Entering the cinema, I wondered if Zinda Bhaag would be all that they were saying it was. Turns out the neo-realistic film, set in inner city Lahore and directed by Farjad Nabi and Meenu Gaur, was more. Watching the scene where Khaldi, a young man desperate to get out of Pakistan, looks with burning eyes and a quiet longing at his friend Chitta, who is leaving as an illegal immigrant to Italy, I realized that Pakistani cinema had finally arrived.
Zinda Bhaag is the country’s first entry to this year’s Oscars, in the foreign language film category. But equally important, the film’s box-office collections (75 lakh Pakistani rupees in its first week) are an indication that Pakistanis are returning to the cinema. Many youngsters queuing up at the new multiplexes mushrooming across cities are discovering Pakistani films for the first time.
For over a decade, barring the occasional activism-laden films, very few movies have been produced in Pakistan. After the fall of East Pakistan (now Bangaldesh), Pakistan lost over 1,100 cinema screens and a major chunk of talent and technical expertise of the film industry. That, coupled with the steep taxation policies of the mid-’70s, discouraged traditional investors, and new financers entered the game. “Investors, primarily from Punjab, who wanted to turn black money into white via the film industry affected the kind of films made,” says Pakistani film critic Rafay Mahmood, referring to the crass, violence-fuelled Punjabi entertainers that became the staple. Pushto films from the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa suffered a similar fate.
Pakistani television then became the benchmark for quality, and soon cinema had to compete with this mass medium. Realistic serials like Khuda ki Basti (1969-74) and Waris (1980) were both critically-acclaimed and successful. The ban on Bollywood, in place since 1965, was only lifted in President Musharraf’s era, with a restored version of Mughal-e-Azam that paved the way for more Indian releases. But families preferred watching these films from across the border on their VCRs, as it was both convenient and cheaper.
The ‘revival’ of indigenous films today is due to a number of factors, including the success of Bollywood in Pakistan, which revived exhibitor interest. The advent of multiplexes over the last two years has also helped. The mid 2000s saw a surge in graduates from local institutes like the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in Karachi, all keen to act in films in Pakistan. They will find a supporter in Nadeem Mandviwalla, the man behind The Platform, Pakistan’s first independent film distribution body launched a few months ago. Mandviwalla promises to incentivize filmmakers experimenting with alternate genres by helping them with film distribution and promotions. Also the owner of multiscreen cinemas like Atrium in Karachi and Centaurus Cineplex in Islamabad, he is enthusiastic about the work he is seeing today. “An industry that had not made films for the last 10 years comes up with Mein Hoon Shahid Afridi (MHSA) and Waar. Imagine what they will produce a decade from now,” he says.
MHSA, touted as Pakistan’s first commercial sports film, was produced by and stars Humayun Saeed, a reputed TV star. Saeed believes local cinema needs more support from distributors, who push foreign films because they generate higher revenues. Director Bilal Lashari’s Waar, an English film about terrorism starring the industry’s only superstar Shaan, released Oct 16 and has reportedly beaten Chennai Express’s opening day box-office collections in Pakistan.
Critics agree that the latest offerings of Pakistani cinema have a freshness reminiscent at times of the acclaimed films of Iran. Which is why Mahmood refers to this phase as the birth, not rebirth, of Pakistani cinema. “It is no longer Lollywood. It is something new,” he states.