Ayub Khan and the Pakistani film industry

Ayub Khan understood film. He knew how important it was for Pakistan to exploit this industry and he helped it thrive.

Sher Khan August 24, 2013
A leading film-maker once asserted to me that Pakistani cinema had actually thrived through the advent of Ayub Khan’s military rule. This thought is part of the broader belief amongst some quarters that the dictatorship eras have provided a certain amount of socio-economic growth and development for Pakistan.

Interestingly, for film, this has never been the case. In fact, Pakistani cinema has always been built through the efforts of dedicated individuals who, despite the lack of structured support and resources, developed methods through which some sort of a film culture could develop. This culture was, in fact, undermined by the first dictator, Ayub Khan, who had viewed films as an important mass-medium, which needed to be exploited by the state.

Film-making, on many levels, is inherently progressive because for art to thrive, it has to reject blanket forms of authoritarianism. This period bred the death of Pakistani cinema. Major film-makers, who refused to give up their independence either left willingly or were systematically kicked out, over the long-term, through the advent of the government’s biggest intervention, television.

The Ayub era had long-standing structural and cultural impacts. It was met with increased amounts of subversiveness when it tried to influence the industry by placing controls on distribution and promoting state propaganda. The main agenda was to promote the regime’s own point of view. This was a period when around 50 propaganda films, such as the famed Nai Kiran were made, with the theme that politicians were corrupt, democracy had failed and that military rule had saved the country.

Nai Kiran, which was the field marshal’s gift to the country, was completed in nearly 10 weeks and producers had the freedom to hire whomever they desired. It is said that Noor Jehan acted in the film against her will after law-enforcement agencies started to harass her after her initial refusal to be a part of it.

There were several other quite notorious incidents of harassment and abuse that took place after artists refused to adhere to the dictates of the then government. The incidents of this era would not only have a lasting impact, shaping the societal outlook towards film, but would also mean that the basis of the Pakistani film would be clouded by a new environment — one in which alternative thought and film-making would not be allowed for a long time.
Sher Khan
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