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OP-ED: Second Coming of Pakistani Cinema

Published in Economic Affairs / Nov 2013

One day an actress, a filmmaker, a director and a distributor gathered to talk shop over tea. Even though a regional film had won at the NY City International film festival, and another cleaned up the local box-office a few years ago, the obituary for the Pakistani cinema was delivered a while ago. It was to remain uncontested for a long time.

Film buffs were left wondering why not a single award winning film (Seedlings) or documentary (Saving Face) had been screened in the gleaming new cinemas; or where that little advertised indie horror flick disappeared to, moments after its debut. And do local movies even stand a chance against the distributor’s bottom line, or space unfairly reserved for the Indian blockbuster for that matter. Mandviwalla opened the gateway to neighbouring cinema and fielded objections of an uneven playing field with a shrug - good Pakistani movies need not fear any Indian invasion in his view.

A few months pass. The distributor and filmmaker are together once again at KLF (Karachi Literature Festival) 2013. ‘Seedlings’ is still not in cinemas, which is strange and the people who can make it happen chalk it up to a lack of communication. That they have been thrown together twice in a span of 6 months and could not work out a distribution plan looks odd.

As with all good horror stories, something had survived in the wreckage and those ready to write off the industry will be off cheering, and not just because of all the multiplexes designed with the requisite 3D bells & whistles mushrooming across a war torn land. They are hopeful because of ‘Main Hoon Shahid Afridi’ (MHSA), ‘Chambaili’, and ‘Zinda Bhaag’ that reclaimed lost territory and ‘Waar’ that recently made a killing at the box office.

What we see now is termed as a ‘resurrection’ - not a ‘revival’ – according to the same cynical distributor, previously seen arguing with the Senate where he is asked why he cannot make just one good film. ‘Sir we are not making films at all,’ he would point out. This was way back when ‘Bol’ and ‘Khuda Ke Liye’ by Shoaib Mansoor had helped reignite the passion. But ‘Bol’, Mandviwalla had insisted was an exception and not the rule; else there would be others in its wake.

The flash-forward to September 2013 is interesting where funny-man Fakhr-e-Alam (former rapper / host) is on the censor board, a Pakistani film has been sent in for Oscar consideration, and yet another has garnered international recognition. And ‘Seedlings’ has broken the jinx (and communication barrier) and plays to a sold out house albeit under a different name.

Back in 2012 however, Zeba Bakhtiar, Meher Jaffri, Asim Raza and Nadeem Mandviwalla are still mulling over the mangled remains of the Pakistani film industry. They know where the bodies are buried – so to speak and can provide some context. There was Zeba, dwelling upon the pre-production challenges while shooting / editing songs where they would be missing ‘a production designer, screenplay / scriptwriter, or art directors (only commercial ones).’ Sometimes cultural constraints stand in the way of progress and Meher admitted that there was no makeup credit in her movie and that she had a ‘horrendous time’ trying to find one. Zeba knows a qualified makeup artist from Hollywood whose husband refuses to let her work. ‘Bad makeup destroys the most beautiful piece,’ in her opinion. Our girls and boys, she decided, are better looking till they come in front of camera, the fault lies with Image consultants who happen to be missing from the picture - literally. Asim Raza’s impressive credentials are generally met by ‘...so what do you do otherwise?’ To him ‘filmmaking is a profession to be taken seriously and not a hobby to be dabbled in.’ And Mandviwalla – the eternal realist doubting that an ordinary mortal can ever hope to conjure up the backing of a ‘Bol’.

He asserts that ‘Pakistan cannot start at the top,’ and the new guard is not trying to. There are, however making history with the first sports movie, first political statement and now the first ‘war against terror’ flick setting the production bar higher than it’s ever been. Not bad for a supposedly moribund industry.

The vibrant new face of Pakistani is ensuring that golden oldies stay relevant as fresh faces arrive and exciting opportunities are born. Asim, whose teleplay ‘Behadd’ recently aired on HUM TV had commented on the obsession with the director’s seat. He also admitted that the remaining crew seldom get due credit in this business. 'If there had been production designers seated here today, they would have helped onlookers see their prospects.’ He has a point.

The panel of experts eye enthusiasts ‘who enter the business sans a business plan or a long term strategy,’ in a place where the sole incentive is money or recognition, with a ‘...what’s in it for me?’ thought bubble hovering atop their heads and concede that such mindsets inevitably end in disappointment. While a great line-up lies ready to roll out hoping to mobilize cinema goers for a long over-due reunion, people will stay as long as the show stays on script.

Waar’ for all its slick production values and wonderfully restrained acting that reinstated the box office crown to its rightful owner but left the screenplay unattended. Critics might find plenty to crucify but with a budget that cannot compete with Michael Bay, (who operates with the support of the mighty DOD (Department of Defence) behind him), the truly spectacular displays of firepower and awe inspiring shots of rising ‘helos’ gets ‘Waar’ a standing ovation. While not exactly cerebral, the movies are exploring the countryside without enlisting theatricality or a troupe of dancing queens. Those who complained about the absence of role models would approve of the new line up of heroes that for now come in pure white but one day may embrace dual shades.

When talking of commercial, parallel and art cinema Asim had suggested that it was time to take a new direction..., ‘substantial cinema’ – he called it .’...something that gives one reason to believe and hope. Whether one puts songs or not, that’s up to you but make it intelligent enough to capture the interest.’ This then in his opinion is the first step in making a commercially viable cinema. But when you make something for yourself, he added, then do not be surprised it doesn’t go far. A classic underdog story unfolds and sage insiders who know what sent the first industry to an early grave regard the second coming with trepidation. The makeover however has yielded a cinema carved from dramatic cultural markers that need not fear its nemesis as it resumes its march under the ‘Made in Pakistan’ banner.

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