A Silent Revolution in Pakistani Cinema
By Dr Qaisar Abbas
University of North Texas
As it appears, a silent revolution is brewing in the Pakistani cinema these days. For a change the film industry, which has been sleeping for some time, is waking up slowly with a new generation of young film producers, directors, writers, musicians and actors making its mark.
These filmmakers are exploring untapped territories, bypassing the traditional production and marketing techniques and exploring the subjects never touched by the industry before. By using digital technologies efficiently and utilizing the availability of multiplex movie theaters in major metropolitan centers, they are redefining Pakistani cinema on their own terms.
Although a good omen for Pakistani cinema, the new trend also offers a mixed bag of themes and techniques in content and presentational styles. These independently produced films have introduced outstanding productions with serious themes and thought-provoking issues but also include some poorly made movies with low quality productions, sometimes, invoking the lowest common denominator of their audience. Though most are good quality, these movies are good, bad and ugly at the same time.
For the internationally acclaimed Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, cinema essentially has to be connected with its people and it should be socially responsible for depicting their real issues. He outrightly rejects Hollywood and Bollywood productions for not reflecting the challenging issues of their societies and serving only corporate interests.
New Pakistani movies like Josh (Against the Grain), Lamha (A Moment), Zinda Bhag (Run Alive) and Chambaili (Jasmine) are based on social or psychological strains of the Pakistani society and bring up real life issues to the forefront to let their audience ponder and make sense of the issues raised.
Zinda Bhag with its high profile Indian actor, Naseeruddin Shah, who has become an icon of art movies, addresses an outstanding issue related to the Pakistani youth who are trying to find solutions to their problems. A social comedy, the movie conveys the frustrations of three Punjabi youth - Khaldi (Khurram Patras), Chitta (Sulman Ahmed Khan) and Taambi (Zuhaib Asghar) - who go through extreme hardships while trying to leave the country and looking for quick money through shortcuts. Despite the seriousness of the issue, its overall treatment as a light comedy in the first half makes the whole film entertaining for the audience. The second half, however, reveals the sufferings and hard realities the young generation is going through.
Josh and Chambaili, as social and political drama, highlight the need for change in the sociopolitical system plagued with corruption, class divisions, feudalism and violence.
Josh, directed by Iram Parveen Bilal, reveals the injustices in society with its class-based divisions, feudal brutalities and a profound belief that change is possible. When a school teacher Fatima (Amina Sheikh) tries to find the truth behind the disappearance of her nanny, she exposes the real face of the feudal structure that treats women as a piece of property.
Chambaili, signifying a metaphorical reference to the national flower of Pakistan, becomes the name of a new political party looking for a sociocultural transformation in society. Directed by Ismail Jilani, the movie is an outcry for political change through electoral politics. Khalid Ahmed, Salmaan Peerzada, Maira Khan and others in main characters represent the Pakistani youth who are trying to change their environment through nonviolent means.
Lamha, on the other hand, is a family drama based on the anxieties of a married couple played by Mohib Mirza and Amina Sheikh. Mansoor Mujahid, the director, skillfully depicts miseries the couple is going through after a family tragedy with nonverbal gestures rather than shouting matches between them, a hallmark of most Pakistani movies. The psychological distance the couple creates between them with a real life human touch represents a creative film making style. Some classic PTV plays have touched the theme but it’s a new subject for the film industry.
Two other movies, Ishq Khuda (Love for God) and Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (I am Shahid Afridi, the well-known cricket player) deal with new themes of spirituality and sports drama respectively. Main Hoon Shahid Afridi beats up the already tried theme in some Bollywood and Hollywood movies where an underdog team comes up to the top defying all odds. Here a predictable storyline continues the drama of good and bad teams inserted with melodramatic scenes and emotional debates between the two coaches.
Ishq Khuda introduces another unexplored theme of spirituality and love to the Pakistani film industry. Here you have two love stories between eleven songs where the hero (played by Shaan Shahid) finally finds his peace in Sufism and spirituality. We don’t know what the director intends to convey but the feature film looks like a docudrama on Sufism and love.
Waar (the Strike), on the other hand is a big-budget thriller, trying to give a shocking and unbelievable twist to the ongoing violence and suggests that terrorism is actually a product of Indian-sponsored conspiracies and we are just a captive receiver of violence.
The way the army has been positively projected throughout the movie further lends credence to the rumors that the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR, the publicity wing of the Pakistan Army) has financially sponsored the movie although the director denies this.
The story revolves around a retired army major who is determined to fight terrorism in his own way while two Indian spies conspire to plan and launch terrorist activities. Director Bilal Lashari seems to be promoting patriotic (or pseudo-patriotic) sentiments against the arch rival neighboring country floating into a dangerous arena of misguided but intentional motives sponsored by a hidden hand. Shan Shahid in the lead character does justice to his role while others including Meesha Shafi, Ali Azmat, Shamoon Abbasi, and Ayesha Khan’s work is also promising.
So far, the movie has been a successful box office hit playing on emotional sensitivities of the audience. Probably a cheap rebuttal to a number of Bollywood movies made on similar lines portraying Pakistan behind all kinds of violence in India, the dangerous trend further infuriates war mongering between the two countries.
The overall discourse of these movies, especially Josh, Zinda Bhag and Chambaili should be seen in continuation with the typical Shoaib Mansoor style of focusing on social issues in a realistically featurized fashion. The trend set by Shoaib with his two movies, Khuda Key Lye (In the Name of God) and Bol (Speak) is refreshing in its thematic focus and creative in its presentation.
Films not necessarily have to subscribe to a specific ideological agenda if they are reflecting their true cultural milieu, social and gender inequalities and relationships among the people. Within this context, the emerging Pakistani cinema offers some brilliantly produced movies that address real issues of a society riddled with poverty, corruption and terrorism.
The new Pakistani cinema has come a long way from socially irrelevant, fantasy tales to meaningful and dynamic feature films integrated with real issues of real people. Perhaps it’s trying to find its niche in independently produced, meaningful and culturally relevant movies.
(Qaisar Abbas is a freelance journalist, political analyst, and researcher based in the United States. With a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is currently working as Assistant Dean at the University of North Texas. Before coming to the US he worked in Pakistan as PTV News Producer and Information Officer in the Government of Punjab. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )