In Pakistan, it was breaking news. A committee had been set up to select a film and send it to the Oscars for consideration in the foreign-language category. In the past, Pakistan has only submitted two films for Oscar consideration Jago Hua Savera (1959) and Ghunghat (1962).
That was 50 years ago. A ban on foreign and Indian films, stiff competition from VCRs, lack of basic infrastructure or funding and demolition of cinema halls resulted in a weakened film industry and an apathetic audience.
Today, the Pakistani film industry is going through a revival.
There wasn’t a single major film released in Urdu last year this year has already seen four, and 13 more are scheduled for release. Eight films were released during Eid one in Urdu and the rest in regional languages (3 Punjabi and 4 Pashto).
Zinda Bhaag, which stars Naseeruddin Shah, recently bagged four awards, including the best film, at the Mosaic 2013 (MISSAF) festival in Toronto. Main Hoon Shahid Afridi, based on a boy who wants to become the famous cricketer, released to packed theatres a few weeks back. In March 2014, the first ever international Urdu Film Festival (UFF) will be held in Italy to promote Pakistani cinema and encourage emerging talent.
“Over 20 films are set to release in 2013, a huge leap from previous years. We have also seen an unprecedented increase in the number of theatres and multiplexes opening across the country,” says Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who chairs the committee that will select a film for the Oscars.
Obaid-Chinoy is also the first Pakistani to win an Oscar, for her co-directed 2011 documentary Saving Face. ‘Going to the movies’ is now big business in Pakistan,” she says.
Box office hits
Nadeem Mandviwalla would agree. The founder of Mandviwalla Entertainment has been one of the pillars involved in rebuilding Pakistan’s film industry. Through his cinemas and film distribution system, he is responsible for bringing in Hollywood, 3D and animated films. During Eid, his Atrium multiplex in Karachi pulled in 94% of his business in six days at three screens, six shows a day.
Earlier this year, the film Chambaili became a box office hit, earning more than PKR 100 million locally. The horror flick
Siyaah and Josh (Urdu) recovered their costs and Ishq Khuda (Punjabi) looks set to cross the 20-25 million mark.
“What all these figures show is the fact that films have started earning in Pakistan,” says Aayan Mirza, a film journalist and one of the four curators that run the Galaxy Lollywood website. He is also one of the brains behind the Urdu Film Festival.
“The commercial viability of the industry is returning and it has everything to do with the fact that multiplexes exist,” says Mandviwalla. Pakistan has ten multiplexes, several upgraded single screen cinemas, some equipped with 3D technology, and numerous conventional single screen cinemas.
One of the major factors behind the film industry’s resurgence is the government’s decision to waive the controversial entertainment tax. This brought in people like Mandviwalla who were interested in film distribution.
There are very few distributors present in Pakistan and most of them are affiliated with Media groups like Geo Films (Geo & Jung Group) and ARY Films (Ary Media Group). Recently a new group called ‘The Platform’ was formed by ARY Group and Mandviwalla Entertainment to give a platform to those new filmmakers.
Besides, easier access to technology means social media is being harnessed for better distribution. “Digital film making has been the real game changer,” says Aisha K, a filmmaker. Many films are making the effort to cross boundaries, getting exhibited and receiving critical acclaim outside the country.
One of these films was the Eid release, Josh, that premiered at the 2012 Mumbai International Film Festival. “I think there is a rise of the Pakistani spring, the ‘Naya’ Pakistan. There are better films in the pipeline.
We just had to take the leap and now the flood gates have opened,” says debutante-director Iram Parveen Belal. Josh, which is a mystery thriller in Urdu-English was made on a small budget and got a limited release in Pakistan. “People are not very used to Indie cinema. That being said, I have received appreciative comments on the film,” she says.
Pakistan, inspired by the success of Obaid-Chinoy’s own documentary that was received well internationally, also has an independent documentary film scene, though it is still in its infancy. While most of the recent big poster films are in Urdu, there are a significant number of films being made in Punjabi and Pashto that are popular in certain regions.
Many new films use English and often a mixture of many languages.
“The new generation is expanding the industry horizontally; they come with fresh ideas and are not afraid to take chances.
There are local art and film schools producing exceptional writers, directors and producers,” says Obaid-Chinoy. “There are a lot of new faces in the Pakistan film industry this year, young talent in the form of actors and directors have been doing their bit to revive the film industry.
These young directors are exploring new stories and making films which can break the old image of the industry,” says Yasser Bilal Kiyani, a 23-year-old student and creator of Pakistani Cinema blog.
It appears that the country taking note of the new wave and even in Pakistan’s perpetual state of political and social instability, films are finding their voice.
It’s what Obaid-Chinoy calls a ‘cathartic process’ and Mirza refers to as ‘societal frustration’. “I think films are a very strong element of nationalist identity,” adds Aisha. Waar talks about the issues of extremism and terrorism, Zinda Bhaag is about illegal immigration, Hijrat is set against the backdrop of the Afghan war, The Dusk revolves around people missing due to drone attacks and Chambaili is a political drama.
“In the case of making a film, it is the subject you pick and the place you exhibit it. With both factors now available in Pakistan, we are seeing these films being made more often,” says Mirza.
It’s not all hunky-dory though. The revival is still in its early stages. Most of the current crop of filmmakers have studied abroad and many still turn to the west for technical and other help in the filmmaking process. The films screened in Pakistan, barring a few, are not released globally unless they are bought by foreign buyers or have found foreign distributors.
“The greatest ills facing our industry are a lack of funding for filmmakers and a lack of mentors for first-time directors and cinematographers. People need to start believing in Lollywood again,” says Obaid-Chinoy. She has a point. Even though there is a committee that has been formed to select a film for the Oscars, there are various conspiracy theories around it.
“Perhaps what we need most in the country are graduate-level training programs and exceptional faculty who can help mentor new artists,” says Dr Framji Minwalla, chair, department of social sciences and liberal arts, Institute of Business Administration, and one of the members of film selection committee for the Oscars.
Good film academies, a state-of-the-art film processing lab, the latest technical equipment, a more stable environment with better infrastructure, and better state support...there is much work that needs to be done to restore Pakistani cinema to its former glory.
“The concentration now is to build cinema...let it grow to the point that filmmaking becomes the rule not the exception,” says Mandviwalla. Then, may be, India will see more from the industry that gave us Bol and Khuda kay liye.