Cinema takes us into a world of fantasy and affects how people see reality. Many in Pakistan were upset after seeing Turkish actors wearing Western clothes in real life because they expected them to be covered as they are in the show ‘Dirilis: Ertugrul’.
Through movies Hollywood too created in our imagination a notion that the American nation is ever ready and disciplined, and full of heroes, to meet all crises even when attacked by aliens or villains armed with nuclear weapons. It is another matter that in actuality even the US president was ‘confused” when faced with Covid-19. Movies are even used for subliminal advertisements by big corporations who pay large sums of money. Even more than the US, India has cashed in on this phenomenon. Through Bollywood, India has projected a glamorous image, hiding the real face of its poverty behind the facade of glitter and glamour.
Pakistanis have always been ardent film fans. Pre-Partition, there were two major movie hubs – Bombay and Lahore. While Bombay was bigger, Lahore too had a number of studios. After Partition, Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi along with his wife Noor Jehan decided to come and set up ‘Shahnoor Studios’ from which many landmark movies of Pakistani cinema were then produced.
Ayub Khan’s government took serious interest in film industry and by the 1970s, Pakistani cinema had become a name to reckon with. Great megastars adorned our screens. These artists were also wonderful human beings and in due course became ambassadors of Pakistan worldwide. Noor Jehan, also a product of Pakistan’s films, galvanized the entire nation with her melodious voice during the 1965 and 1971 wars.
Cinema houses were aplenty, including historical ones like Regal and Plaza in Lahore and Nishat in Karachi, giving daily entertainment to millions of Pakistanis and providing employment to all, from billboard painters to cameramen and actors and generating revenue for the government. Then came Ziaul Haq. Entertainment as a whole was discouraged by a regime that considered it against Pakistani culture. Professionals started leaving the industry and the quality of films deteriorated. Families stopped going to cinemas, which too dilapidated. Resultantly people started watching Indian movies at homes on VCRs, enabling, in the words of Soniya Gandhi “Indian culture to invade and take over Pakistani culture in their bedrooms.”
For some time, while some watched Hollywood and Indian content, a large number was left to feed on the Gandasa and Kalashnikov culture and obscene dance numbers projected by mainly Punjabi films.
Many years ago I met Nadeem Mandviwalla, whom I call the pioneer of Pakistan’s cinema revival. At that time, when Pakistani cinema had actually finished, he said to me that he was building a large-scale theatre. When prodded, he said that he had a dream to see the Pakistani film industry flourishing again, and the only way to achieve that was to have more cinemas open up. He explained that a cinema has to be a well-furnished welcoming place where people feel comfortable with their families and get rid of their worries. Months later, he invited me to watch the film ‘Jinnah’. The experience was wonderful. A few months later, I enquired about his cinema. He said that he had to shut it down because there were still no Pakistani movies being made. I assumed that this was the end of his dreams.
Sometime later, I heard that he had opened another cinema in DHA Lahore and permission had been granted by the government to show Indian movies. The strategy behind exhibiting Indian movies was that, in the absence of Pakistani content, good quality cinemas could only be viable if Indian movies were allowed, which would lead to more cinemas opening and eventually encourage revival of Pakistani movies and make them profitable.
To cut a long story short, this is exactly what happened. Cinemas all over the country started to grow and became feasible. This led to Pakistani movies being produced and as movies started being profitable, their quality improved as well. Younger directors, producers, writers and technicians, equipped with better technology, started coming back. A few philanthropists joined me in reviving the Graduate Awards program where film actors and all others involved are given awards for best performances.
The industry had just started walking when the India-Pakistan relationship deteriorated to an extent that cinema owners in a patriotic gesture themselves decided to stop showing Indian content. This seriously reduced audience, but then came Covid-19. Cinemas shut down and the movie industry in Pakistan has once more suffered a huge setback.
There is no doubt that Pakistani films and cinemas must survive but unfortunately to do so they still need the crutches of Indian movies, and this is the dilemma. If we consider the purpose of movies to be ‘entertainment’ only, and like sports, do not make the issue political, then there is no harm in at least temporarily re-opening cinemas with controlled Indian content for the larger purpose of reviving the Pakistan film industry. The argument is that people are in any case already watching uncensored and even pirated Indian and other movies from which the government is not making anything; why not let the people see regulated censored films on the big screen and get rid of piracy?
For the industry’s comeback, the policies of the censor board need to change too so as not to stifle art and innovation. Ultimately, this industry will be the key for Pakistan’s image building worldwide. When I see the abundant talent waiting to join this resurrection, I am sure Pakistani cinema will not only overcome this crisis but also survive competition from the internet, TV or cable. This will ensure economic activity, create employment and provide recreation for an entertainment-starved people.