Pashto cinema is undergoing an identity crisis; it is now synonymous with buxom women with gyrating hips. Its audience is critical of these vulgar dance sequences and the days where these very films were commended for mirroring social issues are long forgotten.
Oddly enough, the racy dance numbers and provocative moves in contemporary Pashto films that have evoked criticism are blamed on “the Punjabi influence”. “The women doing mujras in Pashto films hail from Punjab. They wouldn’t be alive if they were living in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,” Farhad Ahmed, a shop owner in the Nishtarabad CD market of Peshawar, tells The Express Tribune.
Ahmed, who is also the president of the Nishtarabad CD union, says that to avoid threats from conservative groups, shop owners at the CD centre don’t stock controversial films any longer. Ironically, these films still manage to get airtime on cable television.
“We have requested the authorities to form a local censor board in Peshawar that monitors the release of such films in the market,” Ahmed says. “But despite our meeting with senior ministers, nothing really worked out,” he adds. “The names that run in the credits of the films are usually made up, which is why no one can really trace the producers.”
A clash of ideologies
Like many other shop owners in the region, Ahmed believes that unlike the Pashto filmmakers of yesteryear, Punjabi producers’ inclination towards risqué entertainment overshadows the social issues portrayed in films. CD shop owners feel victimised because they are physically and financially punished whenever controversial films flood the markets of Peshawar. “Most people in the K-P region watch and enjoy the vulgarity,” says a CD shop owner, who chose to remain anonymous. “But just to stay true to the “extremism” label, they will target people like us without realising that we haven’t released these films in the market!” he added.
“Trust me, no one wants to stop the production of these films more than us,” says another shop owner from the market.
Well-known Pashtun writer and an expert on Pashtun culture, Saadullah Jan Barq says that blaming Punjab for everything is “people’s way of running away from the truth”. Sitting in his hujra (guest room) in Nowshera, Barq elaborates on this sensitive matter. “People with this commercial mentality are present everywhere, so we can’t really blame one ethnic group for bringing vulgarity into Pashto cinema,” Barq told The Express Tribune.
Barq feels that there is no question of the Pashto film industry’s standards deteriorating, as he feels that it never truly entered into its “golden days”.
“Its golden age lasted for only about three years in the mid 70s,” said Barq, adding that films like Beedan were released but then influential people from Lahore and Peshawar changed the pattern altogether. “It took some time for gujjars (Punjabi heroes) to enter the Pashto film industry, but smugglers and dacoits were already there,” says Barq. “After this, Punjab started influencing the film industry in many ways. Frankly speaking, they have the technology to make and release films and we don’t,” he said, adding that the Punjabi influence in Pashto films was inevitable.
According to Barq, unlike Lollywood, the state of the Pashto film industry was never affected by changes in the political scenario. It was, however, affected by the influx of Afghan immigrants after the Soviet invasion. “Immigrants came in a state of despair, and watching these obscene films became the best escape for them. This provided the producers an incentive to make scandalous films,” says Barq.
The average man in Peshawar, however, chooses to distance himself from the issue of vulgarity in films, and considers it “a conspiracy against the Pashtuns”. The prevalent belief in the region is that respect for women is an integral part of Pashtun culture and a Pathan would never produce work like this.
At the end, Barq makes a balanced observation. “Punjabis are a respectable ethnic group and have immense respect for their women. The Punjab producers portray in their films doesn’t represent their values or norms,” he says.
He adds that in a few years, using vulgarity to draw in crowds won’t work for both Punjabi and Pashto producers, as the audience is getting fed-up. “I am actually optimistic about the future of Pashto cinema,” says Barq. “So much bad work has happened that it can only get better from here.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th, 2012.
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