Films are indicators of future economic and political scenarios

WASHINGTON DIARY: The film factor

by: Dr Manzur Ejaz, USA

Courtesy:, July 7th, 2009

A reinvigorated film industry will not only provide jobs to hundreds of thousands of people, it will also be a major source of foreign exchange earnings because of the large expatriate community living in Europe and North America. Most of the time the entertainment industry, particularly films, are early indicators of future economic and political scenarios. From Hollywood and Bollywood to poor Lollywood, all film industries give very good indications of things to come. Lollywood’s annihilation and Bollywood’s expansion tell the story of two competing countries.

Pakistan was growing steadily economically during the 60s and 70s and so was the film industry. Pakistani films were entertaining the masses and were reflective of changing socio-economic trends. During the 50s, society was overwhelmingly agrarian and urbanisation had not picked up. Therefore, most films revolved around the romances between shehri (urban) babus and rural beauties, or old Nawab families’ domestic conspiracies. Of course, a few films like Kartar Singh excellently portrayed the tragedies of Punjab’s partition, but these films were exceptions.

The film trend changed during 60s, when most Punjabi movies mainly concentrated on class contradictions. The most popular films of that era portrayed the struggle of the oppressed classes. A few anti-colonialism films like Nizam Lohar, Jabro and Malangi were also big hits at the box office. Punjabi films were the harbinger of the great uprising of 1968-70 led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The slogans of this movement were largely derived from the revolutionary themes prevailing in the film industry.

After hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and imposition of martial law by Zia-ul Haq, the film industry peaked with the big bang of Maula Jatt. By itself, Maula Jatt was a very interesting movie because its violence was verbal, with very few physical fights. Maula Jatt’s violent language reflected the masses’ rage against Zia, but their helplessness was reflected in the lack of actual violence in the film. As a matter of fact, it was the best expression of the people’s immaculate rage. Therefore, it broke all the old box office records. After this successful movie, the film industry started dying because of state hostility and the Zia regime’s patronage of religious violence and religious extremism.

In the Indian film industry, the depiction of Amitabh Bachchan as an illegitimate child that rises to become an industrial tycoon in Laawaris was an early indicator of fundamental shifts in Indian society. In contrast to the romantic chocolate heroes of the 50s and early 60s, Bachchan’s rough-tough character was reflective of future caste reconfiguration and a competitive economic environment.

Bachchan’s portrayal of a child born out of wedlock was symbolic of lower castes that were either considered lesser creations or the illegitimate children of God. His revolt as an illegitimate child to overcome the power structure was reflective of the emergence of lower castes. Bachchan films were alluding to the rise of political parties of Dalits and Untouchables in the entire country, particularly in Utter Pradesh. Similarly the capitalist class’ overshadowing of the old aristocracy could also be anticipated from the essence of several Bachchan films.

Another interesting indicator is the emergence of the South Indian film industry. India’s rate of economic growth has been due to phenomenal economic progress in the Southern states. North Indian economic growth has been quite disappointing. The rise of South Indian films, made in indigenous languages like Malayalam, Telugu and Tamil, was concurrent with its industrial growth. Presently, the South Indian film industry produces proportionately more movies than its share of the population (about one-fifth).

On the contrary, Pakistan’s economic degradation is reflected in the downfall of Lollywood. Television plays have tried to fill the gap. However, TV plays have been covering narrow topics like feudal conspiracies and stagnant middle class culture. Incidentally, Indian TV plays are no different, which indicates that the silver screen has inherent limitations, whereas cinema has a broader capacity.

Film production requires a broad spectrum of technical know-how and top multi-dimensional artistic skills. India has developed a good infrastructure for film production. Although Pakistan has lost the technical skills and artistic capabilities required for movie making, there is still enough talent that can be groomed for the rehabilitation of the film industry. The main hindrance seems to be the large sums of investment required for film production. Such investors were plentiful in the 60s and 70s, but they disappeared due to the state’s anti-film policies and the rise of fundamentalism. And they are not going to come back without enticing incentives.

The rehabilitation of film needs to be jump-started through film-friendly policies. The Pakistani government, following Iran’s example, should construct new film studios equipped with state of the art technology. In addition, there should be special tax relief for a certain period for investors in this industry. Likewise, the tax on tickets should be minimised to encourage the proliferation of cinema houses. Once the industry comes back to full strength, the government will end up collecting more revenues than it does now.

A reinvigorated film industry will not only provide jobs to hundreds of thousands of people, it will also be a major source of foreign exchange earnings because of the large expatriate community living in Europe and North America. Pakistan’s Punjabi film can be easily marketed in India as well to balance the Bollywood edge. Entertainment through film can promote moderation and tolerance in society, and can also be a tool to fight extremism. The government can also approach other countries interested in fighting extremism and terrorism to provide aid and loans for the rehabilitation of the film industry as part of the ‘hearts and minds’ campaign. The success of such rehabilitation efforts will show whether or not Pakistan is back on the path of progress.

The writer can be reached at


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