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Friday May 24, 2024
Movies: Pakistani Movie Industry
Cultural Diplomacy Or Pragmatism
Vol: 1 Num: 3    Summer 2006
Pakistan’s movie industry is in dire straits. Number of films produced per year has dropped from a high of 130 in early 1970s to less than 25 in 2004. Will opening up its market to Bollywood films change the fortunes of Pakistani movie industry?

When it first hit the celluloid screens in 1960, K. Asif’s monumental film, Mughal-e-Azam, deeply enthralled millions of people across the subcontinent. “I still remember the mesmerizing moments when I watched it in Karachi in 60s while our family was still striving to settle down after migrating from India,” said Amanullah Khan, a 60-year old businessmen, and a migrant from India after the partition in 1947.

No doubt the black-&-white film brought to life the legend of the flopped love affair between the 16th century Mughal crown prince Salim played by thespian Dilip Kumar and the magnificent court dancer Anarkali played by beautiful Madhubala, leaving a colorful and indelible marks on the hearts of cinemagoers.

Since then, the technology has enabled the producers to make the already timeless film rather indispensable by putting colors in it which has fuelled the urge of millions of nostalgic fans to watch it on the big screen. However, a caveat has kept people of Pakistan deprived of this opportunity – Pakistan’s decades-old ban on distribution of Indian films.

A ray of hope emerged when Pakistani information minister Sheikh Rashid said, “Pakistan has agreed ‘in principle’ to screen the movie by bringing the ban to an end,” hinting its imminent release in Pakistani cinema circuits. President Pervez Musharraf also gave his support after receiving a request from the family of K. Asif. Further paving the way, a provincial court in Punjab rejected a plea of local film actors association against the screening of another Indian movie, Taj Mahal for which Indian director Akbar Khan teamed up with legendary Naushad, one of the greatest music directors of Indian cinema.

So, on April 22, marking another sign of warming relations between South Asia’s two erstwhile enemies, Mughal-e-Azam became the first Indian movie in 40 years to be legally screened in Pakistani theatres. On its heels came Akbar Khan’s magnum opus Taj Mahal, which launched the legendary Pakistani singer Noor Jehan’s granddaughter Sonya Jehan as Mughal empress Mumtaz Mahal.

General lifting of ban on Indian films had been in the air for some time especially since the initiation of the Indo-Pak peace process. The most positive support came from the chairman of Pakistan Film Censor Board Ziauddin Khan, when he sent an advice for allowing the screening of Indian films to the federal cabinet for approval. Experts also recommended allowing Indian films to be shown in Pakistani theatres so as to give a boost to cinema houses, which have been facing huge losses, and to help improve the standard of Pakistani films.

Now, Pakistani youth is waiting for the time when they could see other Indian film idols on big screens. “Watching movie on CD or VCR doesn’t give the taste which we could enjoy on the big screen. I will love to see Veer Zara in a theatre if it is screened here,” said Nazia Jabbar, a 21-year university student.

Moribund Film Industry

Pakistan banned screening of Indian films after the 1965 war and since then its film industry had a solo run but failed to flourish. The industry has been declining for the past two decades as theatres, unable to withstand the mounting losses, began closing down at a rapid pace.

In the 1970s, the Pakistani film industry was dealt with severe blows when art was equated with prostitution and was frowned upon. Serious producers left their profession and no new investments took place in studios, technical facilities or theatres and the industry shrank like any thing. Till 1970s, Pakistan was producing over 130 films a year, whereas Indian film industry produced 432 films in 1971. Many of these Pakistani movies were commercial successes. In 2004, India produced more than 800 movies and most of the 25 or so mainstream movies made in Pakistan bombed at the box-office.

The impact is severe on the cinema houses. At one time there were 1,800 cinemas in Pakistan and were increasing. Now the number has dwindled to less than 250. Many theatres that were major landmarks have disappeared and have been replaced by shopping plazas.

“The situation is getting worse day by day with no ray of hope. Unless radical steps are taken both Urdu and Punjabi films are almost doomed,” said Shazad Gul, a prominent film director at Lollywood, the film industry in Lahore, Pakistan’s version of Hollywood.

Revival in Sight

Weighed down by costs, low investment and rapidly declining talent, the bigwigs of the Pakistani film industry have been pressing the government to permit the screening of Indian movies to help Pakistani theatres recover from losses.

While some old timers are still opposed to opening the flood gates to Indian movies fearing a cultural invasion, strong proponents of importing of Indian films, like film star-turned director Javed Sheikh, asked government to allow Pakistani film industry to develop strong thematic and technical links with its Indian counterpart for its survival.

“I can’t understand what we are afraid of? Indian movies make their way in the bedrooms of almost all our homes before they are screened at Indian theatres,” Sheikh said.

Sheikh, who featured in several TV debates boldly advocating for opening the doors to Indian movies, argues that almost all Pakistanis avidly watch Indian films through pirated video and DVDs, which are more or less simultaneously released in Pakistan as soon as a new Hindi movie is released in India. The Indian film actors and actresses are more popular in Pakistan than their Pakistani counterparts.

“Our ostrich approach is the major hurdle in our way to revive our film industry… We are afraid of facing the challenges, the truths. But this would take us nowhere,” Sheikh lamented.

He said Pakistani films at present lack story and direction and is being run only on vulgarity and nudity. He said the local filmmakers would have to change this trend. It is believed that screening of Indian films would provide a healthy atmosphere for competition and ample opportunity to good directors, storywriters and musicians to profit from their work. Pakistani film producers would also get a better deal to reach out to India’s mammoth market of over one billion people.

Access to such a big audience alone gives a good enough reason for joint ventures, and if the governments in Delhi and Islamabad leave the artistic people alone, they can avoid lot of wastage and plagiarism.

Cultural Diplomacy

Even, Federal Culture Minister G. G. Jamal said that the screening of Indian films in Pakistan would not damage local film industry. In an April 2006, reception hosted by the Pakistan Film and Television Journalists Association for Indian artists visiting Pakistan for the premiere of Indian film Taj Mahal, he said “artists have no borders and cultural diplomacy is the most effective diplomacy in the world.”

For her part, Indian Union Minister for Culture and Tourism Ambika Soni continued the cultural diplomacy when she offered to organize a Pakistani film festival in Mumbai and to screen Pakistani Punjabi films in Indian Punjab. Censor Board Chairman, Ziauddin Khan, took her offer and announced that two Pakistani films – one Punjabi and the other in Urdu – have been approved by the Indian government to be screened in India.

“Such kind of visits and gestures could be seen as quite healthy for the people of sub-continent and could work in real spirit for bridging the wide gap between the common people, falsely created by their respective governments,” said Fateh Mohammad Burfat, professor of sociology at Karachi University. Khan said that the two countries should also embark on co-productions in the future.

No doubt showing Indian movies in Pakistan helps build friendly relations and promote cultural exchanges between the two countries as Akbar Khan said. Soni too acknowledges that political, economic and cultural relations are parts of the composite dialogue between the two nations.

It also provides opportunities to create good will as demonstrated by Akbar Khan when he donated the proceeds of Taj Mahal to the victims of last year’s earthquake in Pakistan. So far Rs. 6.5 million have already been raised and given to the federal government. “Taj Mahal carries a strong message of love and I am here to convey it to the people of Pakistan,” said Akbar Khan.

Ashraf Khan is a freelance writer based in Karachi, Pakistan


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