The Pakistani Film Industry: A troubled tale


Thriving, troubled, extinct, revival and more trouble. These words are perhaps the most truthful way to describe the timeline of the once glorious Film Industry of Pakistan. An Industry producing more than a hundred and fifty films per year in the 60s and 70s, came at a stage where it even struggled to churn out a meager two films for the year. So what happened? What went wrong? The Cinema which produced classical masterpieces such as Armaan, Aina, Sangam, Anjuman and many more stood or so still stands at the point where domestic films play to empty theaters a week after release, if there are any produced that is.

The Pakistani film industry was at its peak during the 60s and 70s, described as its golden age. Films of all genres were being produced at that point, Indian movies were not allowed in the country but with the mass amount of movies being made, cinema houses faced no problems, they regularly catered to full houses and generated profits. Individual from all social classes went to cinemas as they were inexpensive, safe, clean and decent.

Pakistan faced a major shift in its political scene in 1977. The military regime of Zia-ul-Haq brought wide scale shifts in the film industry. The first wave of censorship was launched into the Pakistani cinema, a wave of censorship which may perhaps forever cloud the industry. Filmmakers were required to have educational qualifications(which included Islamic education, made compulsory by the new regime), rules were set on female clothing to be worn in movies, men and women showing affection on screen was also restricted, movies made on sensitive political topics were not allowed. The industry already suffering from a loss of veterans due to the partition of East-Pakistan faced a storm that it did not survive. From more than a hundred films, the number of movies slowly decreased as time passed. Creativity and freedom of expression, the very essentials of theater and cinema, were blocked and therefore films were slowly phased out. With a block on issue based films, showing affection on screen, cinema took course towards showing violence. Violent action movies disassociated the general population who wanted to watch quality cinema as opposed to rowdy fighting sequences, going to the theater was now seen as a social ill, women working in the industry were looked down upon and labelled sleazy, no longer did ‘respectable families’ appreciate working in the film industry. Personal Religious beliefs were forced into cinema to make it ‘morally acceptable’, this eventually killed the cinema. Of course the lack of money to be made in the entertainment industry was another factor why younger people stopped pursuing a career in this field.

With the Industry not producing any films, the general public preferred to stay at home instead of going to the theater, foreign films were watched at homes using VCRS, local classics were also enjoyed. The films currently being made, if any, were not good enough. Cinema houses found it difficult to operate and generate profits and hence slowly shut down. From 750 cinema houses in the country, by 2002 only 170 remained. Those that remained were barely making profits and had extremely poor conditions and no new releases. These troubled times eventually led the Pakistani cinema to extinction.

The now dead Pakistani film industry needed a miracle for revival, that miracle did come in 2007. This game changer did not realistically revive the industry but it led to events that are today pushing the industry’s revival. This breakthrough was Shaoib Mansoor’s Khuda Kay Liye(In the name of God). This film was a not just any step towards revival, it was a very bold one indeed, this movie was made on sensitive religious issues concerning Pakistan. Shoaib Mansoor was given death threats due to the contents of his film but the veteran was not to be shaken. This was a step breaking the boundaries set by the era of strict censorship, defying the conservative norms set by the past government and later society, showcasing  a true form of creativity and free expression. The film was released not only in Pakistan but was allowed release in neighboring India, it was played across 100 cinemas in India. This release led to the Pakistani government lifting the ban on the release of Indian movies in Pakistan. With Indian movies up for release, operating cinemas was no longer a loss making venture, state of the art multiplexes started popping up around the country, existing deteriorating cinema houses  were renovated and were up and kicking. With and increase in operational cinema houses in Pakistan, Film-makers in the country now saw an incentive to produce for the silver screen, no longer were they financially boxed up. Foreign films boosted the cinemas in the country, because of which the Pakistani film industry is now slowly being injected with life.

Films of the new Pakistani Era, Left to Right: Waar, Main hoon Shahid Afridi and Chambailee
Films of the new Pakistani Era, Left to Right: Waar, Main hoon Shahid Afridi and Chambaili

But its way too un-Pakistani to stare at a revival without sniffing trouble at bay. The new wave of Pakistani movies are not only based on social issues concerning society, but also commercialized films aiming to make a quick buck. These commercial films have content which is deemed as ‘vulgar’ by moral critics within and outside the industry. While individuals have no problem viewing foreign films with similar content if not more ‘morally unacceptable’, but suddenly fingers are raised if the local industry follows suit. This very behavior can be attributed to the cloud left by the fateful policies after 1977, the cloud still roams around. There is no problem for people not appreciating content which is not morally acceptable to them, they can ‘choose’ to not watch it, the same way film-makers ‘choose’ to make it, however crying for bans and demanding for them to be made illegal threatens to bring the industry back to square one as such an act will once again become the same wall to creativity and free expression. It is argued that quality films can be produced without vulgarity, but it must be realized, that was the logic used in 1977 and we saw the consequences of that. By restricting creativity, you may never see those quality films that you so dearly demand as it is often after failures and exploring other avenues, masterpieces are produced. Had Da vinci been told that he could only paint Mona Lisa, he would never have been able to paint it, because that is not how masterpieces are made, hundred of lesser pieces are made, which are made by solely creative and personal choices not by the rules set by society to eventually stumble upon that masterpiece. It is sad that there are people even within the industry choose to target others on making content that is not ‘acceptable’ or ‘pure’. Cinema is art and art is a medium of free expression. I am not defending or supporting vulgarity, I am stating the importance of being ‘allowed’ or having the ‘choice’ to produce it, it is the principle that is important and not what it protects, restrictions in art will lead nowhere but the eventual extinction of art.

Pakistani Film 'Wrong Number' to be released in 2015, has turned out to be controversial due to its allegedly vulgar content.
Pakistani Film ‘Wrong Number’ to be released in 2015, has turned out to be controversial due to its allegedly vulgar content.

There are those who stand for banning Bollywood content once again, stating patriotism as the reason but are also blinded by it. Even at this stage the Pakistani film industry produces no more than 10 films a year, of which 3 or 4 turn out to be hits. Cinemas can not stand to be profitable with just 3-4 films a year and the addition of Hollywood movies which are not in the common tongue, not highly popular amongst the masses. Such a ban will once again lead to shutting down of cinema houses and repeat the very process that begun in 1977.

There are brighter days ahead, we must not bring with us that cloud of darkness, we must leave it behind. We should not judge Pakistani content as being poor just for the fact that its Pakistani. I myself try to make it a point by trying to watch all Pakistani movies which release, in the theater. This is my part in supporting the industry, but my part in supporting the industry is also to not call for restrictions, by not acting as a moral police to the film-makers. Supporting foreign competition within the industry, understanding that it is essential for a long term revival and to churn out high quality products.