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Hollywood. Bollywood. Karachi? The life, death, and rebirth of Pakistani cinema

Written by Wajahat Ali

Pakistan had 1,500 movie houses just 50 years ago. Seventy remain, a near complete extinction spurred by the repressive Islamic government and years of sloppy work. But change comes to the country once again. Young tech- and business-savvy filmmakers have rolled out dozens of low-budget movies with considerable success in recent years, drawing people back to those cinema houses and creating hope for the resurgence of moviemaking in the country.

These emerging entrepreneurs work to breathe new life into the industry. Many are experimenting with their craft, exploring new genres while trying to figure out the market needs in a country that had largely forgotten about the art, some even devising their own recipes for success.

“We’re learning on the fly,” explained Abbas Ali Khan, a promising singer and composer, who has helped moviemakers with audio mixing and scoring. “Technology has made things faster and easier for us,” he told Digital Trends. The ease of digital creation is a problem too, Khan noted. “Some of our young filmmakers are leaning too heavily on it. Many of them, for instance, focus more on picture quality and special effects instead of generating better story ideas, scripts and overall content.”

Still, it’s a start. Or more accurate, a restart.

1947 – 1978: How it all began

Despite its flaws and limitations, the fact that the country’s film industry has survived for so long is itself nothing short of a miracle. It acquired a separate identity soon after the creation of Pakistan in August of 1947. While Indian filmmakers continued to perform a magnificent job, their Pakistani counterparts faced a number of troubles due to the lack of resources. Many campaigned to ban Indian movies in Pakistan to protect the nascent film industry. By the 1960s, they had managed to increase the output and quality of their productions.

“Pakistan had to recreate everything after the partition of 1947,” Yasir Jaswal, writer and director of Jalaibee, told Digital Trends. “It had to build a state and nurture a nation. By the 60s, it had started focusing on other things. That decade was certainly a very golden era for our film industry.”

Pakistani Film Industry
The industry’s successful phase lasted for nearly two decades. When Pakistan’s former military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, assumed the country’s political power in 1978, he started introducing anti-cultural policies to appease religious clerics and accentuate Pakistan’s Islamic identity.

His policies proved detrimental for a film industry that was churning out a significant number of films every year, and now was witnessing a sharp decline in its production rate. This negatively impacted the cinema business in the country, forcing many owners to choose other lines of work for their survival.

“Previously, there were about 1,500 cinemas in Pakistan,” Jaswal recalled. “After the turbulent decades of the 80s and 90s, that number stands at about 70 today.”

Technology has made things faster and easier for us.

While movie houses are gradually emerging in the country, many have also been targeted by militant networks in the country.

In September 2012, over half a dozen cinemas were set on fire in Karachi and Peshawar by angry demonstrators protesting a short, anti-Islam film that was made in the United States. One of those places was inaugurated in 1947 by Fatima Jinnah, who fought for the country’s independence along with her brother and Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The cinema was also visited by former Pakistani prime ministers Huseyn Shaheed Suharwardy and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

There was little remorse among most people over the grave historic and national loss.

Modern Times

Despite all of these challenges, Pakistan’s young filmmakers have decided to rebuild what remains of the local film industry. Their work has created a fresh interest among people who have once again started going to cinemas to watch Pakistani film productions.

The trend became visible when veteran director and producer Shoaib Mansoor launched a movie, Khuda Kay Liye, in 2007. People went out in droves to watch a work that challenged various religious misconceptions within the Pakistani society. His next film, Bol, came in 2011 and was an instant hit. But it was the 2013 movie Waar, a fictionalized version of events surrounding the war on terror in Pakistan directed by Bilal Lashari, which turned out to be the country’s biggest movie success in recent years.

Regardless of all the work done by local filmmakers, a large number of Pakistanis still prefer Indian and American movies to local film productions.

“I have seen a few Pakistani films, but I wasn’t impressed,” said Falak Mehmood, who describes himself as a movie aficionado. “I found plenty of loopholes in their storylines and wondered why should I spend money on these films when I can watch Hollywood flicks in the same price that our filmmakers are trying to imitate.”

What may appear as the film industry’s renaissance is seen by some familiar with its internal landscape as nothing more than baby steps. As one insider told Digital Trends, Pakistani filmmakers mostly possess technological resources but lack trained human resources to flawlessly work on every dimension of their productions locally.

“If a filmmaker is not facing financial issues, he prefers to outsource editing and color grading to an international production house instead of taking risks in these areas,” said Abbas Ali Khan, a promising singer and composer, who has helped moviemakers with audio mixing and scoring.

Some take their work to India, a country that produces hundreds of movies every year, while other go to other countries like Singapore and Thailand. Since some low-budget films are made on DSLRs, the post-production work becomes all the more necessary, since filmmakers want to lend a cinematic look to their creations.

Despite objections and criticism, local moviemakers are trying to carve out their own niche.

“I don’t blame the audience when they show skepticism toward Pakistani films,” said Jaswal. “But they need to recognize that the industry is not the same anymore and is undergoing its rebirth.”

“Comparing local movies with international ones is not fair,” he told Digital Trends. “It amounts to comparing two film industries, if not two hugely different economies, that are at different stages of their development.”

Will Pakistani moviemakers get the support they need from their own people — who are seemingly more addicted to slick international movie productions? The answer to that question will determine the future of a local film industry that has gradually started making an impact again, after 68 years of independence.