Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Fall and Fall of Pakistan's Film Industry

It is an old story now that cinemas across the world are thriving, especially the Indian and Iranian ones. It is no news either that Pakistani cinema is on the verge of extinction. Pakistani cinema is confronted with several problems but here is a fresh analysis of what they are.

Funding a Pakistani film is a dilemna. There is virtually no funding organisation, no loans available from banks and no government support whatsoever. Producers and directors are forced to wait or even stop their projects midstream because the money doesn't roll in at the right time or speed. One key funding problem is that the investor needs insurance of profit, or at least a guarantee that he won't go bankrupt (which he easily can, in Lollywood). Those who do invest either focus on quick profits or eventually start investing their revenue in a more secure business. Film actor turned director Reema waited for three years to generate money, Samina Peerzada had to pledge her land and Mehreen Jabbar (of Ramchand Pakistani fame) had to gather twenty different producers for her film.

"If we want to attract funds," says Syed Noor, "we have to prove the money won't be lost."

If an aesthetically sound film venture becomes a financial jihad, the product will suffer. In India, they are now developing separate departments in banks, to give smaller loans for movie-making. "Here, people were used to make pathetic films because they sold well," complains Reema. "Eventually, they invested this money elsewhere instead of improving the industry."

Our film industry is much smaller in scale than our Indian and American counterparts. It consists of a countable few actors, directors, scriptwriters and film production houses. Now that we have a head-on competition with Indian films, we are at a loss. If we don't update now, we will run out of business completely.

Habitual movie-goers require a wider array of movies. If one movie runs for several months or years, the choice for our viewers will remain limited. In Bollywood, amidst a surplus of 1000 movies a year, even superhits don't last in cinemas for more than a few weeks.

"Since hundreds of movies are produced in India annually, 10 or 20 percent of them prove to be worthy. In Pakistan, we produce 15 to 20 movies per annum and wait for some years for one hit," protests film producer Shahzad Gul.

Scriptwriters, directors and producers need to update their content according to the needs and desires of today's youth, or they should say goodbye to the younger lot of this entertainment hungry society. One example of a young generation charmer is Khuda Key Liye, which touched a contemporary issue in a highly stylised manner. Why not start a trend?

Most of our directors (Shaan, Reema, Javaid Sheikh, Shoaib Mansoor etc) take a few years before completing their next project. But while they return, no one fills the space. And so, after one Khuda Key Liye or Mujhey Chand Chahiye the audiences wait for years to revive the experience.

We failed to introduce new stars and faces. This repels the youth, which wants fresh faces and someone young to relate with.

"If I preferred an actress in my youth, my son is not going to necessarily like her. For him, she would be more of an 'auntie' than a star," says Shahzad Gul. "For any character, be it the lead or supporting, we have very little choice. In other countries, there is always a competition between 10 to 20 actors at the same time."

Pakistan's film reputation has become dubious. After two decades of movies like Gujjar Badmash and Daku Hasina etc, the educated and conservative crowd has turned its back on Lollywood. For one Choorian or Inteha, we had twenty lewd and feeble scripts. One reasonable film in two years doesn't win public support, especially when the Indian and English movies offer a wider variety and much higher quality of entertainment.

"Despite good marketing, movies like the recent Channa Sachi Muchi didn't do well," states Syed Noor. "This is because in the past mediocre and vulgar movies were declared 'different' through marketing ploys, leaving the cine-goers disappointed."

Although the industry doesn't lack vision or ideas, it certainly lacks professionalism. Previously, the crew was trained during film-making but now since a few movies are made, new people aren't being trained.

This lack of professionalism has pushed some film makers away.

"After Shararat, I decided I will not make a film unless the situation improves," says Samina Peerzada. "There is virtually no pre- and post-production facility in Pakistan. Making a movie against the odds, that too when there are numbered cinema halls is like welcoming one's creative death."

Pakistan lacked film schools and professional training for many years. "Ten years ago, Tehran had 11 film schools," says Syed Noor. "Therefore, the Iranian cinematic revival shouldn't surprise anyone. Pakistani schools, sprouted recently, have yet to prove their mettle. Name one trained actor or director, or any professional from such film-making institutes?"

But here is a question. If only 15 to 20 movies come out yearly, where will these trained people go for work?
Cineplex is a kind of a cinema that exhibits a number of movies simultaneously. In the west, it arrived in the early '70s; in Pakistan, it is only a recent phenomenon. Bigger cities have now adopted this culture. Yet a handful of cineplexes in a few major cities won't bring about a change at the mass level.

It's a vicious circle. Cinema ownership is reduced because mediocre movies bring economic thrashing, and film-makers can't make movies if cinemas are rare. Families are especially discouraged if the cinemas are male-dominated, or lewd comments are hurled during the film.

Recently, the Punjab government levied a 65% entertainment duty on the cinemas, thus increasing the ticket price. This is not encouraging. Though, the government claims screening of Pakistani movies will be exempted from the duty. If an Indian movie is available for Rs 30 at home, or free online, bringing the audience to the cinema is a challenge. With the current rate of unemployment and economic turmoil, it is almost insane to imagine a houseful if the ticket costs up to Rs 500. Why cripple the already limping industry further?

If a movie is produced, marketing it is a test. "I have been affiliated with many multi-nationals," says Reema, "and I can see how backwards our marketing strategies are."

We lack marketing infrastructure, budget and pre-planning. Ironically, the telecommunication sector and multinationals promote their products effectively and a media-related industry is lagging far behind.

Yet Samina Peerzada has a different take: "Promoting a film is easier today due to so many TV channels. If one cricketer's marriage can grab so much publicity, imagine if a good movie was released every month, what would happen?"

Film actor cum producer Sangeeta believes the current turmoil in Pakistan is behind the country's cinematic decline. But if movies in Lahore's DHA and Pindi's Cinepax can survive and local flicks like Majajan and Khuda Key Liye can make profits in the recent past, why not now? People won't stop seeking entertainment because of bomb threats, just as any other everyday activity may not come to a halt.

The situation is getting out of our hands. The foreign market is very competitive and advanced. To create a niche there, we will take several years. India has signed film MoUs with countries such as UK and Italy, to allow it to film there at subsidised rates. A big share of the Indian profit comes from abroad now. Pakistan, with a fading foreign image, needs to tap this market. Not only will it generate revenue, but also soften Pakistan's image abroad.

The article was published in the News International.

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