The untimely death of Indian actor Sushant Singh Rajput in June 2020 shook the Bollywood industry to its core. Artists and audience members alike began to question the exclusive and dynastic quality of the industry and the nepotistic ideals it seemingly propagated. However, when Lollywood – Pakistan’s entertainment industry – expressed shock over what could have led a young and accomplished actor to take his own life, the hypocrisy seemed a bit too blatant.
Gatekeeping within Lollywood
Lollywood functions on similar, if not precisely the same, ideals as Bollywood. Whilst the Pakistani entertainment industry may come across as otherworldly and glamorous from the outside, it is very much defined by lobby systems and patronage schemes from within.
There are no film ‘fraternities’ nor institutions like actors’ unions and managers which support budding creatives. Merit, artistic training, and a desire to tell essential stories do not rank highly on the casting criteria when an aspiring actor need only follow the cookie-cutter standards of being fair and tall with striking features. Possessing significant social media clout also appears to be a bonus.
Further, simply acquiring an audition is a hassle for actors who do not possess connections to casting agents or have links to industry insiders. All of this has contributed to creating a massive breeding ground for insecurity, envy and intense competition – a terrifying notion given that every second young man or woman in Pakistan wants to gain access to the elusive world of film and television.
The lack of career opportunities and drama schools has forced many artists to leave Pakistan for places where their talent would be valued and acknowledged more.
Unfortunately, nepotism has also stunted the progress of Lollywood. In recent years, television conglomerates and production houses have monopolised talent, who they repeatedly cast within their network shows. In 2020, the television serial ‘Zebaish’ starred the entire family of veteran actress Bushra Ansari – who played the lead – from her sister to her niece, to her niece’s husband.
In 2020, when veteran actor Javed Sheikh was asked about the prevalence of nepotism within Lollywood, he claimed that there was none. However, there is no denying that without his influence and role within the industry, his son, Shahzad Sheikh’s entry into Lollywood would not have been that swift and easy upon graduating college. However, the former’s tone-deaf statement – “Your skill brings you in the limelight and those who fail to do so, always complain” – made his statement about the scarce nepotism in the industry a little less plausible.
The refusal of production houses to diversify their talent pool has only furthered the hegemony of household names who are offered endless job opportunities, whilst those without familial links to acting legacies continue to meander along the uncertain path of catching their ‘big break’.
The slow death of theatre
Sadly, there exist only a handful of dramatic institutions in Pakistan, like the National College of Arts in Lahore, or the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA), which teach and nurture the art form of acting.
Merit, artistic training, and a desire to tell essential stories do not rank highly on the casting criteria when an aspiring actor need only follow the cookie-cutter standards of being fair and tall with striking features.
Even theatre has become somewhat of a dying art in Pakistan, where only a few theatrical production houses are keeping the tradition of the stage alive – the most prominent ones being ‘KopyKat Production House’ or ‘Made for Stage Productions’. The former tends to stage more political or satirical shows, penned by playwright Anwar Maqsood, for an older audience. The latter tends to cast newer actors and stages more contemporary English shows fit for Pakistan’s younger demographic. However, the plays staged by the two companies are few and far between, with Made for Stage’s latest production being a performance of Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Steps in 2017.
The lack of career opportunities and drama schools has forced many artists to leave Pakistan for places where their talent would be valued and acknowledged more. However, even abroad, artists struggle to search for work that contains diverse storytelling and is not riddled with stereotypes.
Blurred lines for women
Given the intimacy and long hours on set, which are part and parcel of the acting profession, the burden of maintaining a professional and cordial working relationship often falls on the female artists.
When the #MeToo movement arrived in Pakistan, the most famous case occurred in 2018, when actor and singer Meesha Shafi came forward with misconduct allegations in a Twitter post against fellow singer Ali Zafar. Given that Pakistan is a nation where tradition and honour prevails, it was not long until Shafi became the centre of speculation. Her public claim brought her intense backlash as she was shamed incessantly on social media. Zafar then responded by registering Shafi, activist Leena Ghani, and seven other women under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, accusing them of running a ‘smear campaign’ against him on social media.
In Pakistan, there is no concept of Human Resource departments or established unions and guilds which protect artists and are equipped to handle misconduct allegations.
Ultimately, after two long years, in January 2021, the Supreme Court of Pakistan granted leave to appeal, allowing Shafi’s case to be treated on legal points. Earlier, the singer’s appeal had been rejected as her allegations did not come under the customary workplace harassment laws, as she had been a self-employed artist.
Surprisingly, in March 2021, Shafi found herself the victim of a disinformation campaign on social media when the British tabloid the Daily Mail, falsely reported that she had been found ‘guilty’ by the courts. However, Shafi’s lawyer, Asad Jamal, swiftly set the record straight, saying the court had passed no such verdict in Pakistan. Meanwhile, in the same month, the accused Ali Zafar was awarded the Pride of Performance – the highest civilian award – by the government of Pakistan. Even whilst accused of sexual harassment, male artists in Pakistan continue to receive professional accolades whilst female artists face the emotional and professional cost of coming forward with harassment claims.
In Pakistan, there is no concept of Human Resource departments or established unions and guilds which protect artists and are equipped to handle misconduct allegations. Further, no contracts nor HR policies about sexual and workplace harassment are read out or signed, even when a production is being filmed. This lack of systemic support typically offered by acting guilds across the globe, enables people to take advantage of those vulnerable or just starting out in the industry. Ultimately, women often choose to avoid reporting their harassers due to the immense ramifications of losing out on critical job opportunities or getting blacklisted by the industry. Often, many actors are forced to collaborate with their abusers and harassers in order to sustain their livelihood and pursue the work they are passionate about.
Prospective female artists, regrettably, also have to face an additional set of challenges. Many female artists and crew members make efforts to maintain a cordial and professional working environment on set – from refusing to mingle with the crew after work to not sharing their phone numbers with other artists on set. These small efforts by female artists prevent others from turning ‘over friendly’ on set.
When the #MeToo movement arrived in Pakistan, the most famous case occurred in 2018, when actor and singer Meesha Shafi came forward with misconduct allegations in a Twitter post against fellow singer Ali Zafar.
On screen, women battle the binaries the patriarchy in Pakistan has set for them. We rarely see them as they are – people with passions, interests, and desires. In recent television serials like ‘Meray Paas Tum Ho’ (2019) or ‘Khwab Nagar Ki Shehzadi’ (2021), we see female characters who are vastly underdeveloped and devoid of any personality – they are either meek or completely anglicised and, therefore, the devil incarnate.
Even the career lifespan of a female actor is significantly shorter than that of a male actor. Veteran actors, like Humayun Saeed or Faysal Qureshi, play the ‘male hero’ well into their late 40s, whilst women exist only as the young 20-something newly-wed or the older, agitated mother-in-law; there really is no in-between.
Portraying women as these one-dimensional beings who live, work and breathe for their family only enforces the misogynistic mentality that is prevalent within Pakistani society.
Unlike other countries, which generally have a singular board of censorship overlooking the entertainment sector, Pakistan has three boards regulating the public screening of films – the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC), the Punjab Film Censor Board (PFCB), and the Sindh Board of Film Censors (SBFC).
Additionally, there is PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority), an independently established institution responsible for regulating the licenses for distributing both print and electronic media. Per the constitution of Pakistan, PEMRA has the jurisdiction to impose restrictions on mass media to protect the religion, dignity, and national security of the country – as a result, PEMRA possesses an almost autocratic control over the content that is given airspace. The chairs of PEMRA also do not epitomise the ideals of Pakistan’s population, which has an average age of 22. Since its inception, the chairmen of the board have been older men like Muhammad Saleem Baig (current Chairman), senior journalist, Absar Alam and previously, public official Chaudhry Rashid Ahmad.
If any film or TV show even slightly defies religious or cultural norms, it faces the possibility of censorship. Moreover, with limited innovation, the same nationalistic and patriotic movies are churned out. The board faced rebuke when it banned films like Verna (2017) and Zindagi Tamasha (2019), which dealt with social issues, and it was only after there was public outcry that the ban on the former was lifted.
We see female characters who are vastly underdeveloped and devoid of any personality – they are either meek or completely anglicised and, therefore, the devil incarnate.
Most recently, Churails (2020), a feminist detective drama series, was appreciated as a welcome break from the formulaic television shows. But despite the show receiving critical acclaim across the globe or being broadcast on an international network – Zee5 in India – it was temporarily banned by the government for its ‘risqué content’.
PEMRA has consistently refused to critically consider the significance and cultural influence of shows like Churails in the mainstream media. Unless the state manages to separate artistic work and self-expression from the traditions and customs of the country where it is seen and refuses to underestimate its audiences’ cultural maturity, Pakistan’s entertainment medium cannot expect to be resurrected culturally.
Because of the fear of PEMRA, even modern television and film production houses in Pakistan refuse to experiment with their content, often resorting to following the formula guaranteed to safeguard their producer’s income. Therefore, artists and writers avoid investing their emotional and intellectual energy into a project that may or may not grace the screen.
Not a dearth of talent
Drama serials like ‘Churails’, films like ‘Zindagi Tamasha’, and web series like Be Gunah (2021) have all made it apparent that there is a plethora of talent in Pakistan. Numerous short films, including Darling (2019) and Swipe (2020), have also attained success at international film festivals. Therefore, it is so mystifying when the government chooses to import foreign, namely Turkish serials like Dirilis Ertugrul, rather than investing in young Pakistani creatives and their projects. Perhaps there is more foreign policy or political agenda attached to this move than we know of.
This is perhaps why the film industry finds itself in a slump, deepening since the pandemic. Films have been commercialised to the extent that the actual story has taken a backseat. Most of the films made in Pakistan generally fall under the ‘blockbuster’ category and are mostly all released around religious holidays like Eid – a manoeuvre that generates the most revenue.
Because of the fear of PEMRA, even modern television and film production houses in Pakistan refuse to experiment with their content, often resorting to following the formula guaranteed to safeguard their producer’s income.
Further, this conflation of art with business has led to the production of films like Jawani Phir Nahi Ani (2015) or 7 Din Mohabbat In (2018), made entirely for entertainment purposes with their spectacularly choreographed dance numbers, senseless tropes, slapstick humour, and more often than not, caricaturing of minorities. Amidst our enamour with the Bollywood and Hollywood industry, we have seemingly struggled to establish our own identity.
Tales from the outskirts
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Churails was that it refused to bend to the will and demands of the state. It unabashedly rebuffed the notion of a ‘virtuous’ woman, one so prevalent within our local dramas, and it portrayed the truth as it was, leaving the rest for the audience to decipher. That is precisely why our older television shows – Alpha Bravo Charlie, Tanhaiyan, and Jackson Heights – were so impeccable. They stayed away from the mundane marital issues and instead provided a social commentary on class difference, ethics, child abuse, social justice, and the flawed legal system.
But 20 years later, we have seemingly travelled back in time. Our work has failed to cut across ethnicities, borders, and classes and remains within an elite bubble of pre-furnished houses and sprawling gardens. But life and art do not exist in a vacuum, where it is immune to external events like pandemics, natural disasters, class differences and financial issues.
Film, theatre, and television are artistic mediums that catalogue a nation’s growth and capture its history. And actors, and the way they bring stories to life, almost impose us into adding our own experiences into the narrative.
Acting is an art form that is honed over time – one that takes years of experience and discipline to attain mastery. And casting agents need to start hiring actors, not models, not influencers, but actors. Rehabilitating these mediums will help talent thrive, will provide audiences with better content and effect a much-needed paradigm shift in Pakistan’s entertainment industry.
Neha Maqsood is a Pakistani writer whose reportage and op-eds on race relations, global feminism, and Southasian culture has been published in Teen Vogue, Al Jazeera English, Foreign Policy, DAWN and other places. Her debut poetry book, ‘Vulnerability’ was awarded the 2020 Hellebore Poetry Scholarship Award and will be published by Hellebore Press in the summer of 2021. You can find her on www.nehamaqsood.com