In Review Books

Exploring the history of Pakistani cinema

Updated Jun 28, 2019 04:07pm

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Mushtaq Gazdar interviewing actor Rangeela in 1996 | Photo courtesy: Mushtaq Gazdar family
Mushtaq Gazdar interviewing actor Rangeela in 1996 | Photo courtesy: Mushtaq Gazdar family

A slightly hazy photograph shows a neatly dressed film-maker Mushtaq Gazdar inspecting strips of celluloid. Taken sometime in the 1980s, the image graces the inaugural chapter of a 2016 book, Cinema and Society: Film and Social Change in Pakistan, edited by two academics, Ali Khan and Ali Nobil Ahmad.

The chapter, in fact, is an abridged version of Gazdar’s own book, Pakistan Cinema 1947-1997, originally published to mark 50 years of Pakistan. The importance of his work cannot be overemphasised. As Ali Khan notes: “…Gazdar’s effort remains the seminal work on cinema in Pakistan”.

Journalist, human rights activist and political analyst I A Rehman agrees. In an essay included in the recently published second edition of Pakistan Cinema 1947-1997, he calls Gazdar “the pioneering film historian of Pakistan”.

The essay chronicles the life and times of Gazdar — the man and the film-maker. “While he does reveal himself here and there in his writing, a proper appreciation of his work may not be possible without knowing him a little better,” notes Rehman who had a long friendship with Gazdar that only ended with the latter’s death in 2000.

The essay tells us about Gazdar’s love of both science (having done his masters in physics) and cinema. It also reveals that he went as far as Japan and the United States to “...amplify his understanding of the art of cinema and its relationship to society”.

This introduction is a perfect re-entry point into Gazdar’s book. While reading it, one can appreciate why Rehman has praised the late film-maker for his ability to “call a spade a spade”. Gazdar did not mince his words in his life — and he does not do so in his book either.

Mushtaq Gazdar with actor Sania Saeed
Mushtaq Gazdar with actor Sania Saeed

The way Pakistan Cinema 1947-1997 is structured makes it abundantly clear that its author’s exploration of the subject is informed by his interest in the country’s broader sociopolitical circumstances. The book has six chapters. Starting with Cinema Before Partition, each of its remaining chapters correspond to a single decade between 1947 and 1997. This division is broadly based on the political and social significance of each decade and its ramifications for the local cinema.

Gazdar calls the first ten years after independence A Decade of Endurance — symbolising how cinema managed to resurrect itself in Pakistan from the ashes of the Indian subcontinent’s Partition. The years between 1957 and 1966 are A Decade of Reformation for him — showing how the new country’s film industry consolidated itself. The next two decades – A Decade of Change and A Decade of Decadence – cover the revolutionary fervour of 1967-76 and the subsequent state-led reaction to it during 1977-1986. The author has categorised the last of the five decades he has covered as A Decade of Revivalism — in consonance with the revival of democracy in the country during those years.

These titles clearly suggest how Gazdar saw the evolution of cinema in Pakistan as being closely linked to changes in political and social climate of the country. Each chapter also starts with a quotation – either in prose or in verse – that further underscores the same link. The first chapter, for instance, opens with a self-explanatory quote by Marxist writer Syed Sibte Hasan: “If artistic consciousness does not relate to social consciousness, the art remains half finished.”

No wonder then that the book not only informs its audience about Pakistani cinema, it also provides a synopsis of the country’s political and social history. Gazdar’s commentary has more than enough substance to engage the attention of both the film aficionados and general-interest readers. Stylistically, this has been made possible by his ability to make a transition from politics to cinema in a seamless way.

“The PPP [Pakistan Peoples Party] government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave vent to the grievances of the common man,” he writes in one section. “Clubs and gymkhanas of the colonial era were ordered to lift the ban on the awami dress, i.e. shalwar kamiz and chappals. The common man felt reassured, though he would never have the opportunity to frequent such places,” he adds before stating why Sultan Rahi, the rather boorish hero of many Punjabi films made between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, became an audience puller: “In such a proletariat environment, a new hero was born who seemed attuned to their way of life. Sultan Rahi was the embodiment of all that the common man was waiting for…”

Bhutto, of course, is not the only politician mentioned in this meticulously crafted book. Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military ruler, is especially named and shamed for using documentary films as a means for building his public image. Gazdar boldly compares Nai Kiran (A ray of light), a feature-length film commissioned by Ayub Khan’s office, to Triumph of the Will that showcased Adolf Hitler and is possibly one of the most infamous propaganda films ever made. One cannot but wonder how the author would have responded to the interest being shown these days by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the army’s media wing, in funding documentaries, feature films as well as television dramas and even songs.

Gazdar’s probe into the link between cinema and life at large exhibits his deep understanding of politics and society in Pakistan. This allows him to point out the cyclical pattern our country has been following in its journey through decades. He, for instance, writes about how a Muslim mob in the early years of Pakistan burnt down Lahore’s Shorey Studios that a Hindu film-maker, Roshan Lal Shorey, had left behind when migrating to India. While reading this, one is instantly reminded of how Karachi’s Nishat Cinema was set ablaze in 2012 in violent riots sparked by a film uploaded on YouTube.

Gazdar also explains how General Ziaul Haq’s military administration has left an almost indelible influence on Pakistani culture and politics. He stresses this point by citing a verse written by leftist poet Habib Jalib:

Har qadam pe hain muhtasib Jalib Hum to ab chandini se darte hain

(The watchdogs are out hunting for Jalib everywhere. Verily, I am afraid of even the moonlight.)

It is this almost universal fear of surveillance that helps Gazdar contextualise the impact of Zia’s attempts to censor not just newspapers but also films (through the Motion Pictures Ordinances promulgated in 1979). “The new code for censorship of films was an important document in the study of the psyche of the policymakers of the regime, who tried to control the medium of cinema in the name of safeguarding religious ethics, national security and public morals,” Gazdar notes.

He then describes the theatre of horrors that were public floggings (carried out under orders from Zia’s military courts). Microphones were placed near the mouths of those being flogged “to amplify their agonized screams for the edification of the huge crowd”. The same administration would ironically ban 1979 Punjab film Maula Jatt for being “too violent for viewing by the general public”.

Observing and analysing such troubling developments could have left anyone despondent. Gazdar somehow manages to remain hopeful. He not just ends his book with an optimistically titled section – A Decade of Revivalism – but also calls 1995 as the year of the renaissance of Urdu cinema.

Mushtaq Gazdar in Calcutta in mid-1990s
Mushtaq Gazdar in Calcutta in mid-1990s

Pakistani cinema has obviously missed this cue. Films made in the country continued their journey towards an almost irreversible decline – admittedly with a few exceptions in recent times – during the rest of Gazdar’s life and even afterwards.

While this decay, on the one hand, highlights the perils of making predictions about the future, on the other hand, it still proves Gazdar’s main analysis right: that this decline is premised on repeating the past — just as the failures of Pakistani society and politics have their origin in recurring patterns of obscurantist conservatism and religious militarism overriding popular culture and people’s will.

When Gazdar started working on Pakistan Cinema 1947-1997, data on Pakistani films was scattered at best and non-existing at worst. “To start with, there is not a single archive or library in the country with any sort of record on the subject,” he says in the preface to the book. Future researchers will not have the same complaint as he has compiled very meticulously what perhaps is the only verified data set on Pakistani cinema.

His children, Aisha Gazdar (a documentary maker in her own right) and Haris Gazdar (a social scientist) have made an invaluable contribution to his work by updating his book. They have included in it a sociopolitical analysis of the films made after 1997. The epilogue the two have written, along with Rehman’s introduction, indeed offers a peep into how Gazdar himself would have viewed some recent film-related developments in Pakistan.

In one of its most memorable lines, the epilogue also states that the history of films in the country may not read like “a film script” but it is still “something comparably panoramic.” Certainly, this panorama was too engaging for Gazdar to let it remain undocumented.


This article was published in the Herald's June 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.