Pakistani film-makers continue to revel in mediocrity. Rumours about a revival of the Urdu cinema are greatly exaggerated.
If Indians travelling abroad repeatedly find themselves in situations where they are expected to know what brand of toothpaste Madhuri Dixit is currently using, Pakistanis face a similar hounding. The difference is that Indians are quizzed about their movie stars, while Pakistanis are grilled about their TV actors.
So it may come as a mild shock to the uninformed that Pakistan chums out over a hundred feature films a year. The logical question that follows is: “Then why hasn´t anyone seen them?”, to which the answer is, “Because they are so bad that even the Pakistanis don´t see them.” Ask any Pakistani you meet at a seminar or meeting hall about the national cinema, and more likely than not, he will respond with an apology.
For almost half a century, cinema in Pakistan has been climbing a slippery slope. Just when it seems to have gotten a grip, something comes along to send it tumbling down again. The problems are manifold. The riots during Partition took their toll on the film industry. The Upper India and Shoori studios of Lahore were ransacked and gutted. Three were left unscathed, of which Pancholi was the first one to be revived in the new-born country.
The artistes who opted for Pakistan found themselves practically without a film infrastructure, and, in any case, the majority of brains (and faces) of Lahore´s film industry had already moved to the more established markets of Bombay and Calcutta.
Pakistan´s cinema circuit was (and is) minuscule compared to India´s, and the initial free flow of Indian films did not help nurture the fledgling industry. A ban finally imposed after almost two decades did spur local production, but the film-makers always found it easier to copy Indian movies—a tradition which continues to this day.
The National Film Development Corporation (NAFDEC) was formed in the 1970s to promote healthy cinema. After initial success with films based on classical novels, the Corporation ran out of steam. Today, it is a virtual non-player in the movie industry The biggest blow was the martial law under Gen Zia-ul Haq, who ordered the re-censoring of all movies made in Pakistan and let the industry shrivel.
While cinema was strangling, television was progressing rapidly, producing high-class plays and serials. The upper and middle classes that once patronised the movies began to stray. The 1980s were marked by the rise of the gun-toting, law-defying ´Sultan Rahi phenomenon´ of Punjabi films. These movies changed forever the face of Pakistani cinema—and that of the cinegoer.
The single most important reason why Pakistani film remains stuck in the mediocrity rut is the lack of respect for the artiste. Pakistan´s film industry draws heavily from the ´talent´ of red-light areas, whether actresses or musicians. To date, there is no film academy in the country.
“No matter how established an artist is, he always feels at the back of his mind that society does not respect his profession,” says Mushtaq Gazdar, a well-known documentary maker who is writing a book on Pakistani cinema. “As a result, incongruously, many people in the film industry turn staunchly religious.” The best example of this interesting side-effect was none other than the late movie idol Sultan Rahi who always found time to go door-to-door preaching Islam.
Munda Bigra Jaye
Fast forward to 1996 The prevalent belief is that, finally, the times are changing, and that Urdu cinema is on the up. Four films are cited as examples to support this theory: Munda Bigra jaye, jeeva, Sargam, and Jo Darr Gaya Woh Marr Gaya.
The film that stands out among these is Sargam because of its non-commercial treatment. Inspired by the Indian Pakeezah by Kamal Amrohi, it revolves around a male protagonist´s love for classical music and the non-violent conflicts that surround his adventures. Another major factor was the casting of the angelic Zeba Bakhtiar (of R. K. Studios´ Henna fame) as the delicate heroine, who is the diametric opposite of the pelvic-thrusting Reema, Pakistan´s number one female star.
A major feature of Sargam is its high selling soundtrack composed by Adnan Sami Khan, who also plays the hero. Sadly, Asha Bhosle´s vocals in the original soundtrack were replaced by a Pakistani singer´s before the film was released in Pakistan, due to official meddling.
Sargam lasted two months and failed financially. As a commentary of class tastes, throughout its showing the galleries were sold out whereas the cheaper stalls below remained empty. This is what had people optimistic that the middle class had finally returned to Urdu cinema.
Jeeva´s main contribution is the return of movie tunes that could be hummed. The hit song “Janoo Sun Zara” did much for the movie´s success. Jeeva was shot in Turkey and its cinematography was more imaginative than the average. Munda Bigra jaye is a venture by the actress-turned-director with a Midas touch, Shamim Ara. She combines comedy, romance and action in a well-balanced mixture, resulting in a film that has drawn the largest number of female viewers in recent times. The plot was plagiarised, as in the case of the Indian Andaaz Apna Apna, from Hollywood´s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
The most notorious of the lot is Joh Darr Gaya Woh Marr Gaya. A sickeningly garish big-budget production, the movie owes its box office success to unprecedented vulgarity. Neeli, the top heroine of a few years ago, pulled all stops and a few buttons to earn a comeback, including a thirty-second sequence where, clad in skin-tight leotards, she writhes on a bed with remarkable sugges¬tion. Incidentally, the film is a blatantly plagiarised version of Consenting Adults.
Film pundits who interpreted the crowds at these movies as indicating the revival of Urdu cinema are off the mark. While more Urdu films are being made today than two decades ago, the people thronging the theatres are not the same. Women and families are conspicuously absent, while rowdy young men make up the bulk of the audience. If this be revival, then let us do without it.