Shoaib Mansoor’s Khuda Keliye (2007) marked the birth of the new Pakistani cinema. By that time, the old cinema was finally on its last legs, begging to be put out of its misery. Thanks to the real estate boom of the early 2000s, shopping malls had replaced most traditional cinema houses. The earliest multiplex cinemas had emerged, but they were principally showing Hollywood films to a very different audience. KKL and the films that followed were therefore intended for educated, upper class audiences in a handful of big cities. This change in the audience brought younger, more educated people to the film industry. Even those who were already in the business were obliged to make very different films.
Although a number of films have been released since, we still have a pretty clean slate on our hands. Now clean slates present their own difficulties, but they open the way for exciting possibilities too. Before we explore the question of what lies ahead, here are a few glimpses of the old cinema, and why it’s great to start from square one, unhampered by any past legacy:
It’s the early nineties, and the location is Shahnoor Studios, Lahore. Crew members and film enthusiasts are gathered around a set crawling with camera trolleys and wires; and there’s all the usual hustle and bustle associated with a shoot. The scene is set for a thrilling action sequence. Amid multiple explosions, Sultan Rahi emerges, all guns blazing. By the time the camera traverses down his dhoti-kurta to show his trademark pump shoes and returns, he has dodged a thousand bullets with his nimble footwork. Blood is flying all around as his enemies fall off rooftops. Eight cameras, each strategically placed, are recording every development. After a few minutes of intense action, the director shouts “cut”, and lo and behold, the climax scene of eight different films is ready for editing!
Rahi ruled the cinema right till his untimely demise; after which Shan kept the tradition alive by churning out films at a rate Rahi would certainly have approved of. The twain, to their credit, have more films than anybody ever cared to count. Let’s just say that for these colossuses of Punjabi cinema and their ‘creative’ units, quantity rather than quality was the overriding concern.
You would be wrong if you thought Urdu films were much different. For the most part, and even at its so-called peak, the Urdu cinema was unoriginal, anachronistic, banal and monotonous. For decades, hamming up scenes was the hallmark of all leading ladies and character actresses. Shabnam, for instance, managed to carve an entire career out of an ability to sound like a severely out-of-breath asthma patient. Her male counterparts were no better. Muhammad Ali had made a habit of running home to his mother (usually some lady a good ten years junior to him in real life), and triumphantly announcing that he had passed his B.A. This, at the ripe age of 54, each year manifested as a distinct crease on his T shirt.
Even if one goes as far back as the 70s and 60s, when the middle class was still tuned in, it’s the same old story. Those films may have made money, but they were very poorly made. Who can forget the double-staircase, the dressing-gown clad father, the wheelchair? (While we are on the subject, Alauddin must have absolutely demolished the world record for playing an invalid most number of times.) And that classic inevitability in the form of an irate Talish reaching for the rifle on the wall – thoughtfully hung, loaded and bolted, for precisely such an eventuality – only prevented from discharging a round by prudent bystanders. Veteran character actor M. Ismail summed up our cinema best. On arriving for a shoot he was handed the script, and when the director approached him to explain the pathos required from him, Ismail raised his hand, and said, ‘That will be quite unnecessary. Just tell me whether I am the boy’s father or the girl’s.’
Sure enough, along the way there were some positives as well, but in the overall scheme of things brilliance – in the form of Khursheed Anwar or Rashid Attre, Tanvir Naqvi or Qateel Shifai, Rangila or Zarif – was the exception rather than the rule. I have had the misfortune of seeing in the final cut dangling microphones, which the director obviously deemed did not merit a retake. That’s the kind of general apathy that plagued our cinema all along. To be fair, some films did provide a morbid kind of pleasure on particularly bad days, especially in that pre-Facebook era; there’s an archive of thousands of such films, should we be inclined to indulge in such guilty pleasures. (However, you are hereby warned that comic relief is to be found only in tragedies; our comedies have usually been agonizing.)
So, now that our cinema is thankfully free of this ‘legacy’, where can we expect to see it five years from now? I am cautiously optimistic. It won’t be easy – teamwork has never been our forte, and good cinema requires perhaps more teamwork than any other art forms. Still, the situation couldn’t be more conducive for diverse movie making. Here’s why:
Few societies are as entertainment-starved as ours is. Any wonder then, if since 2007 the new industry has not only sustained itself but grown in volume? With the number of films increasing steadily, the economies of scale will ensure that something that started for the elite from a few big cities will gradually expand horizontally and vertically, becoming more and more accessible to the masses. Some producers have already, inevitably, started following the Bollywood masala formula – item number, rain song, and all. That may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but a thriving, diverse industry that caters to the needs of all sections of society is a prerequisite if innovative people are to have opportunities to create material that is high on content and low on gimmickry. It’s still early days but the Pakistani cinema has surely made strides in that direction.
We have serious financial and societal constraints, no doubt, but the Iranian cinema is a case-study in producing good work under constraints. If more inspiration is needed, there’s the PTV success story under Aslam Azhar, where skill was used to compensate for any such handicaps. Budding filmmakers will do well, however, to remember that no matter how sophisticated and thought-provoking their content may be, cinema is about entertainment before anything else. In fact, they need to make their product interesting and technically sound in proportion to the quality of their content; for the sake of making the audience sit through, if not for anything else. Also, the longer the film, the harder it is to keep it coherent. That’s where there’s a case for shorter films.