McLeod Road in Lahore is jam-packed. In an open space at the edge of the road stands Mehfooz Chaudhry, an elderly man wearing white shalwar kameez and a green jacket to fight off the early March chill in the air. He calls a reporter, struggling to communicate amidst the unrelenting sounds of horns.
MEHFOOZ CHAUDHRY: Yes betay, where are you? Stuck in traffic I’m sure? Ok, don’t worry; I’m holding a parking spot for you.
He stands next to his Mercedes Benz, personally guarding space for parking the reporter’s vehicle.
Chaudhry is the owner of Ratan Cinema and is extending Lahore’s traditional hospitality to an outsider. He is no stranger in Royal Park – an area on the confluence of McLeod Road and Abbott Road – where he has been running his film and cinema business for decades. To say that cinema was, and is, Chaudhry’s life would not be much of an exaggeration; he, indeed, was born in the compound of a cinema.
In pre-partition India, his father Chaudhry Eid Muhammad worked as an electrician at Nishat Cinema in Ambala before becoming a cinema proprietor in the same town and in Dehradun as well. When Muhammad moved to Lahore in 1947, the government allotted him Ratan Cinema. He soon branched into film distribution and production. It was a good time for the movies, reminisces Chaudhry; films provided people with an escape from the adversities and sufferings of Partition.
Ratan Cinema went on to screen many hit films. When Dilip Kumar-starrer Aan was to be released here in 1953, for example, people slept outside the box office overnight to get advance booking. The film ran for nearly a year to packed halls.
Today Ratan Cinema is an abandoned structure on McLeod Road. As a lonely witness to its changed fortunes, its unwelcoming building stands behind a closed rusty gate, held together by an equally rusty chain and lock. Wild plants have taken over the space around the gate; nobody seems to have set foot in the building for years.
While talking about the past, Chaudhry speaks with conviction and confidence; when discussing newer technologies, he hesitates. A film purist, he finds it difficult to come to terms with digital film production and exhibition. Deriding the digital technology and its paraphernalia, he insists that cinemas must only play movies shot on 35 mm, 16 mm or 70 mm film. “A cinema house must play ‘film’. I do not consider these small theatres playing digital contents to be cinemas.”
This could be a nostalgic view, at best. The reality is fast moving in the opposite direction. Traditional single-screen, large-capacity cinema houses, such as the one owned by Chaudhry are dying across Pakistan and, indeed, the world over. Those with multiple screens, and often smaller auditoriums, are clearly in vogue everywhere.
In just one of the many indications of this change, Abbot Road, which once housed more single-screen cinemas than any other part of Lahore – or Pakistan, for that matter – attracts many more food lovers than it does cinemagoers. Many cinemas have been shut down here; many others have been demolished. Those still in the business of showing movies are struggling for survival.
One of them, Capital Cinema, is playing Shaan and Saima-starrer Yaar Badmaash on a Sunday to a nearly empty auditorium. Another, Odeon Cinema, is awaiting patrons who don’t seem to exist. Only one ticket has been sold minutes before the start of 9 pm show and the cinema staff is debating whether the screening should be cancelled.
Gul Mohammad, an old man sitting behind a grill at the ticket counter, has seen Odeon Cinema fade into insignificance over the decades — since May 10, 1958, to be exact, when he started working here. The cinema’s manager, Malik Munawar, too, has been working here since 1967. Their long tenures suggest that business has been good, or at least stable, at the cinema for a very long time. Now, the two staffers know, it is time for a curtain call.
Abdul Hammad, the elderly owner of a shop selling Kashmiri chai adjacent to Capital Cinema, remembers the time when the neighbourhood bustled with crowds of film lovers. Glittering with sheesha-kari work augmented by energy saver lights, his tea house is still doing well. Many families are sitting outside the shop, enjoying the pinkish drink. “God has been kind,” Hammad says, as he passes paper teacups to customers while catching glimpses of Peace TV running above his counter.
Further west from these tea drinkers, restaurants and stalls selling all kinds of desi food – from chickpeas in gravy to barbecue and from rice and lentils to mutton roast – are doing a roaring business even when the traditional Abbott Road cinemagoers are only few and far in between their customers.
Amid this gloomy cinema scene, Shabistan and Prince cinemas have created a rare success story. Having existed as twins in the same compound since 1974, when they first became operational, the cinemas received a facelift two years ago and were rebranded as Super Cinema — an improvised two-screen facility. Given its location in a mainly lower-middle-class area full of small commercial concerns, it attracts an awaami audience unlike its counterpart multiplexes in localities such as Defence Housing Authority. Since the star-studded premiere of Zinda Bhaag here in 2013, it has been attracting audiences in much larger numbers than it did before the facelift. Javed Sheikh-starrer Na Maloom Afraad ran here for two months in 2014; O21 opened to a packed house the same year and, before that, in 2013, Main Hoon Shahid Afridi had a successful three-month run.
Groups of young men smoke and chatter as their friends purchase tickets at the Super Cinema box office. Unlike the staffers at other cinemas in the area, Ahmed Hussain, the accountant here, is a young man in his twenties. “People eat for free at the Bahria Dastarkhwan across the road, come in here, buy tickets and watch a film,” he says in a light-hearted tone. To save money on food to watch a movie in a cinema is, indeed, bucking the trend on Abbott Road.
Chaudhry believes most cinemas along and around the road are doing poorly because of how the Royal Park area has evolved over time. What was once a residential neighbourhood has now changed into a warren of shops, he says. “After a tiring day, one would want to go back to his family and watch a film close to where one lives, not in a far-off commercial neighbourhood. This explains why new cinemas, such as DHA Cinema in Lahore, have succeeded,” he says.
Apart from being a residential locality till the late 1980s, Royal Park also had a central place in film distribution and exhibition till a decade or so ago. All the major film distributors in the country once had their offices here. Now most of those distributors have moved to Karachi. “They are trying to reduce their presence in Lahore, which is not fair. This is where it all started,” says Chaudhry, pointing to the area around him which looks more like the set of a period film about an urban wasteland than a suitable place for producing, distributing and watching movies.
It is a 9-12 pm showing at Karachi’s Nishat Cinema; people from different strata of society sit in the auditorium. Up in the grand circle, the audience gets more exclusive, as the who’s who of Karachi occupy seats, with some men decked in suits and most women wearing saris.
ANNOUNCER (V.O): Ab aap apna qaumi tarana sunein ge; aap se iltimaas hai ke iss ke ehtraam mein khamoosh aur ba adab kharay ho jaen*
Everyone in the audience rises. Two people keep sitting. A man in the audience grabs their shoulders and makes them stand up, patting them on the back.
MAN: Stand up! Your country’s national anthem is playing.
*Now you will hear your national anthem; you are requested to stand quietly in respect of it.
“Before the national anthem was played, a child would appear on the screen with a finger on his lips, suggesting that everyone be silent; the hall would instantly become quiet,” is how Raju Jameel retells the story he has heard from his father – writer, poet and columnist Jameeluddin Aali – of film-watching in the 1960s, also fondly remembered as the golden era of Pakistani cinema. Following the national anthem a video package, titled Pakistan Ka Tasveeri Khabarnama, would be shown. It was essentially a pictorial news report about the latest happenings in the country. “In that khabarnama, produced by the Department of Film Productions, Ministry of Information, [actor] Talat Hussain would take the audience through the developments taking place in a young Pakistan,” says Jameel who is also a television actor and a film aficionado.
Cinema, in other words, was as much a source of entertainment as it was a medium for nation-building. And it also mostly showed films that had social, moral and even religious themes — all in tandem with the emotional and psychological requirements of a people trying to find footing and solace in their newfound homeland. Most of these films were, incidentally, produced in Karachi.
The film industry has gone through a complete transformation since then. The themes have shifted multiple times between the 1960s and 2000s – from romance to politics to mindless violence and back to romance and politics – and so has the industry’s centre of gravity, from Karachi to Lahore and back to Karachi.
In a feature published in the Herald’s May 1973 issue, Seen Rey posed the question, “Can Karachi Salvage Its Film Industry?” The writer then stated the reason for asking the question: “Slowly but visibly, Lahore is attracting all the landmarks and rolling stones of the film industry who find living elsewhere perilous for themselves and for posterity.” Today a shift in the opposite direction is visible: With Karachi-based television giants, such as Geo, ARY and more recently Hum TV, becoming prominent players in film production, it is increasingly apparent that the oft-talked ‘revival’ of the Pakistani film industry may well happen in Karachi.
The geographical change, inexorably, brings with it a huge influence of television. In the recent past, almost every film made in Karachi has had a strong presence of people – from directors to writers and even actors – originally trained for television. The latest releases, Bin Roye, Wrong No and Karachi Se Lahore, all have lead actors and production crews who have already made a name in television. As the television drama industry based in Karachi continues to thrive, so does filmmaking in the city. This successful symbiosis is encouraging film producers to tread unchartered territories.
With Bin Roye, for instance, the producers are introducing something untried and untested in Pakistan: the film is also slated to be released as an extended drama serial on television. Geo has similar plans for its upcoming film Manto, a biopic about Saadat Hasan Manto directed by Sarmad Sultan Khoosat. In a reversal of the long-forgotten phenomenon of successful televisions serials – such as Dubai Chalo – becoming successful films, this planned turning of films into television dramas will further cement the fast-developing ties between the two mediums.
Together, these trends point to the new direction that film industry in Pakistan is taking: the films being produced today are setting their own conventions and the treatment of their themes is entirely different from the traditional Lollywood films — mostly produced in Lahore during the 1980s and 1990s.
Matteela Films, an indie film production company, however, is not willing to completely divorce the past for the sake of the future. It has, in fact, found an interesting middle ground between the new cinema and Lollywood, between Karachi and Lahore. In Zinda Bhaag, the company employed a plot rooted strongly in Lahore’s street culture and retained many traditional Lollywood tropes in marketing as well. In the age of digital posters, for instance, its advertising hoardings were hand-painted by Sarfraz Iqbal, an artist who has been painting film marketing materials since 1962 and is considered to be the last remaining master of this art form. Similarly, the film’s soundtrack features a cellist and several violinists who once worked for the Lahore-based film studios.
The co-directors of Zinda Bhaag, Meenu Gaur and Farjad Nabi, wanted the new Pakistani cinema to have some linkages with its past, says Mazhar Zaidi, the film’s producer. “Disowning Lollywood is a very easy and a very ‘cool’ thing to do … but if you look at it, there are some excellent films that were produced in that era,” he says.
Yet, two years down the line from Zinda Bhaag’s release, Zaidi can be seen at Matteela Films' Karachi offices. His company is working on one of its next projects, The Restless Ghost of Maula Jutt — a documentary that will explore the reasons behind the decline of Lollywood films. “Can a film carry a film industry to its zenith and cause its downfall as well? The Restless Ghost of Maula Jutt attempts to unlock this paradox,” is how the project’s official description reads.
The films being produced today are setting their own conventions and the treatment of their themes is entirely different from the traditional Lollywood films — mostly produced in Lahore during the 1980s and 1990s.
The Punjabi film Maula Jutt (released in 1979) ran for 216 weeks continuously until martial law authorities took it down. “They were too late. The story in which the hero, Maula Jutt, delivers justice to the doorstep of the poor had already become the stuff of legends,” says Zaidi. Nearly 25 years later, the imagery of Maula Jutt remains deeply engraved in Pakistani pop culture iconography.
The film is also well remembered for setting a trend in movie-making that would not entice the men in suits and women in saris — the urban, educated audiences. Writing about this, film-maker Ali Kapadia noted in his essay, Understanding the Most Powerful Pakistani Film of All Time, published in an American magazine, Medium: “This phenomenal success made [the film] the poster child for success under the new rules. A sea of films would copy its blueprint for decades, and as Pakistani cinema became violent, alienating skilled talent and regular family audiences, so did Pakistani society. Quality declined, and so did the Pakistani film industry.”
The viewing experience of these violence-ridden, crudely produced films, as Kapadia argues, was vastly different from what Jameel’s father experienced five decades ago: families, looking for entertainment, moved away from the cinema and gravitated to television.
More recently, family-friendly cinema seems to be making a comeback — and not just through the themes films are trying to explore. Founded in 2003, Universal Cineplex, a multiplex cinema in Karachi, initially prohibited ‘stags’ from entering its premises: no men could get in unless accompanied by ‘families’ (read: female companions). This is a far cry from the environment at single-screen cinemas where an all-male audience would shine laser lights on female forms on-screen. The rules of watching cinema are changing — again.
A house full of an engrossed audience of all ages watches Dil Dhadakne Do. It is dark, with the only source of light being the cinema’s screen itself.
As the credits start to roll, most people stand up to leave the hall. The usher opens a door to the right, with a red sign reading “EXIT” on top.
People start to walk out — amongst them is a group of four youngsters.
Most people walk fast, making their way through the crowded alley. The four youngsters are walking relatively slowly. Another man is walking at a short distance, looking at them and then looking away; he is discreetly listening to their conversation.
YOUNG MAN 1: It was okay.
YOUNG WOMAN 1: I liked it.
YOUNG MAN 1: You would like anything with Farhan Akhtar in it.
YOUNG MAN 2: It was good. I just wish the ending was clearer, I mean…
They exit, the other man exits behind them.
The lobby is crowded with barely any place to move. The man is still following the group of youngsters. He can see them laughing and is attempting to listen to them, but the noise of people coming out of different screenings makes their conversation inaudible. Giving up, he heads for the escalators.
“When, as a child, I used to go to cinemas in Lahore, there was no concept of buying your Coke bottle and packet of chips from the lobby,” says Mira Hashmi, a film critic who also teaches film studies at the Lahore School of Economics. Salesmen would come inside the halls during the interval, she reminisces. They would use a bottle opener as a musical instrument, hitting it against rows of cold drink bottles stacked in crates they carried. The sound would catch peoples’ attention and interested buyers would call out the salespeople.
Hashmi refers to the cinema of the time – that is, of the late 1970s and early 1980s – as the “great leveler”. English speaking upper-middle-class people, rickshaw drivers, factory workers, would all see the same film in the same hall, pay the same amount of money for the same snacks and immerse in the same cultural conversations. The multiplex culture, Hashmi remarks, has “insidious” money and class factors about it. It is about “who has it and who doesn’t”.
She feels cinema is becoming increasingly about add-ons. Multiplexes in major cities in Pakistan now offer different “experiences”, with the most expensive ones having reclining seats and snacks being brought into the auditoriums by liveried waiters in the midst of film screening. Royal Cinema at Nueplex, Karachi, for example, charges 400 rupees over and above the standard ticket price of 600 rupees for “royal value added services.” The price tag is even higher for the royal 3D experience — the ticket alone costs 1,250 rupees with additional charges for different types of 3D glasses. The most expensive glasses are available at 400 rupees.
These additional offers suggest the film in itself isn’t enough anymore, argues Hashmi. “It’s like I am here to watch a film, but what else can I do in this space? Can I lie down, have caviar and get a massage while I am at it? I find the whole thing very distasteful; when did it stop being about the movies?” she asks.
To Hashmi, the multiplex culture is reflective of how societies have transformed now that there is a great emphasis on making the most of what you have. “It all becomes about the bottom dollar really. If you have a certain amount of space, you want to use it to cater to everything. On one screen you would have a children’s film, another might be running a romance and a third might have a sci-fi [movie] playing.”
Hashmi also observes that multiplexes are exclusively an urban phenomenon and their proliferation, in turn, does have impact on what films are made and how they are made. “When we talk about Indian films which were big in the 1960s or the 1970s,” she says, “we are talking about films that were shown in single-screen cinemas all over India for all types of audiences.” Those audiences were urban as well as rural, they came from small towns also, and they were a mix of classes, she explains.
Mohsin Yaseen, general manager marketing and operations at Cinepax – the company that owns Pakistan’s largest multiplex cinema network – has a slightly different opinion. While he agrees that the prices for a ‘platinum’ experience at a Cinepax cinema may be out of reach for many, he also claims his company is trying to cater to everyone. “Our ticket prices range from as low as 200 rupees to as high as 1,200 rupees [at different locations across Pakistan].”
Cinepax is in a unique position to offer these varying prices; it runs 18 operational screens across the country. No other firm running multiplexes can, however, afford such diverse ticket ranges simply because of the limited number of screens they operate.
In the age of Internet and digital media, reaching out to audiences is no longer as simple as it used to be in the past, when a cinema house – or a kuchee taaki for that matter – was the only venue for exhibiting a film.
Yaseen, though, explains that catering to an exclusive audience is no longer a successful strategy. The “upper-level” of the cinema market has already reached a saturation point, he says. Now is the time to expand the business by building “lower-end” cinemas, he adds. “There is a lot of scope for the development of lower-tier cinemas which charge between 100 rupees and 200 rupees for a ticket.”
When multiplexes started going up in India and single-screen cinemas started dying, there was a similar debate there about the exclusion of people belonging to certain classes and locations, Hashmi points out. But then UFO Digital Cinema Systems came along and revolutionised the cinema culture in that country. While, initially, digital technologies were seen as driving the final nail in the coffin of single-screen cinemas, these systems are doing exactly the opposite — coming to their rescue. “[These systems] are designed to upgrade old single-screen cinemas into digital ones,” Yaseen explains.
To use these systems, a cinema owner is required to install only a digital projector and a satellite dish. Films are beamed to all the affiliated cinemas directly from a central location and are received through the dish. The beaming company prepares a schedule for screening and shares it with the cinemas. The exhibitors only turn on the projector and screen the film. This cut costs and makes the latest releases accessible even to cinemas in far-flung areas.
Most importantly, UFO Digital Cinema Systems do not require film-makers to preserve their product on 35 mm prints — which has been the norm until only a year ago. These prints are expensive and their high prices restrict producers from making multiple copies to run at multiple locations at the same time. “Now everyone can get every film the first day, first show,” says Yaseen excitedly.
As of February 2015, close to 5,000 screens across India were using UFO Digital Cinema Systems. According to the UFO Moviez website, the company has managed to digitally deliver more than 1,500 movies in 33 languages to 4,912 screens spread across India. These systems are now available in Pakistan too, and Roxy Cinema in Gujranwala is already using these.
The cinema has been non-operational for six months before its owners decided to invest in UFO Digital Cinema Systems. They renovated the building before Eid – in July 2015 – and, as per estimates provided by Yaseen, earned 900,000 rupees on the extended Eid weekend alone, through the films beamed by Cinepax.
Technological evolution, indeed, is broadening and multiplying the mediums available for watching a film rather than leading to the death of cinema, as had been feared. “The news of the death of cinema has been greatly exaggerated,” said Henry Jenkins, a teacher of communication, journalism, cinematic arts and education at the University of Southern California. Delivering a lecture – titled New Audience: Moviegoing in a Connected World and organised by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – he argued no medium ever died completely. “Live theatre persists in the face of cinema, radio persists in the face of television...” Jenkins acknowledged that cinema is in a state of flux but predicted: “The future of cinema will involve diverse not singular exhibition experiences — both public and private, both in commercial movie theatres and beyond.”
At the same event, Academy Award-winner John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, made another pertinent observation: “What’s great about film is that it constantly reinvents itself.”
On a sunny Karachi day, some men are putting up a shamiana tent and setting up chairs in rows. Others are inflating a white cloth sheet with help from two air pumps. Soon enough a large screen stands erect, ready for a film screening.
This is a temporary screen, set up as part of a travelling film festival, Kuchee Talkies, organised by Matteela Films. The name of the festival is reminiscent of travelling film exhibitions of the past which, in local parlance in Punjab and Sindh, were called kuchee taaki (the cinemas, in contrast, were called pukkee taaki, or fixed screen). ‘Taaki’ is both the indigenous word for a piece of cloth and a distorted form of talkie, a term coined for films with a soundtrack when they first became available back in the early part of the 20th century.
Organisers say Kuchee Talkies is a reaction to the growth of multiplexes, which meant that only a certain class will consume cinema. The idea is to take cinema to the people, says Zaidi. In Karachi, at venues ranging from Korangi, Lyari, the Arts Council and various universities, the festival has done 70 screenings of Zinda Bhaag alone and has now diversified into other South Asian films, including Indian features Ugly and Ankhon Dekhi, and Bangladeshi film Television.
In the age of Internet and digital media, reaching out to audiences is no longer as simple as it used to be in the past, when a cinema house – or a kuchee taaki for that matter – was the only venue for exhibiting a film. The ways in which people consume films have multiplied. Most people with access to fast internet connections can stream films directly on their computers and even mobile phones; many others watch films on DVDs, both legal and pirated, in the comfort of their homes.
High-speed technological evolution in movie-watching is making it increasingly possible for an increasing number of people to watch movies without having to move from their homes or workplaces and, most importantly, without having to pay for it. Film producers and distributors all over the world are struggling to catch up with this evolution. Only a few of them seem to have succeeded so far in coming up with ways and means to make money from new mediums.
The makers of Zinda Bhaag are among the successful ones. They have explored multiple avenues for distributing their film — making it available on iTunes, a media library maintained by Apple Inc, and selling its distribution rights to Netflix, an American company that provides on-demand Internet screening of media content. Based on the amount of comments about the film, Zaidi estimates that Zinda Bhaag is doing quite well on the latter platform. This past Eid, the film was also released on DVD by Laraib Music, becoming only the second film this Karachi-based DVD-seller has distributed. Josh, another Pakistani release in 2013, was the first. It was Josh’s director, Iram Parveen Bilal, who convinced the people at Laraib Music to get into film distribution.
Gul Hassan, an old man with grey hair, thick glasses and a quiet demeanor, is the owner of Laraib Music. On a recent workday, he stands behind the counter in his shop in the Clifton area. A young man, with a hint of an American accent in his speech, approaches him and asks if Pakistani film Waar is available on DVD. Hassan tells him that the film has yet to come out on DVD. “But we have this,” he says, pointing encouragingly to a stack of Zinda Bhaag DVDs at one side of the counter.
In small towns across Pakistan, cinemas have experienced a decline in their fortunes.
Hassan opened Laraib Music in 1990. Since the beginning, he had decided to stay away from selling pirated movies as was virtually customary at Rainbow Centre in Karachi’s Saddar area. He remembers dealing largely in copyrighted VHS prints distributed by Pulse Global, a now defunct company. A Pulse Global cassette – primarily of a Hollywood film – cost 275 rupees at a time when other VHS cassettes cost 100 rupees.
Much has changed since then. VHS cassettes have become extinct and DVD sales have considerably fallen due to availability of online streaming as well as screening of films by local cable television operators. Hassan’s son, Umair Hassan, a young man in jeans and a Pink Floyd T-shirt, claims to have witnessed a steep fall in DVD sales in the last six month alone. “The only reason some people still come in here is because they are unable to download or stream films owing to poor Internet speed,” he says.
Yet, he sees getting into DVD distribution of Pakistani films as a long-term investment for Laraib Music. “We have not made much money by distributing these films yet but we hope that a couple of years down the line we will start seeing profits.”
It is a festive Thursday evening in Mirpurkhas. Men sit and chat over cups of chai at the open-air Firdous Café, right under the British-era building of Firdous Cinema. A man enters, another stands up and hugs him.
Man 1: Eid Mubarak.
Man 2: Eid Mubarak.
The road has visible patches of dried blood of the animals slaughtered on Eid. Traffic flows slowly on the dusty road. Suddenly a part of the metal and concrete structure of the cinema plunges onto the café.
Many people are trapped under the debris. Panicked drivers get out of their vehicles to help with the rescue effort.
In October 2014, on the third day of Eidul Azha, one Mohammad Imran lost his life in the incident. He was an employee of Firdous Cinema. Six others who were injured had to be rushed to a local hospital. Building control authorities declared the cinema a dangerous structure and closed it down — thus ended the story of the only functional cinema in Mirpurkhas.
Mohammad Arshad, the manager at Café Firdous, says the cinema had fallen into disrepair and had stopped screening films much before it was shut down. One of the last films to run here was Waar that attracted large crowds.
In small towns across Pakistan, cinemas have experienced a similar decline in their fortunes. But hardly anyone mourns their demise — certainly not in Mirpurkhas. The residents of the town have been using many other mediums to watch movies — much like elsewhere in the country.
Fateh Mohammad, a local taxi driver, says he can watch films all day long on a small LCD screen fitted onto the dashboard of his car. His gloves compartment is full of DVDs of films made in Bollywood in the 1990s. He has purchased them from a local DVD shop. But, like in the metropolitan cities, DVDs, too, are being replaced by other technologies in Mirpurkhas.
Paras Music Centre, a DVD shop close to Firdous Cinema, looks deserted on a weekend in June 2015. It has a sizeable collection of films in languages as diverse as English, Urdu, Hindi, Pashto and Sindhi. When a rare customer finally turns up, he is not looking to buy a DVD. Instead, he takes out his cell phone from his pocket and asks a worker in the shop to upload songs into it.
Abdul Rashik Khan, the shop’s middle-aged owner, says the heyday of his business are already behind him. “Now people come here with a two gigabyte memory card and tell us to fill it up with as many films as it can carry,” he says.
In the nearby city of Hyderabad, an audience of 50 is randomly dispersed in an auditorium which can accommodate as many as 400 people. This is Bambino Cinema, decorated with ferry lights and a staircase adorned with cast-iron figures of dancing girls wearing ghagra choli. Ticket prices here can be as low as 150 rupees, yet, according to its manager Mujahid Akbar Khan, the number of people watching a film keeps fluctuating unpredictably — sometimes due to reasons which have little to do with the quality of the film on offer.
Flanked by Kacha Qila, an area dominated by the supporters of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and another locality where the voters of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) reside, Bambino Cinema has often seen its business suffer due to political strife between the two parties. Even on that weekend in June 2015 the audience has been small, partly due to an MQM strike call.
Khan is a veteran of movie business. He has been working at another local cinema since 1976 but then that place shut down in 2003 and he joined Bambino Cinema. Like his counterparts working on Lahore’s Abbot Road, he instinctively knows where the future lies — smaller cinema halls, possibly as part of a multiplex. He talks about a small cinema, Cine Moosh, in Latifabad area; it has the seating capacity of only 144. Ticket prices there are as high as 600 rupees and yet it does great business, says Khan.
Both its limited seating capacity and high ticket prices mean that the poor and lower-middle-class residents of the city will never get into Cine Moosh. Some others may shun it for cultural reasons. At a local chai shop, the television is tuned to Geo News. A young man walks in with his friends, orders chai and instructs the waiter to turn the television to a channel playing a Hrithik Roshan film — he was watching it at home before his friends decided to drag him out for tea. The man behind the counter at the tea shop says this happens occasionally. For the most part, however, the television is showing either news or cricket.
Like his young customer, he himself enjoys watching films at home. When asked why he does not go to Cine Moosh. “The ticket there costs a lot, and they make you leave your cigarettes and chhaalia outside”.
This was originally published in Herald's August 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald's print edition.