Memories of the Pakistani film industry

Published: May 7, 2012
The writer is assistant professor of history at Forman Christian College and an editor at Oxford University Press

The writer is assistant professor of history at Forman Christian College and an editor at Oxford University Press

I grew up in the 1980s during the regime of General Ziaul Haq, under which several basic freedoms were curtailed, society was polarised along sectarian and ethnic lines, the law and order situation was bad, and people were generally unhappy with life in Pakistan. Amidst these depressing realities, there was at least one assured solace — at the end of the day one could tune into Pakistan Television (PTV), the only television channel of the country, and watch superb dramas, and on the weekends, Pakistani movies. At a time of such repression, the thriving television and film industry was a great succour to a fatigued and demoralised society.

The visual arts are a very important part of any civilisation. A flourishing visual arts scene is indicative of a society in which people think and ponder over their issues, problems, hopes and desires. A thriving visual arts industry also signifies the self-reflection in society. No wonder then that the cradle of South Asian nationalism, Bengal, has always had a remarkable visual arts industry with people such as Satyajit Ray garnering international fame.

In Pakistan, the political repression of the Zia era meant that the arts discussed issues from a social and satirical perspective. Pakistani films and television shows ventured out of the usual romantic tales and explored a variety of topics ranging from the lives of women in society — as mothers, daughters and wives — to issues about child custody after divorce, second marriages, drugs, violence, and other such themes. Therefore, through the medium of the visual arts, important issues were being highlighted and so, to an extent, these dramas and films had an educative effect in identifying and illustrating problems. The visual arts also played a socially cohesive role. Everyone from a general to a factory worker saw the timeless PTV dramas, and people from all walks of life thronged to the cinemas to watch the latest hit movie. The role of the visual arts in entertaining, educating and bringing people together cannot be overestimated.

I am no film specialist, but my recent visit to the Bari Studio, once a thriving centre of film production, and a meeting with film star Shabnam, made me think about these issues. It was almost heartbreaking to see the derelict and forlorn studio. The studio consists of a labyrinth of big sets, where everything from a prison cell to a beautiful garden, can be depicted. Several old sets still remain, but today hardly anyone uses or even visits them. The studio is now a relic of an age when Lollywood was a flourishing film industry with scores of hit releases each year.

Conversing with Shabnam made me think of her super hit film Aina, which is a classic tale about two lovers from different social classes and their struggle to be with each other. Released in 1977 during the time of labour unrest, and especially following the 1972 labour strikes, Aina was as much a love story as it was a criticism of the sharpening class divide. Its closing scene, in which Rita (Shabnam) slaps her father, and where her mother says: ‘you have not slapped your father, but the mentality that believes in differences between the poor and the rich’ is poignant. With such a powerful message, it is no wonder that Aina still has the record of being the longest running film in Pakistani history, managing to be on the screen for 401 weeks — more than seven years!

Shabnam’s visit to Pakistan and the reception she received, even from people who were born years after she left the film industry, shows that there is still a healthy appetite for good films and good acting in the country. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s success at the Oscars is another indication that good work can still be done in Pakistan. Films provide a mirror into society, as well as a channel for reflection and criticism, and therefore, at this difficult time we must revive the Pakistani film industry and become a society with a pulse again.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (14)

  • Rajendra Kalkhande
    May 8, 2012 - 12:24AM

    Lahore was the cultural capital of undivided India. Majority of Bollywood actors, writers, dancers came from places around Lahore. Main stream cinema was dominated by Punjabis and art cinema by Bengalis. In India this remains so even today. There is no doubt, Pakistan still has great artists, however, local market is not large enough to support the industry. I am sure things will change with improving Indo-Pak relations. Joint ventures in film making is going to happen in some or the other form. Pakistan has to understand that cultural diplomacy is more powerful than even money power. Even Chinese have understood it lately. Its no use saying that Pakistani culture is different than India. Religion might be different for majority, but culture is very similar. Way to go is to promote our culture jointly rather than portraying it differently.


  • fahim
    May 8, 2012 - 1:56AM

    Our film industry is long dead, and it started in 70s. Not to forget the death of drama, theaters, street plays .. rather all forms of visual arts. Mention one good painter, sketch artist, modern art artist that is known today within our borders, forget international recognition. The limited recognition we get are because of big foreign banners interested to make profits by highlighting the filth in our degenerated society. The only art left is the hate graffiti on walls, or inhuman pictures behind auto rickshaw blaming US and India.


  • geeko
    May 8, 2012 - 2:10AM

    @Rajendra Kalkhande:
    Why do you mean “local market” is not large ? With a nation of 200 millions, if the people’s trust goes back to the Pak. film industry it can be really fruitful.

    And Lahore wasn’t the capital of undivided India, but undivided Punjab, really doubt that it was the cultural capital of Bengalis or Tamils.


  • Rehman
    May 8, 2012 - 2:44AM

    I fully agree with Rajendra. We should proudly embrace our Indian roots and cooperate with India to revive our film industry


  • Dr Omar
    May 8, 2012 - 9:25AM

    Agreed , visual arts need a revival and we should cooperate with any country that has a strong film making roots. Even countries like Iran, etc have a strong alternate/art cinema culture and that can also be tapped into!


  • nomi bhai
    May 8, 2012 - 11:53AM

    Get off..There is big big difference in Culture of these two nations. Muslim culture is built according to ISLAM, and if muslims don’t follow the islamic culture then this is fault of the Muslims and it does not mean that hindu and muslim culture are same.

    Two nations theory remains and exists. We muslims don’t want to be like you. We want to be like what our relegion says, and all muslims who do not understand the difference between the ISLAMIC and Hindu culture then they should not call themselves as muslims because Muslim culture is directly propotional to ISLAM.


  • May 8, 2012 - 1:53PM

    It needs freedom, freedom of minds, freedom of societies but unfortunately we the people of pakistan just bounded and don’t have freedom of mind to create great ideas our thoughts are limited how to survive in such a country where insecurity and power is on its peak.


  • Hella
    May 8, 2012 - 3:35PM

    @Rajendra, Lahore cultural capital of India? I doubt that will be accepted by Rajasthan, U.P., Bihar, Himachal, J&K, Jharkand, Chhatisgarh, MP, leave alone North East, South India, Maharashtra, Goa & Gujarat. Bollywood is just one part of a very vibrant Indian movie industry that not only includes Hindi/Urdu but also Bhojpuri, Punjabi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Bengali, Konkani, Assamese and probably some I have left out. India’s highest paid actor is not from Bollywood but from South India, and there are more movies made in Telugu then in Bollywood.


  • RH
    May 8, 2012 - 4:13PM

    @nomi bhai: yes, two nation theory exists…in your head. and that is where it should stay.


  • Big Rizvi
    May 8, 2012 - 9:54PM

    But this time, they should portray something positive about Pakistan, to tell the masses that it is not a land of terrorists and veiled women, to break away from a Humsafar-esque plot. Anybody agree on this one? Now don’t say there is nothing good here


  • Lateef Khan
    May 9, 2012 - 5:14AM

    In India, Tamil, Malyalam, Kanada film industries do really well despite the population of followers of these language is much smaller than Pakistan’s market.
    Market size is big enough. We need to create capacity and make good films.


  • Knotty
    May 9, 2012 - 5:18AM

    Its sad to see that no one cares about film industry!

    Television has shot shelf life…. films are there even after 50 years and become part of a country’s cinema history.


  • Pinto
    May 9, 2012 - 7:17AM

    Lollywood was never a great industry. Recommend

  • May 9, 2012 - 7:52AM

    The problem is not with Pakistan alone, but the presence of a more vibrant, free, highly colourful culture next door. If you add the presence of the same language, then a Country like Pakistan has no chance.

    Lets just take the example of Canada. It has a behemoth next door, not land area wise but culturally. It just cannot compete with Hollywood, because its the same language and culturally America is a Super Power in every sense of the word. What Canada best does is accept this reality and tries to contribute to Hollywood, instead of making its own film industry.

    Pakistan cannot compete with India. Culturally its a juggernaut with a very vibrant and colourful society. It has more than a dozen thriving Film Industries, when many countries struggle to come up with just one.

    The fact that the film industry in Pakistan survived for a few decades after partition is because of the legacy of India Pakistan carried. Slowly, as NFP recouts, Pakistan began associating itself more with Arabia than India. Therein lies the problem. How many large scale , free movie industries are there in Arabia?


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