The Pakistani film industry struggles for originality as pirated Indian movies steal the show.
What we today call Bollywood cinema is the common heritage of all those who contributed at one time or another to its growth into what is today the second largest motion picture industry in theworld. Soon after the success of the first indigenous Indian film Raja Harishchandra, made by the visionary from Bombay, Dada Saheb Phalke in 1913, aspiring filmmakers all over India plunged into the world of dreams and lamour. Besides Bombay, film productions also star-ted in Calcutta, Madras and Lahore.
The first film from Lahore (now facetiously called “Lollywood” and the base of Pakistani cinema) was The Daughter of Today, made in 1924, 11 years after the release of Phalke’s venture. But it was The Loves of a Mughal Prince by the exceptional entrepreneur, Himanshu Rai, that offered Lahore the first real hope of getting into the mainstream cinema market. The film, based on Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj’s famous play Anarkali, however, failed to take off. This was because the Imperial Film Company of Bombay churned out a quickie, Anarkali, and released it hurriedly across the country. Rai’s movie, although a much superior and original work, was dubbed a copy and it flopped. The Bombay Masala had sealed the commercial fate of the Lahore Classic.
Film production in Lahore was an unprofitable enterprise and was more of an industry where newcomers tried their hand at cinema without having to live off it. Artistes and technicians who made it in Lahore were invariably attracted to Bombay, the showbiz centre which recognised only success. Bombay filmdom lured everyone of substance, and enriched itself at the cost of other film centres, including Lahore. This is seen in the list of artistes who achieved cult status and contributed immensely to the evolution of Bollywood, but who originally hailed from the part of India now comprising Pakistan: Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Ghulam Haider, Mohammed Rafi, Balraj Sahni, Kamini Kaushal, Rajendra Kumar, Sampooran Singh Gulzar,Ramanand Sagar, G.P. and Ramesh Sippy, Nasir Khan, Mumtaz, Pran…
A momentous day for Indian cinema arrived on 14 March 1931 when the country’s first full-length talkie, Alam Ara, was released in Bombay under the banner of the Imperial Film Company. One of its songs turned out to be a big hit, and business soared as the melody caught the imagination of the country. Maiden Theatre Calcutta followed with its own talkie, Shirin Farhad, based on a Persian love lore, with as many as 40 songs. This is how cinema in the Subcontinent developed into a unique entity of dance, drama and song, defying universally accepted classification of the cinema genre.
The acceptance and popularity of Hindi cinema has, ever since, depended heavily on the song-and-dance ingredients. The genesis of this peculiar genre of cinema is linked to the longer-term history of the performing arts in the Subcontinent. Performing arts as a means of livelihood and source of entertainment was recognised at the administrative level in India as early as the 3rd century BC. This is clear from Kautilya’s Artha Shastra, in which he writes: “The maintenance from the King’s exchequer is to be provided to the teachers who impart (to courtesans and female slaves who live by the stage) the knowledge of the arts of singing, playing on musical instrument, reciting, dancing, acting, writing, painting, playing on the lute, the flute and the drum…”
The rulers of India, irrespective of their religious affiliations, patronised musicians, poets and singers, and had a vast number of them attached to their courts. The middle classes, on the other hand, found a more exotic outlet in the chakla. This was the Beauty Bazaar, abodes of dancing damsels and sex workers, a sort of early form of nightclubs. Exclusive areas within the chakla were earmarked for the mujra — the dance and song repertoire — performed by trained and qualified singer-cum-dancer with good looks and pleasant decorum.
The chaklas were the grooming grounds for singers and dancers, where poets and musicians were pampered and could scrape a living. Prodigal sons of rich families found in the chakla an opportunity for emotional and physical expression, a fairyland for romance and courtship with real life damsels, a place that led to the fruition of unfulfilled dreams born out of a segregated and sexually frustrating environment.
The mujra segment of the chakla was where women learnt the art of singing and dancing, and the mannerisms of appeasement. It is no coincidence, therefore, that for decades these were the only places that supplied heroines and other women actors for the films. The fun and merriment of the chakla, however, were beyond the reach of the masses, which had to cultivate its own folk mediums to express of joy, sorrow, gaiety and gloom. The interaction and articulation in this folk culture was always through lyrically spoken words, which were tuned to the versified passages of religious teachings, songs of harvest, lores of bygone past, dramas and puppetry.
When cinema came to the Subcontinent it was but natural for filmmakers to expound the aesthetic and cultural identity of the people through songs, music and dances inherited from this rich cultural past. In addition, the repertoires of many parts of the Subcontinent were adapted and incorporated into cinema. Cosmopolitan Bombay integrated and blended the best of what it received from all over the region and offered it to people in the most entertaining form of cinema. In the process, it brought together the segregated cultures of the masses and the classes. High and low, mighty and meek, rich and poor, could together watch the same silver-screen without undermining their social status.
Partition and plagiarism
Talkies also gave a new lease of life to film production in the northern region. Perhaps it was the cultural dominance of Lahore in contrast to the technological advancement of Bombay that brought the change. In the silent era, physical action, mime, magic and slapstick were the main ingredients of moviemaking. With sound, the need for a well-written story, dialogues, lyrics and music became imperative. Calcutta and Madras being non-Hindi/Urdu provinces turned to their own regional literature, but Bombay, catering to the need of a hybrid majority of dience, looked towards Uttar Pradesh and the northern provinces for their rich heritage of court and folk culture. Thus it happened that most of the actors, directors, writers, poets, singers and musicians in the fledgling talkie period of Bombay, belonged to the non-native population of Maharashtra state.
With the division of the Subcontinent in 1947 and the communal riots that accompanied it, what advantage Lahore’s film industry had enjoyed, quickly disappeared. In the city, film studios belonging to non-Muslims were targetted, partly in revenge attacks and partly because cinema was not considered Islamic in character. The studio-owners left the newly-born Pakistan, and some even took away the equipment. In comparison, Bombay studios remained unaffected as the city remained fairly calm.
Independent Pakistan’s film industry was too small to cope with the demand of local theatres, so Bombay films continued to dominate in Pakistan in the post-Independence period as well. The other factor was that Pakistan cinema lacked established stars in its fold. Except for Noorjahan, others who came from Bombay and Calcutta were either on the downhill phase of their career or veterans good for only minor roles. On the other hand, their counterparts in Bombay Dilip Kumar, Nargis, Kamini Kaushal, Madhubala, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and others — were well on their way to stardom. These Bombay actors enjoyed immense popularity among young Pakistani filmgoers, which made it difficult for the Pakistani filmmakers who had to make do with mostly unknown and fresh faces.
The 1965 war between India and Pakistan generated a surge of nationalism that had only been seen earlier in the freedom movement of undivided India. The Pakistani government placed a complete ban on exhibintion of Indian films, even on oldies released years back (and the ban holds till today). This gave the local filmmakers a protected market and the number of Pakistani productions began to grow considerably. But the films were indigenous only cosmetically, for soon enough, producers and their writers started visiting neighbouring Afghanistan to watch Indian films to get their story ideas. Plagiarism was practised to the hilt, with Pakistani filmmakers remaking Bollywood’s box office hits by merely changing the names of characters from Hindu to Muslim ones, and placing them in the local setting.
This furtive copying came to an end when Lahore began to receive Indian TV, and Pakistanis could watch the originals in the comfort of their homes. This led to some development of original Pakistani cinema, but this period lasted only for a decade till the introduction of home video and later satellite telecasts in the region. Through pirated VHS tapes and satellite channels, Bollywood now began to inflict the most devastating blow to the Pakistani film industry. Local producers of Urdu films lost their audience to Hindi films from Bombay, particularly the middle class urbanised family filmgoers who preferred to watch their Bollywood favourites on TV or rented videos of their choice.
If anything has even remotely served to bridge the divide between Pakistanis and Indians these last five decades, it has to be Bollywood cinema. There may be a blanket ban on Indian films in Pakistan, but walk into any of the 45,000 video shops across the country, and, in the best traditions of piracy, the latest Bollywood films are all there in the shelves. In many of the villages, these video shops even have small, dark rooms spluttering out Bollywood starrers at the princely price of two rupees per show. Then there are the restaurants and small tea shops dishing out the same fare.
To take advantage of film fare on satellite television, which has conquered all of Pakistan, even electricity-less villages remained hooked through battery-run televisions and receivers, tuning into multiple channels. In congested areas of major cities, the cable brigade functions in the most organised and considerate way —it charges PKR 50 (c. USD 1) per month in the lower-income dwellings, while hiking it upto PKR 250 in the posh settlements. The lifeline of these cable operators is the Hindi film.
Producers in Pakistan would have done well to come up with a survival strategy to counter the ready rental and sale of pirated Bollywood in the local market and to get the urban middle class back to the theatres. But, rather unwisely, they have adopted a policy that will only marginalise their audience further. They have begun to offer second-rate Lollywood-ised versions of Bollywood bonanzas to that segment of society which has no easy access to VCR and television. This surely will fizzle out in the long run, as satellite access is extending to even the remotest of areas and all class segments.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the over-protected film industry of Pakistan bitterly opposes the opening up of film trade of any kind with India for fear of being swamped. It ignores the fact that such a situation already prevails all over the country. Everyone is watching Hindi films, anyway. If nothing tangible is done to improve the quality of local cinema to match the Indian productions in an open market, the battle in the field of motion pictures may well be lost, without even encountering Bollywood face to face.