
While, we are seeing a greater variety of films starting to appear on screen, but with our taste buds firmly aligned to what is traditionally considered Bollywood fare, there isn’t much mystery left in what will spark interest and work commercially for financiers. But while Indian movies have more or less remained on the same track for decades, only getting bigger and bolder from a production standpoint, Pakistani films are still trying to emulate the designs of our sister industry, with neither the budget nor the scope.
Still, the success of Jawani Phir Nahi Ani 2 (which made a jaw-dropping 70 crores, becoming the biggest film in Pakistani history), Punjab Nahi Jaungi and Teefa in Trouble has emboldened studios to be less stringent with money and aim for global distribution. While this kind of films are needed for the industry to prosper further, there is no denying that the current crop of ‘masala films’ are at best mediocre from a storytelling perspective (Jawani Phir Nahi Ani, 7 Din Mohabbat In) and at worst are primitive (Punjab Nahi Jaungi, Chhalawa). The solution here isn’t to stop making more films in the JPNA franchise or more of the blockbuster variety, but there does need to be a change in our approach to storytelling.
Simply put, our writers need to shift to smarter storytelling one that doesn’t rely on tasteless tropes and cliches. Currently, belittling transgender people, embarrassing slapstick humor and stereotyping different ethnic groups seems to be a staple of every big budget film. There is no effort to write better roles for women, with existing ones giving them little to do other than stand around and look pretty and dance in songs. A big problem that arises in Pakistani films is that the screenplays being adapted are fundamentally weak, lacking the finesse of Bollywood films. This is largely because the people in charge of writing these shoddy scripts are also the ones who are directing, and it becomes fairly obvious that many just can’t fulfill both tasks well.
Like their TV dramas, major Bollywood films choose to go larger than life, rather than explore real life issues, but it also makes films like Hindi Medium which resonate deeply with audiences. On the television side, our dramas have recently begun to balance their saas bahu (mother-in law/daughter in law) side of things with more gritty, social issues based dramas. And while they’ve earned much praise for that, applying the same formula to films is another matter. More so than dramas, people seek movies for escapism, a fact that is evident in Hollywood as well, as we can see by the success of the Marvel superhero films and by the Dwayne Johnson movies.
With films like Dukhtar, Cake and Laal Kabootar getting some serious international acclaim and our own actors dominating Bollywood films, it’s quite clear that there isn’t a shortage of talent in our country
The actor has previously shared that he ensures that his films end on a happy note as that is an element of his box office draw. That’s part of why movies like Load Wedding have a lesser chance of breaking out, because finding the delicate balance between sharing something of worth without making the film too grim or preachy, and adding the right amount of entertainment is a tricky exercise. It is also why you’ll see fewer people in line for artsy feature films like Laal Kabootar and Cake, that stray from the conventional jubilant wedding oriented movies, despite them being far superior to your typical Pakistani fare.
— Tribune Life & Style (@ETLifeandStyle) March 23, 2019
Given how much our dramas resonate with audiences, there is a strong likelihood that by telling a plethora of different stories and not just sticking to the rote romantic comedies, we will start to see our own identity emerge. One that aligns our interest in music and performance arts with the kind of storytelling that is superior to our Bollywood counterpart and often reflected in the kind of dramas we are making.
The need for our films to establish themselves in their own right and as something different from Indian or even Hollywood movies, is strongly needed, not only for the growth and sustainability of our cinema, but also as another entertainment avenue. With streaming sites becoming power players, perhaps more than anything Pakistani cinema needs auteurs who can color that need for identity.
That can only come from the art house cinema side. We can easily observe what happens when we let many indie directors try their hand at the mundane. Kiwi director Taika Waititi being given the chance to direct Marvel’s Thor resulted in one of the most visually stunning and joyous movies from the studio and Anurag Kashyap rising from Gulal and The Girl in the Yellow Boots to go big with his two-parter Gangs of Wasseypur series, resulted in the director reaching the upper echelons of Indian filmmakers.
Read more: Chhalawa: We Watched It So You Don’t Have to
We need to give voices to younger directors looking to prove themselves. Unearthing the different artistry of a new generation of filmmakers could elevate Pakistani cinema to new heights and more likely give rise to films that aren’t just stylistically different and aesthetically unconventional, but also bring a plethora of new subject matters to the big screen.
In the years ahead it will be interesting to see what comes to define our movie industry and if we are able to make a mark on the world through our films. With films like Dukhtar, Cake and Laal Kabootar getting some serious international acclaim and our own actors dominating Bollywood films, it’s quite clear that there isn’t a shortage of talent in our country. But whether we will be able to overhaul our industry and position it to become great once again, remains to be seen.