Pakistan’s New-age Cinema: Expectations and Challenges

By Zeeshan Mahmood

‘New-age cinema’ and ‘revival of cinema’ are the two terms most frequent in media these days when the current state of film industry in Pakistan is in focus. These terms may sound cliches, but I believe they are used quite aptly for our film industry that is finally on the rise after a long downfall spanning over a period of two decades, and taking baby steps to be formed into new shapes and dimensions sourcing out of the passion and efforts of a new breed of filmmakers that is without any coincidence largely happens to be from Karachi instead of Lahore unlike in the days gone.

The dream of seeing boom in the film industry and cinema culture of Pakistan seems nearing its reality with an increasing number of films being announced, but the business of making films and selling the dream of revival of cinema at the same time does not seem a smooth journey owing to multi-dimensional socio-economic, cultural and political issues engulfing the local film industry just like any other business in the country in this time of uncertainty. In this article, I discuss some of the challenges new-age cinema faces today along with people’s hopes and expectations from it.

Bubble projects and disruptions:

Ever since Bilal Lashari’s thriller Waar has been released, people’s expectations from Pakistani films have soared to a new high. But at the same time, it’s been almost a year since Waar released, and no other film of the same magnitude has come out yet. Although, a lot of films are in pipeline, and out of which; some really mega projects, but anyone with his thumb on the pulse of Pakistan film industry can count these handful projects on his fingertips. Additionally, subsequent to their announcements, these films appear on social media, stir public interest and then lay dormant and almost disappear from the horizon leaving only a blurred memory behind. A few fortunate ones, however, will appear again on cinematic landscape in time to come and will be released too, as it, not in a very dissimilar manner, happened with most of the films released in recent past including Waar which had set new records of hype generation before its release but it hit cinemas two years after the release of its introductory trailer on social media. On the other hand, unfortunately, some of these dormant projects will never be more than a trailer, a teaser or a bunch of BTS pictures. These are, what I call, the ‘shortlived bubble projects’; just like a soap bubble that floats in the air, enchants people for few moments and then vanishes altogether with a small burst.

Since the release of their teaser-trailers, we have been speculating about many projects;  Hamza Ali Abbasi’s Kambakht, Yasir  Jaswal’s Jalaibee, Jami’s Moor, Anjum Shahzad’s Mah e Meer and Nabeel Qureshi’s Na Maloom AfraadNone of these projects, however, have been given any confirmed release dates, testing continuously people’s interest with occasional posts of BTS pictures on their social media presence. Now I realize that releasing a film involves great deal of all sorts of efforts, but what I want to highlight is the impact the delays have on people: they lose interest. I am a personal witness to the disappointment and disinterest preceded by immense fascination of people when they see a highly glossy trailer of an upcoming film and then don’t find any release date at the end of it.

One key factor which I think is the reason of it, other than financial constraints, is the lack of taking filmmaking as a business. Making films involve a huge deal of human and financial resources and these cannot be managed efficiently and effectively without putting in use modern management rules and principles. It may sound materialistic, but filmmaking is not like writing a novel or drawing a painting, it is, instead, totally a commercial form of liberal arts which involves sweat and blood of many people and to give them their due credit, money is needed and business is all about making money along with keeping your passion alive (a secondary thing that is).

These Shoaib Mansoor-like gaps between one local release to another hurt the revival process of films in Pakistan and people expect more consistency amongst filmmakers. A summary to all this analysis is, delays can hurt the expectations of people, and their patience shouldn’t be played with.

Entertainment for the sake of entertainment:

Commercial cinema, all over the world, is the most successful form of cinema, at least in terms of money making, and it is frowned upon by some key filmmakers in Pakistan. There is a clearly observable schism in the lines of filmmakers having different and opposing ideologies about the type of films they make and want people to watch. Shoaib Mansoor’s Bol, which stirred public admiration and overwhelmed international viewers is an antithesis of a commercial entertaining film even with a star studded cast including Atif Aslam, Humaima Malik, Iman Ali and Mahira Khan. Indisputably, Bol had a strong message but it was, in utmost honestly, a very depressing film. It was a film not many people would like to watch more than once in life. There are a lot of filmmakers who think on similar lines and mostly shadow the commercial part of the film by imbuing it with strong and sometimes over-zealously advocated messages. It is a pattern you can find in some of the recently released films yourself.

When making a film, a filmmaker should bring the general audience and its preferences under consideration. A person who visits cinema and spends money is doing it mostly to get entertainment for few hours. Film is a source of entertainment at the end and if it imparts a good social message then it is appreciated by the viewers, but if it becomes a source of preaching and evangelism then it dies its own death. Here, I would like to commend the makers of Na Maloom Afraad who took a bold step of making a commercial and entertaining film for the sake of entertainment only and invested a lot in it. The film is said to be a blockbuster even before its release.

Commercial and entertaining films do not necessarily translate to ‘masala’ films, and by no means I mean they have a better scope than others, instead, it does only imply that viewers mostly expect films with the element of entertainment from the filmmakers. It should be noted that in the long absence of local films, Pakistani viewers have developed a different kind of taste and Bollywood, in it, has played a major role. So, in my opinion, Pakistan’s new-age cinema should keep on trying with different forms of films and story lines and adapting to the modern forms and genres of films at the same time. People of Pakistan have many interesting stories to tell other than the hackneyed topics of terrorism or social injustice, and it is a high time that this national treasure recognized and adapted into films of world-class quality.

Bollywood Nightmare:

Business of cinemas has been thriving for last few years with the advent of new multiplexes and single screen cinemas in many cities and everyone knows the recipe of this breakthrough: overwhelmingly impressive and record making business of Indian films. The permission of showing Indian films in Pakistani cinemas on one side proved catalytic in reviving the cinema culture and business but on the other hand it has posed a direct threat and competition to indigenous film industry.

When it comes to decisions regarding release dates, Pakistani filmmakers usually do not compete with each other and avoid any collision with mega projects of Bollywood. The occasion of Eid is utilized by super stars of India as an auspicious event to release their films, the most recent example being Salman Khan starrer Kick that released this Eid-ul Fitr, and a little older being SRK’s Chennai Express that released last Eid and both these films made a record smashing business in Pakistan, and this event is missed by Pakistani filmmakers who either avoid releasing their films on these potential money making days or their plans are backfired if they decide to go for head-to-head contest.

Here we can analyze what could have happened with the makers of Operation 021 when they decided about the release date. Initially, Operation 021 was speculated to be released on Eid-ul-Fitr but the date collided with release of Kick. The first officially announced release date, however, was Independence day (Aug 14) when a bigger political theater was already planned to be set in Punjab and Capital (as you are witnessing yourself), and finally, probably realizing the gravity of the situation, the film release was postponed to Eid-ul-Azha (start of October). The official reason of this postponement, however, was never announced. Even with the new date, O21 collides with two big Bollywood releases, Bang Bang starring Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif and Haider starring Shahid Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor, releasing around the same dates. O21, back to square one, is still on the path of risk.

This situation is getting complicated with time as Indian films are expanding in size, quantity and hype and people want to watch them on silver screen. This is virtually leaving Pakistani filmmakers with very few occasions and options to release their films with the hope of getting overwhelming and prolonged public response and whooping returns. For cinema owners it’s a tougher decision as they want to play their role in building and reviving local film industry but on the other hand they have to meet public demands and achieve their business goals. In this regard, some consensus should be built up between the filmmakers and the cinema owners, so that local films get priority over foreign cinema content. Being completely realistic and futuristic, this can only be possible if local films are equally competitive in terms of quality and capturing people’s attention.

Uncertainty and hope:

Ironically, the uncertainty about film industry has escalated with the advent of new breed of filmmakers and film exhibitors trying to revive the cinema culture and cinema business in Pakistan. Uncertainty about ‘what will happen’ has taken place of certainty of ‘nothing will happen’ over the course of time and this situation is different from past, especially from last two decades, when hype and hope was characterized by the demand and response of a certain class of cine-goers and movie lovers. Now, the art and science of making and selling films has been changed all over the world and people of Pakistan are cognizant of it, thanks to all exotic stuff which filled the void created by indigenous film industry.

It can be taken as a warning that attempts to appease the viewers with false promises and hollow claims will lead to nowhere and the crawling new-age cinema will not walk long before nosediving again. This time it will be more hurting.

But on the positive side, the passion of filmmakers and public appetite for local films is spectacular and it is expected that the momentum will fully build up in next few years and our film industry will start gaining attention nationwide and internationally with beautiful and memorable films once again; given that the circumstances remain favorable.

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