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instep analysis
Cinemas have been revived
now what about Pakistani cinema?

Cinemas have polished up their 'house full' signs and sprung to life again but there is no Pakistani film playing anywhere. Instep scratches the surface of the revival.

By Amar Ayaz


In recent times we have seen some filmmakers' attempts to lend a new voice to Pakistan film other than that of the mediocrity of 'masala mix' films. With the fresh buzz about Made in Pakistan and Slackistan, the festival circuit tour de force that was Ramchand Pakistani and the box office success of Khuda Kay Liye, our film industry could use energetic, dedicated institutions capable of elevating the country's vast but secluded new film voices onto the national and international scene. Khuda Kay Liye was much publicized and billed as a movie that would finally ignite the non-existent 'revival of cinema' flame. Amid much media hype the film was distributed and publicized by Geo to a very successful result. Without a doubt the movie was a roaring success locally and even garnered attention from beyond our borders. A budget for such a film is at best astronomical, but with the army funding the project, it all of a sudden seemed conceivable. Granted the situation in the country at the time and the issue tackled in the film intrigued the General's men, but there was no follow-up venture.

Due to the lack of frequency of such films we saw the desertion of any efforts to resuscitate our industry from a comatose state. However, cinemas have been revived but credit to that has to go to the Bollywood bigwigs who seem to produce a movie every time they sneeze. Thanks to the Goliath of an industry across the border, our cinemas aren't willing to show Pakistani films on a regular basis, in the fear that our David will not be able to win this battle. As a result our filmmakers get enticed to write for the budding television industry instead of laboring on a blockbuster. This is clearly evident in present circumstances. If you go pick up any newspaper to check the local listings for movies playing at our cinemas, you would be hard pressed to find a single Pakistani movie. As of now, topping the makeshift Pakistani box office is 2012, an epic, big budget, disaster flick. Aside from that you will find Indian movies such as Rocket Singh and De Dana Dan, and not to mention the tweeny vampire success New Moon. Competing with these big budget ventures for local filmmakers becomes an arduous process. For the affluent filmmakers of Pakistan it is an easier process to get their tale written and projected on a big screen. They can use their contacts to avail the appropriate resources to display their talent of story-telling with relative ease. Films such as Slackistan are examples of this as Hammad Khan had a very low budget but still prevailed because of his experiences and the know-how. For students from lower income classes this is more difficult. The culprits accused of the hijacking of the film industry are the usual suspects. The line-up includes the banks and bureaucrats who shy away from perilous yet profound cultural art due to return on investment (ROI) concerns. Next to the financiers, standing arm in arm, are the political uncertainty and security threat twins. Looking lonely in the middle are the institutions responsible for educating the future voices and finally last but not least, under the Harry Potter invisibility cloak, our inefficient or non-existent film industry. They are accused of turning filmmakers into TV hacks. Artists made to abandon their dreams to provide for their families. They are accused of suppressing the cinema going and multiplex owning public. Most of all their biggest crime is to destroy the hopes and dreams of countless voices wanting to be heard and the myriad of stories that want to be told. Students of film, who aspire to be the next Scorsese or the closer to home Vishal Bhardwaj, often have many complaints from the institutions set-up to educate them in the art. Lack of equipment and funding, and constant compromise on quality due to an absence of specialization in the various processes of filmmaking are common concerns amongst this group of dreamers. Ali Gul, a student in the Media Sciences department at Szabist complained about the equipment that is available. "Because of the shortage of equipment we have time constraints, since we have to book the equipment and rely on the other students to return it on time." Zeeshan, who is in the same boat as Ali, fears that because of the Òinefficient industryÓ he will be forced to take to television like many before him. These concerns are paramount to the advancement of the future generations of filmmakers in Pakistan. While resources for most students are next to nil they strive to realize their dreams.

Some students compromise on the relevance or content of the subject or story being told so that they can get the taste they crave. It becomes very much like showing a child the wonders of the world and then telling them they will never see them. While they have no grievances with the faculty or the curriculum, they sometimes feel that the theories that are taught would be better availed with more hands on experience. "I was at Iqra before where most of the work was based on theory and very little practical work", said a student who swapped Iqra University for Indus Valley. "Teachers need to be more practical and dedicate their time to the students and the future voices of Pakistan to adequately display their unique stories. It is like teaching a child how to ride a bike. You hold on, reassuring and giving him confidence till the point comes to let go and he just goes on paddling," says Najaf Bilgrami an aspiring filmmaker and professor of film at Indus Valley and Szabist. "We have to be able to pass the torch and make sure it stays lit," he said while attending to students at the Indus Valley campus in the wee hours of the morning. His dedication is evident in the high regard many of his students and fellow faculty members hold him in. Najaf, like other striving filmmakers, had to fund his own recent venture for which he has taken most of the responsibility. Najaf also believes that what our industry needs are more daring filmmakers who are willing to step out of the boundaries to create a profound work of art. The reason why there is a dearth of "kamikaze filmmakers" is due to many reasons like the ease of writing for television as a source of income. Writing an adequate script for the big screen requires more time and effort for which the financial compensation is minimal, which often results in writers and filmmakers relying on the television industry to provide for their families. There are other limitations involved as well such as our very ambiguous censorship laws and the scarcity of spaces for creative expression. Other problems for our industry are the lack of resources and foresight.

Most artists involved in film and music production on our soil have often gone over to our more resourceful and industrious neighbors to seek their fame and fortunes. That is a good start as it goes miles for gaining credibility for those individuals. That credibility in turn should be injected back into our industry in the form of diligent production houses, studios and to invite filmmakers from around the world to come and practice and preach their art. One such venture that has taken an initiative towards educating, promoting and inspiring new talent is the KaraFilm festival. The seven-year-old endeavor has attracted producers and directors from beyond our borders. The focal point at Kara is Hasan Zaidi, the director, an entrepreneurial individual who has designs on evolving our film industry from the challenges it faces today. There are many initiatives that prominent Pakistani producers and directors can take. Hasan Zaidi had previously made proposals to set a foundation for institutions that could support aspiring filmmakers. In most professions Pakistan generally relies on apprenticeship to teach crafts to eager learners. Regarding the tremendous strides Bollywood has taken in recent times he said, "Ideally, considering our learning methods, we should be able to bring in specialized institutional help to teach people in our industry the importance of each aspect of filmmaking. We also need more specialized and adequate institutions to teach students about the importance of each of these aspects. Up until the 60's we were on par with our neighbors, but then they started building specialized institutions for the industry and we are seeing a result of that now." The main deterrent to inviting experienced foreign assistant producers or cameramen is our political instability and safety concerns. According to Hasan the practicality involved in working with experienced individuals coupled with efficient theory, will help create innovation amongst the filmmakers. "No one knows when to break the boundaries, for which you have to know the boundaries. You have to understand the rule so that when you break it, when you innovate, you can justify it." We should also take inspiration from foreign film industries that thrive in a culture similar to ours. If we take India's blueprint on Bollywood we can see why they were successful. They kept their formulaic storyline of boy meets girl, rich against poor or romance and violence in the villages. In the meantime, through the success of these films they established studios, specialized educational institutes and made funding readily available, which is evident in their gargantuan annual output which dwarfs even Hollywood. We are now seeing the result of all that in budding filmmakers being innovative and tearing away from the traditional storylines and methods. Understandably creating something of our neighbor's caliber is somewhat of an unrealistically lofty ambition. Both Hasan Zaidi and Najaf Bilgrami prefer to draw parallels with Iranian cinema. Najaf feels that "We need to build our image in present times, we need to mirror it, the way Iran does, through our film by showcasing present and past issues." Hasan added that we need to "churn out cinema like the Iranians who have their own set of problems but still manage to overcome them. We need to do it on a more frequent basis as well, not just one movie which creates the buzz about the revival of cinema and then having to wait two or three years for another one." It would take an assiduous mind, or two, to form a company and gather an assortment of up-and-coming writers and directors. Aside from promoting and guiding the new talent they can also work on the progress of their own careers simultaneously so that no stone is left unturned. A partnership with any international distribution and production house will benefit the industry and will help local independent filmmakers to reach out to a wider audience and still feel motivated, by seeing a positive ROI coupled with a good response. Locally there is a lack of infrastructure which allows films to be distributed.

This is largely a part of the piracy that exists here. This either turns people into average filmmakers or then makes them look abroad for distribution to get a positive return on investment. Hasan agrees with the lack distribution infrastructure here, "We have to look abroad for distribution and screenings if we want to makes something substantial." Hasan had ideas on setting up an organization which could help in the distribution of film, along with other aspects, but finding dedicated people and financial difficulties hindered his vision. Proposals can be put forth to the government and high-end bureaucrats but in the end there is little action taken despite their initial interests. Until Pakistan's security concerns and the waywardness of politicians are lessened filmmakers will find it difficult to develop and demonstrate their talents and tales. This is why the government has a major role to play in the advancement of our industry. They need to find projects to promote and fund to help propel Pakistan's voice, which at present is a whisper. Apropos the unfortunate state of affairs in our country there is a lot of material to be filmed and written about. Ideas are aplenty with social justice, political uncertainties, international relations and the various calamities in Pakistan's history to date. The initial focus of the productions can be on documentaries and short films that showcase these issues. We can even showcase the life that often goes unseen in the international media's eyes, like the fashion shows amongst other events. For this we need a credible industry capable of producing a quality product. A venture like this would not be a simple task by any means. As we know our nation doesn't take too well to any variations, in fact they often result in some sort of a pandemonium. However Najaf Bilgrami put it best when he paraphrased Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come." ========