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What makes the revival of Pakistani cinema an uphill task

Updated 10 Feb, 2018 02:31am
Flashback by Adeel uz Zafar Digital Collage
Flashback by Adeel uz Zafar Digital Collage

There was a time after the last iteration, in 2009, of the KaraFilm Festival – the Karachi International Film Festival – that I began to avoid large gatherings. The reasons were entirely banal. I wanted to avoid being accosted continuously by random people asking why the festival was no longer taking place. It was not that I dislike interacting with strangers, especially well-meaning strangers, but the effort involved in explaining the complicated dynamics of Pakistan’s cinema scene, each time usually from scratch, had begun to get too draining. For those on the receiving end of explanations, it was probably a case of being overwhelmed by an information overload; they wanted short, sound bite-y answers when things are never that simple in Pakistan.

Often there were assumptions that bore little relation to reality. Kara’s deferment, for example, had more to do with the severe economic downturn in Pakistan from 2010 onwards than the country’s brittle security situation as most assumed, and no, it was not the same as organising a literature festival. Some idealists would offer lectures about how Pakistani film-makers should follow the Iranian model of films, without knowing anything about the reality of the Iranian model and seemingly divorced from what Pakistani audiences are actually willing to pay to watch.

But there was also an inability, understandable perhaps for people outside the ‘industry’, to grasp the nuances of putting together an international film festival that was also ultimately meant to bolster local cinema, which was riddled with myriad issues that needed simultaneously to be addressed — which obviously were not being addressed. We had discovered, for example, that while we could make an impact on short films and documentaries by providing a platform for them through the festival, boosting the quantity and quality of feature films in Pakistan required greater input and practical push from policymakers, simply because of the investments required in making and exhibiting feature films.

Towards this end, we had tried our best, putting forward as far back as 2005 a checklist of actions that needed to be taken (none of them, by the way, involved the government allocating money) and periodically participating in detailed presentations for government officials. But as is often the case in Pakistan, film (and anything to do with culture) is often at the back of the priority queue, especially when the country seems to be constantly going through political upheavals and ostensibly never-ending external security threats.

Then some of the fruits of our early advocacy, in the face of opposition from the Lahore-based film ‘industry’ and clueless hyper-nationalists, actually began to bear fruit. As we had predicted, when a ban on Indian films being shown in Pakistani cinemas was lifted in 2007 (primarily because we pushed for it), the return of audiences to cinemas began to fuel an economic cycle that resulted in increased box office earnings that, in turn, provided incentives to entrepreneurs to construct new cinemas.

The first multiplexes began to come up in 2010-2011 and soon it seemed there was a boom, with screens being planned around the country. The construction of new screens (which essentially means newer sources of revenue for films) prompted investors to finally see hope for recovering investment from films, allowing the number of local films under production to increase.

In January 2015, writing for the Herald, I had sounded a note of cautious optimism about the future: “Despite the obvious trends, however, it is still too early to label the current phase as the one heralding the ‘revival of Pakistani cinema’, a phrase used with such alarming regularity over the past 20 years that it has lost any meaning it ever had.” I continued, “There are still too few screens and far too few feature film productions … Based on current projections, Pakistan will hopefully hit about 200 operating screens by 2017 — that is, if we are lucky.”

We have not been so lucky.

The severely ill-advised decision in September 2016 by local exhibitors to ban Indian films again (whether at behind-the-scenes official urging or not) dealt such a crippling blow to the nascent resurgence of cinema in Pakistan that we are still trying to recapture its momentum, despite the ban being eventually rescinded in January 2017. With Indian films – which generated some 70 per cent of the total revenue of cinemas – taken out, audiences simply stopped going to the cinema, leading to a drop in revenue even for Pakistani films.

More importantly, the capriciousness of the decision spooked investors and suddenly a number of productions and multiplex development projects ground to a halt. At the end of 2017, all of Pakistan still only has a total of 129 screens. That is about 0.62 screens for each million Pakistanis. Compare this with over 126 screens for each million Americans, 87 for each million Australians, 39 for each million Chinese and 12 for each million Indians. This is not mere statistics. It affects the investment going into films and their production quality.

With reference to increasing the production of feature films – the primary goal of this push for more cinema screens – I had written the following: “Given the time required to take a film from the conceptual stage to the finished product, there is usually a lag of one to two years between investors seeing promise and the results of their investments becoming a visible reality. Given the current scenario with respect to the local circuit, the real fruits of this renewed interest in making films will probably be not visible before 2018.” And I had added, “There is still a long way to go.”

Three years later, there is still a long way to go.

This past year a mere 16 Urdu films were released in the country. I am referring primarily to Urdu films because these are the ones that receive some measure of a nationwide release. But Punjabi and Pashto films have not done any better. No number of idealistic and moralising theories can take the place of the logic of hard economics.

Sometimes I feel promoting film in Pakistan is like the mythical Sisyphean quest. You expend all your effort to push a heavy stone to the top of a hill only to see it roll all the way down, so you have to start from the beginning all over again.

After the government intervened in January 2017 to provide hapless cinema owners with a face-saving measure to resume showing Indian films again — following a commercially disastrous gap of some four months — this past year was meant to be all about rebuilding. The damage had already been done but there was some hope that with a steady hand and with slow progress over time, some of the earlier optimism could be recaptured.

Instead, what we got was the Islamabad censor board.

The censor's conundrum

Moviegoers gather outside Picture House Cinema in Peshawar | Shahbaz butt, White Star
Moviegoers gather outside Picture House Cinema in Peshawar | Shahbaz butt, White Star

The Islamabad censor board – misleadingly still called the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC) – decided, in its infinite wisdom, to ban the first big release, Raees, after the lifting of the ban. But it was not just a Shah Rukh Khan film, shorthand usually for blockbuster in India and Pakistan, but also starred Pakistani sweetheart Mahira Khan in her Indian film debut. Despite a hue and cry over the ban, whose logic most could not fathom, the film never made it to Pakistani cinemas, denying them the jump-start they desperately needed. Moreover, it further spooked already jittery investors.

Over the course of the year, the Islamabad censor board would go on to ban at least two other Bollywood blockbusters (both fronted by the bankable Salman Khan) as well as cause problems for the release of another highly awaited Pakistani film starring Mahira Khan, Verna. Getting in on the act, the Punjab censor board would also cause some frustrating hiccups for the release of Na Maloom Afraad 2, one of the three or four Pakistani films last year that actually made its money back. In all these cases, the decision-making remained opaque and non-transparent. Nobody really understood on what basis objections were raised against the films.

In the case of Verna, eventually the government had to step in to override the decision of the Islamabad censor board. Whatever the merits of the film itself, having seen the film in its uncut entirety, I can at least confirm that there was absolutely nothing in it that merited the hoopla raised by the Islamabad censor board.

But this is an issue that is not just about one or two or four films. Leaving aside the damage done by such arbitrary decision-making to the investment climate for cinema in the country, this cuts to the heart of policymaking about film in Pakistan. Are the powers that be in policymaking interested in promoting film production in the country or not? Because if they are – and they all claim they are – they have to understand the dynamics of creative film production. Simply put: you cannot hope to encourage a healthy film industry in the country while simultaneously trying to fit it into your narrow ideological parameters. That is just not how it works, here or anywhere else in the world.

We hear a lot of official talk about promoting Pakistani films in the world and improving their quality so that they can compete with films from India and around the globe. It is bad enough what the film fraternity in Pakistan has had to put up with over the past 40 years — the lack of attention to infrastructure, sources of funding and professional training make it an industry only in name. But instead of trying to seriously address those issues and providing incentives for film production, cultural policymakers are often actively pulling down even those who try and bootstrap themselves up from a barren landscape. Instead of introducing policies that facilitate the unleashing of the creative potential within Pakistan, what we get instead are more regulations and more restrictions.

A tale of control and destruction

Star Cinema, Karachi | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Star Cinema, Karachi | Mohammad Ali, White Star

I want to look in detail at one element of this equation that can provide some insight into the malaise faced by the film ‘industry’ in Pakistan: the censor boards. This exposition is, of necessity, drawn from personal observation since I have had close dealings with it.

Before the passage of the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 2010, which devolved the subject of culture to the provinces, Pakistan had one censor board based out of Islamabad. This was the CBFC and it was composed of a random selection of members, many of them bureaucrats or relatives of bureaucrats who had not even a passing acquaintance with anything creative or film-related. It was usually headed by a political appointee. It also had a notorious reputation within the industry. Film-makers and distributors spoke openly amongst themselves about how much they had paid in bribes to have their films passed with the minimum of cuts. Some of the more risqué offerings of yore from Pashto cinema attest to what exactly went on behind the closed doors of the CBFC.

The 18th Amendment effectively dissolved the federal culture ministry under which the CBFC operated and allowed each province to set up its own independent censor board (the CBFC would be moved under the umbrella of the federal information ministry). But it would not be until 2013 that the first new board for film certification in Pakistan – the Sindh Board of Film Censors (SBFC) – was set up by a caretaker provincial government.

Despite misgivings about the idea of film-makers and distributors having to go through multiple censor bodies to have their films screened in the country, but cognizant of the terrible reputation that the CBFC had garnered for itself, I accepted a position on the Sindh censor board. Part of the reason I acquiesced was that most of the members of the new board were professionals associated with film-making and people with a broad vision, and we all agreed that we could turn the SBFC into a model board, where decisions were taken transparently, sensibly and without any hint of corruption.

For many months that is exactly how the SBFC operated, with all of us working hard voluntarily to clear a huge backlog of films that had accumulated, in addition to issuing certification for the new films constantly coming to us. In fact, since initially it was decided that film-makers and distributors could get their films certified from any of the two existing boards, the SBFC became the highly favoured one. Even film-makers from Peshawar and Lahore would prefer to have their films assessed by the SBFC in Karachi than by the CBFC in Islamabad.

What exactly is the point of the Islamabad censor board if its decisions are considered patently wrong by the government too?

But even during that time, a couple of things were becoming clear. One was that the old bureaucrats who administered proceedings, and who had been reared in the stifling atmosphere of the Zia era, felt extremely uncomfortable with some of our more liberal decisions. For example, wherever possible, we would rely on imposing age-certification rather than chopping up films, something old bureaucrats, used to wielding butchering knives, could not fathom. The second was that the CBFC – which was now technically responsible only for the Islamabad capital territory and, perhaps, the cantonment areas that come under federal jurisdiction – was very resentful of suddenly having its powers snatched away from it.

Fortunately, the SBFC was led by Zulfiqar Ramzi, a former cinema owner, who had the backbone and integrity to shut down all attempts by local bureaucrats to interfere in the board’s workings and to dismiss attempts by the CBFC to assert power over the SBFC.

The decline of the SBFC came with the Sindh government’s politically motivated removal of Ramzi, who was replaced by an acolyte whose prime interest seemed to be appeasement of bureaucrats and the establishment in Islamabad. Slowly, the new chairman (who actually received a salary unlike Ramzi or the rest of the board) allowed Islamabad to reassert control over decision-making, overriding the independent nature of the Sindh censor board. Those who opposed this slide were soon excluded from participation in the board. I too was removed from the board without any legal pretext, although, to be fair, neither was I interested in wasting my time becoming a rubber stamp for decisions taken elsewhere.

The precedent that had been set was followed even after the establishment of a separate censor board in Punjab (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have yet to establish their boards). The Islamabad censor board now dictated what films would get cleared and what cuts needed to be made, understandably to the frustration of film-makers and distributors. Why, they question quite legitimately, should we pay three separate fees and organise three separate screenings when the decisions are to be taken in one place?

In the case of Verna, for example, the film had been cleared by the censor boards in Sindh and Punjab, but was not issued a screening certificate because Islamabad had raised objections. There was simply no legal justification for this. Perhaps it was only the clout of producer and director Shoaib Mansoor or perhaps it was the social media outcry over the ban that forced the federal government to override the Islamabad censor board.

But the overriding raises important issues too. What exactly is the point of the Islamabad censor board if its decisions are considered patently wrong by the government too? Larger questions must also be asked: how are the members of a censor board chosen? Should they not be people with some idea of, or background in, creative pursuits, and how to preserve freedom of expression — even, and particularly, if that expression is something that disagrees with their own personal philosophy? And what is the role of a censor board in a day and age where pretty much anything is available to people via the internet? Or are we condemned to forever be stuck in the illiberal thought-policing of the 1980s?

The debacle over Verna should ideally have led to a rethink and rehaul of the entire machinery of the censor boards. Ideally, it might have led to moving towards the idea, put forward by the SBFC four years ago, of age-wise certification of films rather than banning and censoring them. But, unfortunately, nothing seems to have been learnt and the stasis remains.

Inevitably, as shown by the events of 2017, the greatest power broker and hurdle to reinvigorating Pakistani cinema remains the antiquated system of film censors. It not only results in film-makers being scared of making anything that asks probing questions – the essence of good art – but also actively inhibits the cinema industry from growing and establishing a foundation for more and better films to be made. If the situation is left as it is, all we might be left with is typical masala fare or some bland romcoms.

Consider what happened to documentaries in Pakistan before the advent of Kara (which provided exposure to international documentaries and, in many cases, helped establish links between film-makers and international sources of funding), private channels and the Internet — when the only avenue available to documentary film-makers was Pakistan Television (PTV) or non-government organisations (which usually commission corporate videos). The crop of new documentary film-makers you often hear about these days making waves abroad – such as Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, Mohammed Naqvi and others – simply could not have existed under the a PTV-controlled regime. All Pakistani audiences knew about documentaries then was that they either observed wildlife or taught us how to do embroidery or pinpointed the best time to add phosphate to the soil. Similarly, a change of paradigm is needed to boost narrative feature films in Pakistan.

Rays of hope

A film being screened at Star Cinema, Karachi | Mohammad Ali, White Star
A film being screened at Star Cinema, Karachi | Mohammad Ali, White Star

So was it all doom and gloom in 2017? Not entirely. In my estimation there were three rays of light in the year.

The first of these was the astounding success of the film Punjab Nahin Jaungi (PNJ). The film has amassed a record-breaking 480 million rupees worldwide so far, of which 310 million rupees have come from the domestic circuit. This was precisely the kind of box office bonanza that cinema in Pakistan had been thirsting for since the ban on Indian films in September 2016. It does not really matter that the film was flawed – in my opinion it had two major storyline faux pas, without which it could have easily been a commercial gem – what matters is that it has given a shot in the arm to the film business in the country. But what is equally important is that the film came from the same team that had produced the previous record-breaking hit Jawani Phir Nahin Aani (JPNA) in 2015, which had raked in 440 million rupees worldwide, including 340 million rupees domestically. The fact that PNJ was thematically very different from JPNA points to the fact that the previous hit was no fluke by the film-makers. Not only did director Nadeem Baig show that he had matured as a director from his first film, producer and star Humayun Saeed also answered his critics with a performance that established his acting chops. Saeed also showed that, unlike some of his contemporaries, he is not afraid to take risks with his ‘leading man’ persona, a sure sign of a braver actor.

It is important to mention here that PNJ achieved its box office success while being pitted directly against another highly awaited sequel from another successful team — Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza’s Na Maloom Afraad 2 (NMA2). Had the two films come out at different times, perhaps the box office collections of both might have been higher. While NMA2 was underwhelming given expectations, Qureshi and Meerza’s team has shown with its various offerings that they too are promising bright spots in a generally bleak landscape.

The second ray of sunshine in the general doom and gloom of 2017 was the treatment of content offered by films. It all began with a notorious slap in Syed Noor’s Chain Aaye Na (CAN), which echoed across media and social media in particular. In the film, the hero slaps the heroine to teach her a lesson and despite this slap, or because of it, the heroine proceeds to fall in love with her abuser. Commentators were up in arms, understandably. Questions were asked about whether Pakistani film-makers could ever come out of their retrogressive mindsets regarding the abuse of women. In fact, the slap in CAN was the only thing talked about regarding the film because the rest of the film sank without a trace.

All Pakistani audiences knew about documentaries then was that they either observed wildlife or taught us how to do embroidery or pinpointed the best time to add phosphate to the soil.

A few months later, in PNJ, Saeed’s protagonist, a feudal, also slaps his highly educated wife (played by Mehwish Hayat) but the result of this slap is that she decides to walk out of their marriage and both their families condemn Saeed’s act. Eventually, Saeed’s character has to beg for forgiveness from his wife, which she grants him (to some viewers’ discomfort).

In Verna, which revolves around a rape and the misunderstandings it creates between the rape survivor (assayed by Mahira Khan) and her husband, Mahira’s character also gets slapped by her urbane husband. But her response to this bit of unexpected abuse is that, once she recovers her wits, she pummels him in the face, leaving him dazed and bloodied. The film makes clear that this response by Mahira’s character is justified.

In effect, then, in just the span of one year we have seen three slaps to female characters with progressively more assertive responses. From submissive acceptance in CAN, to outrage in PNJ, to take-no-crap in Verna, Pakistani film-makers have shown that mindsets can, in fact, change pretty quickly. At some level, one must consider this social progress.

The third ray of hope comes from the expansion, worldwide and in Pakistan, of international paid digital streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon. While not many Pakistani films are yet on them, all such services are actively looking for local content from around the world. This will not only provide Pakistani film and television with an additional source of revenue in the long-term (which can help raise their budgets), it might also encourage film-makers to put out content that might never even get made under the current set-up, because these services are free of the arbitrariness of Pakistan’s censors.

Admittedly, the greater potential lies in television content (Netflix, for example, is most associated with promoting serials and series) since not being beholden to the banality of local advertising diktats means that perhaps Pakistani dramas can more pointedly explore themes other than the predictable love triangles catering to the housewives’ market demographic. But there is also potential for films, especially those that do not fall into the distributor-preferred, song-and-dance genre.

2018 and onwards

A man puts up a notice announcing showtimes outside a cinema house | Fahim Siddique, White Star
A man puts up a notice announcing showtimes outside a cinema house | Fahim Siddique, White Star

So, where does this leave us as we go into 2018 and beyond? For one thing, I would postpone the timelines for a ‘revival’ of Pakistani cinema by a few years. It will take a steady period of continued stability and serious, practical action from policymakers – such as revamping the entire censor regime – for Pakistani cinema to recapture some of the momentum of even two years ago. Do I have high hopes for such stability and action immediately? No, because 2018 is an election year in which a lot of political upheaval is expected. Inevitably, film will once again be shunted to the back of priorities. Commercially, cinemas will also take a hit in February because of the upcoming Pakistan Super League cricket tournament and in summer because of the Fifa World Cup. But one can always hope that no more silly decisions are taken to further damage Pakistan’s nascent cinema environment and that incremental progress can be achieved.

As for myself, I can happily report that I do not shy away from large gatherings any more. When people ask me about the KaraFilm Festival and the possibility of its revival, I simply avoid the long explanations and tell them we are working on it. And I am not even lying.

The writer is Editor Magazines for daily Dawn. He is also a film-maker and was the festival director for the KaraFilm Festival

This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.