On an overcast Saturday in Peshawar, garish film billboards featuring fierce heroes brandishing guns, look strangely subdued in the face of a gathering storm. There is certainly a different kind of buzz at the Arshad Cinema in the heart of the city. A throng of fans, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Pashto film heartthrob Shahid Khan, who is expected to make an appearance at the premiere of his film, wait outside. All eyes look up at the theatre building in anticipation. A star-struck Karimullah, who comes from Ummar Payyan in the city’s suburbs, gushes about the star whose film is currently playing: “He is the action hero with a lot of dabab [presence]!” While the real Shahid Khan remains elusive, much to the disappointment of his sweating fans, his reel persona looks down from the brash billboards above.
Outside, in the murky interiors of the qaawa khana restaurants that pepper the streets, the occupants of the dingy tables are enthralled by TV screens flickering with the violence of Pashto film action scenes. Pashto cinema has spawned a subculture in Peshawar, one that is as colourful as it is sleazy. The gratuitous violence onscreen, it seems, is perhaps made increasingly palatable by the real head-severing violence of increasing Talibanisation in the province. (This could be likened to Hollywood churning out an assembly line of shocking slashers to rival the brutal post-9/11 world in which we live.) Even restaurants without televisions reverberate with albums of fierce Pashto film dialogue, played on stereos decorated in gaudy brocades.
The gratuitous violence onscreen, it seems, is perhaps made increasingly palatable by the real head-severing violence of increasing Talibanisation in the province.
Cinema halls here and elsewhere in the city almost exclusively screen Pashto productions. The huge number of cine-goers who frequent these places are proof that Pashto cinema is alive and kicking, even as Lollywood sinks fast. This is certainly not a misplaced impression when you consider the number of Pashto films being produced and released, while Urdu and Punjabi films out of Lahore struggle to woo audiences captivated by big Bollywood and Hollywood blockbusters.
Indeed, the lure of an ‘ethnic’ genre that fills theatres across the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and elsewhere has driven stars and directors associated with the declining Urdu and Punjabi industries towards the buoyant Pashto world. “The industry is now being fed by the Pashto films,” says the veteran actor Asif Khan, a perennial favourite with Pashto film buffs. “There are five or six Pashto films under production at any given time, which keep the industry activity alive and people employed. In Karachi, where only two cinema halls used to play Pashto films, the number has now gone up to 13. Where earlier there used to be only two distributors for Pashto films, now there are eight to ten.”
The scramble towards Pashto cinema may have been prompted by thinning fortunes, but Lollywood has long been drawn to the genre for commercial reasons. In fact, it is the old guard of the industry in Lahore and Karachi who, in collaboration with Pashtun producers, originally made Pashto cinema possible. The first Pashto feature, Laila Majnoon, was partially shot in pre-Partition Bombay, and did not see the light of day. It was only much later, when Hindi films were banned from Pakistani theatres in the wake of the 1965 war and the fortunes of Lahore revived, that producers began to look to the northwest for potential business. Pashto classics such as Dara Khyber, Firangi, Yousaf Khan Sherbano and Urbal were all made in Karachi and Lahore, with the help of non-Pashtun industry professionals.
The themes and music of the early films of the 1960s and 1970s borrowed heavily from Pashto tradition and folklore. “In the beginning, we were afraid we would risk Pashtun ire even when the early films were true to form, complete with emphasis on purdah and Pushtanwali [the way of the Pashtun]”, remembers Asif Khan. “Films like Dara Khyber were about Pashtun rebellion against the British rulers, a history the Pashtun are proud of. That kept everyone happy, much to our relief.”
When there were no established Pashtun actors to feed the fledgling genre, those who had been working in Urdu and Punjabi films moved in to fill the vacuum. Badr Munir, the ‘Dilip Kumar’ of Pashto films, was once a lowly lights-man for Urdu-language films. Pashtun actresses could not be found due to cultural constraints, so Punjabi-, Urdu- and even Bengali-speakers starred in leading roles. The scenes were first shot in Urdu and Punjabi, and then dubbed into Pashto. The tradition continues today with lead actresses such as Sidra Noor, Nazoo and Nighat Chaudhry.
This partnership between Punjabi professionals and Pashtun producers resulted in great films, stars and songs. Today, these linger on in the memories of purists who have become disillusioned with what they term the ‘rank commercialism’ of the Pashto cinema of the past two decades. Association with Lollywood may have made Pashto cinema possible, but this has also been its undoing, many argue. As the industry has looked to the northwest to keep its finances afloat, it has introduced a decidedly un-Pashtun sensibility. Indeed, Pashtun intellectuals and nationalists today point to a ‘conspiracy’ to malign their image through films that have little to do with their culture and identity.
From the original themes, based on the folklore and folk music so close to the Pashtun heart, films have increasingly drifted towards ‘commercial themes’, including those involving violence and sexuality. “The problem with Pashto films is that the industry is based in Lahore,” says Raj Wali Khattak, former director of the University of Peshawar’s Pashto Academy, an organisation that works to promote the Pashto language. “The industry is run by people who exploit the medium to make a quick buck. Films now serve no positive purpose but appeal to the base instincts.” This has been a long downward spiral. Expressing an opinion many share, Khattak says Pashto cinema reached its nadir during the Afghan jihad years. Even while there was a stepped-up focus on rigid Islamisation in other fields, violence and vulgarity were becoming increasingly popular in Pashto cinema.
In the words of Asif Khan, this was the time when a non-Pashtun ‘mafia group’, which cared little for Pashtun values, took over the cinemas being leased out by owners. “The group sponsored vulgar kitsch, and would insert skin flicks into Pashto films while playing them in the cinema halls it owned,” he said. “Even when the censor board removed objectionable scenes, the directors would put in equally steamy songs to fill in the gaps. Consequently, a film would have 18 to 20 songs and no logical plot.”
Despite outrage from the Peshawar intelligentsia over its degeneration, little change has taken place in Pashto cinema, perhaps due to its continuing mass appeal. Considering that such ventures are produced and directed by Pashtuns, criticism against ‘outsiders’ for distorting Pashtun culture does not seem to hold much water. But Sher Alam Shinwari, who has written extensively about Pashto culture, disagrees. “Several veteran actors protested against this state of affairs, and some even boycotted the films,” he says. Asif Khan agrees. But the film producers would respond by merely bringing in new faces who, though not all non-Pashtun, were all ready to do the producers’ bidding. Or, they would shoot a film and then, unknown to the actors, insert sultry scenes and songs.
Pashtun actresses could not be found due to cultural constraints, so Punjabi-, Urdu- and even Bengali-speakers starred in leading roles.
During the late 1980s, Pashtun actors, directors and producers who wanted nothing to do with bad cinema even formed a body known as the Pashto Islahi Jirga, to campaign for reforms in Pashto cinema. According to the poet Abaseen Yousafzai, among the top three resolutions in a recent International Pashto Language Conference held in Peshawar was a call to wage a campaign to make Pashto cinema culturally sensitive and representative.
Love and hooliganism
Still, many producers and directors currently associated with Pashto cinema insist that much has changed for the better. The Arshad Theatre belongs to a successful producer named Sardar Khan, maker of the classic Urbal, which played for a record five years in a Peshawar cinema hall. His son, Arshad Khan, is now a famous director; his other son, Shahid Khan, has become even more famous as one of the new crop of leading actors, who are currently replacing the ageing veterans. The young guns of Pashto cinema, including Shahid, will have you believe that they are doing their best to make films family-friendly again.
Whether this evolution is due to a change of heart on the part of stakeholders, or fear of the hardliner religious Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) government – which, until the February 2008 elections, had remained in power in the NWFP for five years – is hard to gauge. Even while the female faces on the billboards outside Peshawar cinema halls were defaced by party vigilantes cracking down on obscenity, producers and directors scoffed at the suggestion that the MMA had anything to do with the tamer version of Pashto cinema that is now being peddled.
The young guns of Pashto cinema … will have you believe that they are doing their best to make films family-friendly again.
A visit to any film shoot raises the question of whether Pashto cinema has really become more family friendly. In the northern city of Abbotabad, high up on the valley’s rim, the tranquillity of the Shimla Hotel is shattered by a scene of gratuitous violence. Much gun-toting and unrestrained snarling mark the on-location shoot of Yari Manam Kho Badmashi Na Manam (Love’s Acceptable, Not Hooliganism), Arshad Khan’s latest opus. The fight between two Pashtun tribes is over a rebellious girl who dares to spurn tradition. The role of the defiant lady doctor is played by Sidra Khan, an actor of Punjabi origin. Indeed, it is an unlikely Pashtun setting: the crew and cast speak Punjabi, an androgynous dance director wears layers of make-up, silver rings, bracelets and peroxide curls, and the extras have names like Rambo and Reema.
For much of the shoot, Arshad Khan himself is away from the action, talking into his mobile phone on the location’s margins, while the actors direct themselves. Although he humbly acknowledges that he has learned whatever he knows about filmmaking from old Pashto classics, the 29-year-old director minces no words about breaking with the past, and deciding not to go the way of Pashtun culture and family values. “Times have changed,” he says simply. Clad in glitzy hip-hop street wear, he is certainly a man in tune with his times. “There is a cable television connection in every house, with Bollywood and Hollywood channels on it,” he continues. “People are ready for bold new ideas. I cannot focus on Pashtun culture alone in my films, because that will narrow my audience and my potential.” After a pause, Khan goes on: “I offer entertainment, and my films are watched by Punjabis, Sindhis and Balochis. I have to give them women in pants, because that’s what they want. Still, we incorporate strong messages – like this film, which depicts blood feuds as senseless and undesirable.”
As the market forces of supply and demand push ethnic pride into a corner, the controversy continues to rage as to whether Pashto films are making a mockery of Pashtun culture. The intelligentsia and the industry professionals may be involved in this tug of war between culture and commercialism, but the deciding factor is in the villages, where viewers have to pay a hefty 200 rupees per ticket to watch a film – and a lot of films get watched, for they are the only source of entertainment in this frontier land.
“The films before were ghair [external] to our culture,” says Raees Khan, a connoisseur filmgoer, from the Bakshoo Pul suburb of Peshawar. “Not anymore. You can now watch them with family.” Or so he says. But when the viewers are all male and the cinema halls reek of hashish smoke, hurting the eyes and making breathing difficult, it must make for one miserable family outing.