PESHAWAR: There are many names for pornographic movies, from the euphemistic (‘adult cinema’) to the nostalgic (‘under-the-counter videos’) to the plain short (‘porn’). Here is a relatively new one: ‘barband,’ which means porn in Pashto.
At the Shama Cinema in Peshawar, every show is a full house. The ups and downs of the Pakistan film industry are irrelevant to this crowd. The harsh winters do not deter punters either. Even terrorism has no effect. Thanks to the alleged protection of the influential Bilour family and the active negligence of the ruling Awami National Party and its predecessor the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (a defunct umbrella group for religious parties), the audience is in safe hands.
Khaklay Navay (Beautiful Bride) is the name of one pornographic movie recently shown on the cinema’s big screen. It ran for two months, opening on Eidul Fitr. A new film called Khaklay Jankay (Beautiful Girls) — which sounds like the prequel, though this is unconfirmed — was released in time for Eidul Azha. It is currently running, though there was a small break for 10 days out of respect for the holy month of Muharram.
Four shows run every day. For early risers, there is the 11am screening.
This is followed by shows at 3pm, 6pm and 9pm. The films are promoted through racy, raunchy posters pasted on the walls of Peshawar, often side-by-side with graffiti from religious groups.
What’s more, the local industry seems to be a grower. Exciting news for enthusiasts is that in addition to the screening of adult English-language adult movies, the management has started the screening of porn in Pashto.
Most of the films thus far have been dubbed into Pushto. Many have been foreign and often feature curvy Californian blondes, proving that anti-Americanism is not all-pervasive in Khyber-Pakhtunkwa. Most, though, seemed to have been produced in Lahore or other non-Pastho-speaking parts of Pakistan. Fans outside the cinema said that the exchange of Pakistani currency in some scenes proves the films are made within the country; in a boost for Pakistan’s ailing film industry, the cinema-goers also said the sound and camerawork is often of the highest quality.
An employee at the cinema who, perhaps fearing his mother’s reaction, did not want his name publicised, said that Pushto adult movies are proving a bigger hit than English ones. He went on to say that drug-taking is an integral part of the experience; a haze of hashish smoke floats above the seats instead of more standard sensory accompaniments to the cinema experience, such as the crunch of popcorn. The employee added that a nearby cinema called Sabreena is also doing great business.
For those with an image of Peshawar and its environs as a medieval-minded war-zone, the Shama Cinema sounds scarcely believable. This is a region where girls schools and shrines are destroyed, yet neither the religious parties nor the government have objected to porn being screened. Locals say there’s an easy explanation: the cinema is owned by the powerful Bilour family, which also happens to be tied to the Awami National Party.
Former provincial minister in the MMA government, Sirajul Haq, apparently once asked the cinema owners to stop their ‘morally-ambiguous’ practices. The appeal was ignored. In a city where hoardings of multinational companies that had images of women were torn apart, and where terrorist explosions have been distressingly frequent in the past decade, it is genuinely amazing that the cinema remains untouched.
The owner of a more mainstream cinema said officials from Shama Cinema pay hundreds of thousands of rupees in bribes. Nobody was able to pinpoint who exactly receives the pay-offs, be they authorities from the provincial government, the police or elsewhere.
The films themselves are not cheap. A cinema manager, who also asked not to be identified, said that the movies cost about five to six hundred thousand rupees to make, though the returns are very high.
Filmmakers who might prefer Ron Howard to Ron Jeremy are not happy.
Ajab Gul, an actor and director of Pashto films, said the situation was painful and those behind it should be exposed. He told The Express Tribune that the producers of such films are ruining the film industry as a whole. Director Liaquat Ali Khan and producer Muzaffar Khan agree, pointing out that out of 27 films released last year in Pakistan, 16 were Pushto.
The paying customer, though, seems to disagree. Indeed, a wide demographic makes up the audience. Satisfied customers said that there was no age limit to entrance to the Shama Cinema; film-goers include schoolboys, college students, street children, and even old men into their sixties and seventies.
Who is behind such open secrecy? Everyone in Peshawar says the same name: the Bilour family.
The family, however, denies any involvement. According to sources in the city, the cinema was once owned by senior minister Bashir Ahmed Bilour. It was passed on to Aziz Ahmed Bilour, federal secretary for industries, as the family assets were distributed. The cinema, it is believed, is now managed by close relatives of the Bilour brothers.
When contacted by The Express Tribune, Aziz Ahmed Bilour said he had been busy doing public service in Islamabad since he left Peshawar two decades ago. He said he has not gone to the cinema since then. Aziz also insisted he does not own any cinema and does not know who owns the Shama Cinema. Indeed, as far as Aziz knows, the Bilour family has no involvement in the cinema business at all. However, he generously offered to lend a helping hand: “If it is transferred in my name, then it will be good and I shall look after the affair.”
And so the Shama Cinema will carry on rolling the reels. The audience, no doubt, will keep on coming.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 19th, 2011.
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