The fall of Pakistan’s film industry


Written Feature: A in-depth look at the declining majesty of a nation’s once-proud motion picture industry, from the studio backlots to the rundown cinemas.

A tousled crew of studio roustabouts scurry from pillar to post as Arbaz Khan attentively glues down a broad moustache to his freshly shaven face. Impeccably combed hair and soft cheeks belie his otherwise classically Pashtun chiseled looks. After close inspection of his newfound facial hair, he assumes his position.

The staccato crack of an AK-47 cuts through the periphery sounds of surrounding Lahore. The weapon’s tectonic thwack, particularly assaulting from such a short range, makes a few on set flinch instinctively, calling forth a barrage of laughs from more seasoned crew members. The rounds are blank, but the gun is real, smoke rising in grey puffs from its muzzle.

The scene being shot is a climactic one. The hero has unmasked the grand villain and is set upon by bearded henchmen hiding behind a nearby tree. They emerge from their foliaged shelter, wide-eyed and armed to the tobacco-stained teeth.

Sultan Khan, the film’s protagonist played by Arbaz, produces a compact revolver from a leather-studded holster on his shoulder and takes steady aim. “Pow, pow, pow,” he mouths, clicking his tongue as his body jolts with the imaginary discharge of the pistol.

“Actors all over the world are respected,” Khan says after the scene’s completion, running a hand through his hair while taking care not to smudge the thick smears of stage blood splattered on his hands and face. “They are considered to be representative of their country, but here in Pakistan, it’s something contrary and very shameful.”

A well-established actor typically cast in the “hero role,” Khan is at the forefront of his industry, that is to say the Pashtun, Urdu and Punjabi film industry of Lahore, nicknamed “Lollywood.” His fake-mustached visage is boldly splashed on film posters across the country.

Despite Khan’s privileged position as a Lollywood glamour boy, times are harder for his industry than ever before. For roughly a decade, Pakistani cinema has been in a steady state of decline.

A major cause often cited for this has been the ongoing internal violence that has plagued the country. Many cinema houses have been forced to close perma- nently in restive areas like the North West Frontier Province, while terrorist bombings serve as a deterrent for citizens in major cities due to fears of such locations being targeted. Even the actors consider themselves at greater risk from hardline militants.

“We are on the hot list, I tell you that,” Khan says. “I have received a lot of very threatening calls. Some art- ists have been kidnapped, others have been assassinated.

Another reason for such a turndown lies in waning interest for domestically produced films in the country, as well as an ongoing lack of financial aid from the central government. After a ban on showing Indian-produced films in Pakistani theatres was lifted in a few years ago, Bollywood has steadily grown to dominate the market.

“We have really cut down our prices and values to make such films. We are struggling, but we shall keep on struggling, inshallah,” says Khan, doing little mask the despondency in his voice.

The extent to which Lollywood, and its Pashtun equivalent of Pollywood, is outmatched by neighbouring Bollywood is no better realised than taking a tour of the surrounding studio’s crumbling premises. Evernew Studios, as the largest surviving film studio in Lahore, has itself the daunting mission of producing films to rival the big-budget blockbusters produced in India, which have become far more popular with current audiences.

Bedraggled crewmen slump smoking in the shade as unscheduled tea breaks stretch on for hours while the city grapples with crippling load shedding.

Pre-Partition lighting rigs vein their way through the sets. Bounce board reflectors are jury rigged from 2×4 wooden beams and sheets of beaten aluminium. Walls are cracked and peeling or excessively mottled from dozens of repaints to the sets. A handyman’s dream per- haps, but a director’s nightmare undoubtedly.

Mahmood Bhatt, man- aging director of facilities at Evernew Studios, is an industry veteran. Starting out as a cameraman, Bhatt has been in the scene for over four decades.

“Near about ten years ago, there were over a 100 films in production here,” the 60 year-old Bhatt says from his sweaty office at the studio. “Today, there are only maybe five or six pro- ductions here per year.”

Blaming increasingly conservative political values, government indifference as well as growing pervasiveness of terrorist attacks in the country, the seasoned movie man has had a front row seat to his industry’s demise.

“The Government does zero for the Pakistani film industry. From 1969 to 2010, I have seen no government take interest in films here, not a single one.”

Evernew Studios was built in 1949 and has remained consistently one of the major production houses and locations for Lollywood ever since. While the venue itself and its film production activities have fallen into disrepair, the Evernew Group continues to grow, with expanding portfolios in events management and media marketing.

“It is very likely we will have to close the studios in maybe one or two years. The owner has not even come here in six or seven months. We are not earning a single penny in income.

The decline in Pakistani film is in stark contrast to other media outlets in the country. Dozens of private news and entertainment channels have cropped up in the past ten years. Soap operas dominate the small screen.

The coastal metropolis of Karachi has discerned itself as the primary hub for television, video clips and advertising, while the old film locales of Lahore wallow in outdated equipment and a new generation enamoured with the bright lights of Bollywood.

“We don’t have the latest cameras or labs or general technology that India has,” says Ghulam Mohiuddin, an industry heavyweight for much of Pakistan’s cinema history. “Plus, we lost so many of our cinema houses to terrorism and national politics and whatnot.”

“Bollywood movies are of course very charming. They’ve got more glamour and Pakistani people are pretty crazy about them.”

While collaboration between Lollywood and Bolly wood has been at times frequent in the past, ongoing tensions between the two countries continue to stymie any real progress. Cries for greater cohesion with India are slowly getting louder within the Pakistan cinema circle.

Mohiuddin’s leathered face has been a prominent feature in many Urdu, Pashto and Punjabi films for roughly forty years.

Among his many roles, he played one of a trio of brothers who go after the head of Salman Rushdie in the 1990 Urdu action-song-and-dance epic International Guerillas. In the climactic final scene (after they infiltrate defences disguised as Batman), Mohiuddin and his brethren face off with Rushdie’s Israeli private army in his Filipino hideout before the author is reduced to ashes by a floating Quran.

The outlandish piece of cinema was in fact the commercial brainchild of Sajjad Gul, current mogul of the Evernew Group.

With such rich history in cinema, those that stand to lose out with the present decline are not limited to actors and producers.

Ashgar Rahi, 48, is a second-generation painter of film posters for Lollywood and Pollywood productions. A decade ago, Rahi was producing roughly ten to 20 movie posters a week. At the time of this interview, he had not received a commission in four months.

“I very rarely work for the cinema any more. Five to ten years ago, I had no time for anything but painting movie posters.”

While not admitting to any fears for his own safety on behalf of his craft, Rahi did point out that he features his more traditionally Islamic paintings at the front of his small shop- cum-gallery. In a dusty corner in the back shadows, one can glimpse a moody miniature of a semi-naked girl in suggestive recline.

Pakistan’s traditional conservatism when it comes to filmmaking has been a major issue for attracting today’s younger audiences. While romance is a primary theme, morality laws prevent the edginess of Bollywood equivalents. The industry also suffered a setback during the hard-line regulations adopted during the rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, when the common romance and action model was sidelined for a focus on Islamic-themed stories.

“There are restrictions of religion here,” explains Mahomood Bhatt. “We cannot show our women in the same ways as they can in India. Women must be covered more here.”

“Young men here, when they see Bollywood films, they see the [semi] naked women and short dresses. When they come to the Pakistani films, they see women covered and they want more.”

Aside from Zia’s morality crusade and its effect on Lollywood, Pakistan’s successive governments have taken little to no interest at all in their country’s film productions

Salmaan Taseer is one of Pakistan’s leading business moguls as well as being Governor of the Pakistani prov- ince of Punjab, the country’s most populous state.

“The provincial government here is basically right wing,” Taseer says in an interview at his vast estate in central Lahore. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say they suppress cultural activity, but on the other hand they don’t encourage it as they should.

“By and large, the arts in general here are supported by private individuals. The government does very little, which is a pity.

When commenting on the current performance of his city’s film industry, Taseer also blames the 1965 ban of Indian films, which was instituted during the time of successive wars with the neighbouring country.

“[Lahore] used to be the centre of the film industry before Partition, even bigger than Bombay,” Taseer laments. “The ban, instead of encouraging, actually retarded the industry. By removing that competition, the standards just got worse and worse.”

In Hira Mandi, the ancient red light district of Lahore, many majestic old cinema houses lay destitute, providing little more than a dusty bench for beggars and glue-sniffers.

Yousuf Salahuddin, a noted patron of arts and culture, owns an old cinema in the area, which now operates as storage space for his son’s events management company. Old fans and hundreds of plastic chairs fill the amphitheatre, stacked so high that they spill into the balcony above.

“We closed the cinema down some time ago. It was just not worth it,” says Salahuddin, whose lavish hawali in Hira Mandi is about as close to the Garden of Earthly Delights as Lahore has to offer.

The Salahuddin family has been a steady fixture on the Lahore A-list for generations. Yousuf’s son, Jalal, regularly hosts lavish parties attended by both Pakistani and Indian celebrities. The “Carnivalle De Couture,” an Indo-Pak charity fashion show Jalal hosted earlier this year, featured designers, actors and models from both sides of the border. Security measures for the evening were overseen by ex-President Pervez Musharraf’s head of security. Mounted police officers and heavily armed commandoes patrolled the gated community of Bahria town, where the event was held amongst the town’s oddly placed replicas of Egyptian monoliths and impossibly wide roads. For those present at the event, they could not help but wonder if the Pharaohs had returned.

Despite acknowledging that the threat posed by fundamentalist elements within Pakistan is altogether real, Yousuf Salahuddin believes people in the arts must continue their work for the sake of the country.

“When you come to Pakistan, you realise life is more or less normal,” he puts plainly. “It’s just these paid assassins running around trying to give you the feeling that the country is running after them. They are a menace, yes.

They can be dangerous for you if you speak out against them. I do, but I don’t really give a fuck.”

If such comments are anything to go by, it seems there will be at least a handful of influential sponsors like Salahuddin and Governor Taseer who will stick doggedly to supporting art and culture in Pakistan, not least of which the film industry itself.

Just months ago, famed actor Ghulam Mohiuddin assembled representatives of the film industry for an ap- peal to the Government for funding to get through the current slump. As yet, no major aid has been received.

In a time when the aftermath of deadly floods and crippling internal violence dominate Pakistani and international headlines, it could be argued that Lollywood is needed now more than ever. The total escapism of two hours spent in front of these grainy Super 8 productions, complete with their poor dubbing and occasionally questionable acting, could be just the respite needed.

Governor Salmaan Taseer articulates this need when pointing out the necessity for aid to the beleaguered studios and production houses.

“The film industry is very important to project Pakistan out of this image of being a rogue, Taliban, fundamentalist state with so many problems, which is precisely the image coming out at the moment.”

Perhaps the best reason given for why this once-great industry struggles on in the face of violence, indifference and economic disparity came from our moustachioed man of action, Arbaz Khan.

“This is my passion and I’m still optimistic,” says Khan, raising his voice over the director’s call for commencement of the next scene. “If we leave, if we lose the courage and give up, what will other people do? We are here to give them encouragement.”

Without a further word, Khan shrugged off the make-up artist, tossed his scarf over one shoulder and took his next position.

(Originally published in Motherland Magazine – 2011)