Source: Wikimedia Commmons
Source: Wikimedia Commmons

Patriotism and Pakistani Cinema

Pakistani cinema has declined in output in recent decades, but does banning Indian movies help its revival?

(This is a commentary from our September 2013 print quarterly, 'Under the shadow of the Bollywood tree'. See more from the issue here.)

This Eid the filmmakers of Pakistan had much to celebrate. Prior to the holiday, local film distributors had announced that for five days, no Indian movie would be shown in any Pakistani cinema so that a handful of local movies scheduled for release at this time could be promoted. The debate over banning Indian movies – more out of patriotism than to protect the Pakistani film industry – is now an old one. For many years local filmmakers have repeatedly stated that there should be a complete ban on screening Indian films in Pakistan. Proving their loyalty to Pakistani film, cinema owners banned the screening of Indian movies in 2010 on the occasion of Eid. However, the decision backfired as no Pakistani filmmakers managed to release a movie at this time. This year, however, the situation was much different as several movies were in the pipeline: Mein Hoon Shahid Afridi, Josh and Ishq Khuda.

A few years ago I interviewed the famous Pakistani film director Altaf Hussain at Lahore's premier film studio, Evernew. "Screening Indian movies in Pakistan is akin to treason. It is against our constitution," he iterated. Despite its absurd logic, this sentiment has found a sympathetic audience amongst depressed and burnt-out filmmakers of the past. Altaf's last successful film venture was in the mid-nineties. "We repeatedly request the government to ban Indian movies in Pakistan. They don't allow our films there. Why should we allow their films here? We should be loyal to our country," said Hussain. I wanted to ask him if his thesis about foreign movies destroying the local industry also extended to Hollywood movies, but I didn't. I knew that his resentment was confined to India. Nothing has the potential to induce patriotism in the Pakistani heart like rhetoric against India.

Dilapidation and decline
While interviewing Hussain I observed the condition of the iconic cinema, which once had state-of-the-art technology. In one corner I noticed a collection of empty bottles of Pakistani vodka. The smell of hashish rose from the surroundings. Rats and cats played amidst the dilapidated old equipment of the studio. The only movie being shot there at the time was in Pashto, produced by the famous actor Arbaz Khan. It was ironic that in the heart of Punjab a Pashto movie was being made. But then a lot of people would claim that Pashto movies aren't really movies but random shots of voluptuous Pakhtun women touching themselves, and the male protagonist, lustily.

Movie posters of girls brandishing Kalashnikovs, their clothes smeared in blood, adorned the windows of empty offices. Behind them, directors and technicians of the past now get together, not to work, but to smoke and socialise every evening. One of the posters read Wehshi Haseena. Violence is now an integral part of Pakistani cinema. Of a handful of movies released every year there is one central image: a chauvinistic male protagonist supporting a gun on his shoulder and holding the round waist of the leading actress. Hussain explained to me that most of these movies are financed by former outlaws who have joined the industry to legalise their financial transactions. Here they not only sponsor the movie but also take a significant part in the creative process, ranging from composing song lyrics to selecting the costumes of the female actresses. This prevalence of violence in Pakistani films finds its roots in the violent era of military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. It is undoubtedly a reflection of the socio-political changes that were wrought on the country. During the decade of the Afghan war after the Soviet invasion, guns and heroin made inroads into Pakistan's cities. Whereas the male protagonists of earlier films were using sticks to ward off attackers, now they were using Kalashnikovs from Afghanistan.

Of a handful of movies released every year there is one central image: a chauvinistic male protagonist supporting a gun on his shoulder and holding the round waist of the leading actress.

It is widely believed that the Zia regime put the final nail in the coffin of the Pakistani film industry. In his era of Islamisation and ostentatious piety, puritanical government officials were given posts on the censor board. Ill equipped to handle matters of artistic sensitivities they wrought havoc on the film industry. On the Sunday morning that I spent with the veteran film actor and producer Usman Peerzada, he recalled the woes of that time: "Some of the laws passed during that time defeat common sense. For example it was forbidden to show a woman wearing red on screen. I don't understand what used to happen to those bearded officials seeing a female wearing red. They were perverts. There were also laws against showing a girl or a boy alone in a room even if they were husband and wife. How is a filmmaker expected to work under such restricting conditions? But we did. We found our own ways of circumventing the law."

Coexisting worlds
That era of filmmaking represents the contradictions in Pakistani society. There was strict moral policing in many aspects of life, but a blind eye was turned towards the profane vulgarity that crept into the film industry. It was at that time that actresses abandoned innuendo and started depicting sexuality in a gross manner that repulsed the sensibilities of many. This shift drove away the former audiences of families, but it attracted testosterone-driven men whose sole purpose for visiting the cinema became to watch sleazy dances and Kalashnikov fights. The vulgarity on the screen became a symbol of everything that was not part of their lives, but a guilty pleasure nonetheless.

In his opinion it was the copying of scripts and songs that ruined the Pakistani industry, and in mine it was the Kalashnikov.

The increasing profanity has reached its pinnacle in the last decade or so. Eventually as the film industry died, actresses who earlier performed vulgar roles in movies shifted to other media that still had a few breaths of air left. Stage shows, reminiscent of the folk theatre tradition, slowly became centers of mujra (a vulgar version of the dances of Southasian courtesans), as the drama itself receded to the margins. Respected actors foreseeing the eventual death of stage shows started moving out of the industry. For PKR 200 (USD 2) a customer often gets to see the bared bosom of a stage dancer during the show.

I asked Usman Peerzada how both of these worlds were able to survive together, one of repressed sexuality, the other of profane vulgarity. "It was [through] bribing. For a few thousand rupees these pious censor board officials were willing to look the other way." Strange that in the name of piety, sensuality was replaced by profane sexuality.

I remember Hussain saying: "India never wanted to see the Pakistani film industry thrive." He was a courteous man and I, taking advantage of his hospitality, returned to him several times, compiling several hours of recordings. Often talking about his personal experiences in the film industry he would spend several minutes analysing the demise of the film industry and pinning the blame on India. "They have never truly accepted Pakistan…Earlier, at the time of Partition, the Hindus took away all the equipment from their studios so that after them the studios could not be used. But during the fifties and the sixties the Pakistani film industry like a phoenix emerged from its ashes. The sixties and the eighties are known as the golden era of the film industry. We were making around 170 movies a year at that time. Compare that to ten or twelve a year now. There was a time when our films were challenging Indian hegemony especially in foreign countries."

In his over-zealousness Hussain brushed over several factors that led to the development of the film industry in the 1960s and 1970s. A huge factor was the presence of Bengalis. Actors, singers and other practitioners from East Pakistan were part of the majority of movies produced at that time. This emphasis on the role of Bengalis in the development of the Pakistani film industry was iterated by Samina Peerzada at her house in Raiwind. She is a veteran actress and is also the wife of Usman Peerzada, who introduced her into the film industry. “I believe that the Bengalis are much more cultural than us,” she said. “Unlike us they are not ashamed of their culture. They have rather embraced it. That is the reason why it was said in West Pakistan that the Bengalis were influenced by the Hindu culture.”

Perhaps the biggest casualty of the Two Nation Theory is the culture of Pakistan. Defined in opposition to Hinduism, the country’s elite has for the past seven decades found it impossible to identify a Pakistani culture. Traditional dance, music, singing, acting, and so on was equated with Hindu culture. This caused revulsion for one’s own culture and tradition in those who embraced this new nationalism, the core of which consisted of the educated classes of Pakistani society. It is for this reason that today Pakistan, and particularly Punjab, is searching for a cultural locus. The Bengalis, similar to those in smaller provinces in West Pakistan, did not find it necessary to abandon their own culture after the creation of Pakistan. The Punjab is politically and socially the most dominant province of the country. “It is not like there is no sophistication in the Punjabi culture,” clarified Samina. “The tragedy is that Punjab has distanced itself from its tradition. In Punjab we have Heer-Ranjha, Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Guru Nanak. Having such an amazing repository of cultural tradition I don’t understand why Punjabis believe that vulgar dance, profane language and [a] testosterone induced hero is part of its culture.” Samina argued that the golden era of the 1960s and 1970s was a reflection of this Bengali attitude of embracing its culture, and the Pakistani film industry’s downfall after the 1980s is a result of this Punjabi revulsion against its own culture.

Recently, mainstream political parties have joined this discussion, with the banning of Indian movies featuring in party manifestos.

Hussain has a different perspective. During the course of our interview he showed me several pictures of himself with other members of the industry from the eighties and nineties. Every afternoon at about one he wakes up and comes to the Evernew studio where he spends the entire evening and night in the office of his producer friend. “I would say that the downfall of the Pakistani film industry began with a film called Naukar.” This was a year after the Jaal movement in 1954, during which members of the Pakistani film industry protested and forced the government of Ayub Khan to ban the screening of Indian movies in Pakistan. The movement started when a Pakistani film scheduled to be screened in India was not allowed by Indian distributors. As a reaction, members of the Pakistani industry objected to the screening of a Dev Anand movie, Jaal, in Pakistan. Prior to this, Indian movies were shown in Pakistani cinemas and vice versa.

The Kabul connection
Naukar was the first Indian movie that was copied in Pakistan. This project to end the Pakistani film industry was actually started by a Pakistani producer called JC Anand. He was a Hindu and had links with members of the Indian film industry. The project is now known as Project Kabul. Indian filmmakers used to travel to Kabul where they would meet their Pakistani counterparts. The Pakistanis would buy Indian scripts and make movies. Eventually this trend extended to songs, music, etc.…When this phenomenon spread, the cream of the industry moved to other industries. There was a brain drain,” explains Hussain.

Like his other comments I doubted these as well. But we did agree on one thing: the Kabul connection. In his opinion it was the copying of scripts and songs that ruined the Pakistani industry, and in mine it was the Kalashnikov.

I called a cinema in Lahore that had been recently renovated after Indian films started being screened there again. I wanted to know if they would be showing Shahrukh Khan’s latest movie Chennai Express. Only a handful of cinemas operate in Lahore now, though earlier there were over a hundred. I was expecting the movie to be screened after the first three days of Eid, those days being reserved for three new Pakistani movies, none of which I was interested in watching. To my surprise the cinema owners had reversed their decision and both Chennai Express and Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobaara were being shown during Eid.

The cinema was completely full. It was as if the entire city had come out to see Shahrukh Khan’s new movie. I wondered if these people would have come out to watch a Pakistani film, had there been no Indian movies. I doubted it. In recent years two of the most successful Pakistani films have been Khuda kay Liye (2007) and Bol (2011). Both of these movies have done exceptionally well despite Indian competition. Khuda kay Liye, which criticised religious dogma and orthodoxy in the social life of Pakistan, also played for several months while all the Indian and foreign movies played alongside it.

Both of these movies have been connected with the supposed revival of the Pakistani film industry, but some journalists and critics have pointed out that it is still too soon to say. Revival or not, there is no doubt that in the future Pakistani filmmakers will have to compete with their Indian counterparts. But the issue of screening Indian movies in Pakistan might be blown out of proportion in the next few years. Recently, mainstream political parties have joined this discussion, with the banning of Indian movies a feature of party manifestos. In a by-election in Islamabad I saw that the only slogan on one politician’s campaign banner was about the banning of Indian movies.

~Haroon Khalid is the author of A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.

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