Can Pakistani cinema
produce a new wave?

 By Hasan Zaidi

Inevitably, every two years or so, Pakistan’s cinema “industry” produces a film that does well at the box office. And equally inevitably, this is followed by immediate hype about the “revival of the Pakistani cinema” and questions are thrown about why other filmmakers cannot follow the example of the moment and make their films as well. After all, the reasoning goes, if so and so can make and put out a “successful” film in the same dire cinematic environment, why can’t others? The subtext is always the same: that other aspiring filmmakers are either too lazy, too unsure of themselves or too impractical to grab the bull by the horns and jump right in. And that if only they did so, the glory days of Pakistani cinema would once again be here.

Although it may still be too early to gauge correctly whether Shoaib Mansoor’s latest offering, Bol, will be a true financial hit, thanks to its initial positive reception and a media machine that thirsts for any signs of life in the country’s moribund film landscape, we are already witnessing the same phenomenon that accompanied Syed Noor’s Majajan five years ago and Mansoor’s Khuda Ke Liye four years ago, both of which did exceedingly good business at the box office (Shaan’s Zille Shah also did relatively decent business in 2008). Because of the content of Bol, some commentators are even questioning why more “social issues-driven” films are not being made. Taking nothing away from Shoaib Mansoor’s guts and considerable effort, and without discounting the fact that all films require relentless passion to be realized, I would humbly submit that we are asking the wrong questions.

To begin with, one successful film every two or three years is not what constitutes a cinematic revival. We could begin to talk in terms of a revival of Pakistani film if we had perhaps at least a half dozen or so films coming out every year that put audiences in anticipation, set people talking and which made a dent at the box office. In contrast to this is the reality that a total of less than 25 feature films were produced all over Pakistan last year, including those made in Pushto and Punjabi, and most of them came and went without creating even a ripple in the collective Pakistani consciousness or bothering the ticket sellers too much. Only two Urdu films were released in 2010 and only 10 in Punjabi. This piddling number is what is left of the film industry in Pakistan — an industry only in name — from a high two decades ago when more than 100 feature films were being made every year, a significant achievement at least in quantity if not in quality. The question that needs to be answered is: what are the obstacles filmmakers are facing in making and distributing films and whether those have at all been addressed?

Five years ago, in April 2006, I optimistically wrote out a 10-point agenda for reviving cinema in Pakistan which was presented at the 6th KaraFilm Festival and a government sponsored film conference, as well as published in local newspapers. It included ideas on how to revive the economic cycle of the box office, creating sources of investment for films, providing incentives for the establishment of new cinemas, film training institutes, animation houses and film production cities, revamping censorship rules and other regulations, creating spaces for cultural expression such as film festivals, facilitating international co-productions through the establishment of film facilitation offices, supporting alternative film genres like documentaries and short films and using films to promote the vibrancy of Pakistan’s inner civil debate.

The agenda was based on my own experience in directing and producing a feature film in 2000 and the problems I encountered subsequently in distributing it within Pakistan, as well as on what I had observed and the consultations I had had with numerous filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers during the first five years of the KaraFilm Festival.

I also wrote at the time that what was needed was a radical initiative that proceeded on all agenda items simultaneously, that a piecemeal approach would not work given the hole that Pakistan’s film industry was in. I can safely say that in the past five years, not a single element of the agenda has been addressed in any coherent way by anyone in a position to make policies. Only one of the ideas — the opening up of Indian films in Pakistani cinemas — was implemented but that too without a rational policy that could directly benefit Pakistani productions. On the other hand, if Cinepax in Rawalpindi and Nadeem Mandviwala in Karachi have set up world class multiplexes, if KaraFilm and the import of more recent films have helped revive the lost culture of cinema-going, or filmmakers periodically produce half-decent cinema, they have done so in spite of, not because of, support from policy-makers.

This is something most critics of Pakistani cinema do not grasp: the debilitating lack of any kind of infrastructural support which extends far beyond the paucity of filmmaking technology. It is one thing to make a film against the odds — and all power to those who manage to — but without coherent policies that can utilise those successes to build momentum for other films and filmmakers, such events are likely to remain the once-in-a-couple-of-years phenomena.

Not every film is lucky enough to be funded by entities like the military or NGOs or corporates, whose interests are not directly connected with returns from the box office. Nor should that be the benchmark for filmmakers in the first place. Recall that those investors often blamed for the decline of quality and the working atmosphere in Pakistani cinema — those with money to burn such as businessmen running black economy empires — also had interests that were not tied with returns from the box office or the critical appeal of a film. Recall also how corporate and “NGO-funded” documentaries almost destroyed the idea of the documentary as anything exciting in the public mind.

Part of the problem with film is of course that it is an expensive medium with a very long gestation period that involves a lot of people other than the director or producer. In that sense it is completely unlike writing a book or making a painting, which writers or artists can create by themselves and whose sale they need only worry about once their work is complete. Sometimes events beyond any filmmaker’s control happen during that gestation period that can completely upset the best laid plans.

As an example, consider that I worked for two and a half years on a film beginning in mid-2006, trying to take into account all lessons I had learnt after my first feature. An ambitious thriller set in both Karachi and Mumbai, the film had my friend Mohammed Hanif and I collaborating on the script over a full year. Since it was to involve actors and technicians from Pakistan and India as well as bringing in some equipment from abroad, we struggled but managed to acquire permissions and international investors as well as tied up distribution deals beforehand. Then Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, the country fell into political upheaval and some of the international investors got cold feet. When we finally got the ball rolling again, at just about the time we were getting set to commence production, the Mumbai attacks took place, which put paid to all chances of any co-production at that point in time. After two and a half years of unpaid work and tremendous effort, I had to shelve the project with a heavy heart. I began on working on another script but I can tell you in all honesty that such disappointments do drain some energy out of you.

My point in relating this personal anecdote is only to point out that it’s not from lack of trying that more films are not getting made. I know many other filmmakers who have given it their all, only to end up disspirited because they can either not raise finances or who have run into other kinds of roadblocks that have little to do with the merit of their projects. Films everywhere require blood, sweat and tears. Unfortunately, because of the lack of any infrastructural support, in Pakistan you also have to invent the wheel.

Can this situation be turned around? Can a “New Wave” of Pakistani cinema actually take shape? Yes, I do still believe it can. There is still plenty of talent waiting for the opportunity to express itself. All it needs is channelisation and structures. But it will also take concerted action on the issues I raised back in 2006, which are all still valid.

Finally, the question is not one of “social issues-driven” films or so-called “parallel” cinema versus “pure entertainment.” The question is simply of good films, all kinds of films. The idea of parallel cinema exists, obviously, only in countries where a mainstream also exists. Facilitate filmmakers make good films, even if they are “escapist” films. Even escapist fare serves a useful social purpose in societies such as ours. And what is so wrong with visual arts entertaining people any way?

  Hasan Zaidi is a filmmaker and the director of the KaraFilm Festival


Language of body

According to various faiths, God created man in his image. For a man to copy the same image — in art — can be considered following God’s action. Probably this is the basis for prohibiting human representation in art. Whatever the reason, human form remained the most persistent and profound subject in the history of visual arts.

Actually, in many cultures, man is the measure of all things — both literally and metaphorically. Thus a foot is used as a unit to calculate distance or hair is used to denote minute gaps. In several cultures, even god is perceived in the guise of man with all his qualities— from ancient Greeks to the medieval and Renaissance Europe with its prime example of Michelangelo’s rendering of God as an old person in the Creation of Adam from his fresco in Sistine Chapel, Rome.

With such long history, it is almost impossible to view human body as a mere blend of bones and flesh in the world of art today. Both the artists and viewers perceive man’s form, drawn, painted or sculpted, as a code or combination of diverse meanings. This frame of mind is often found in photography exhibitions, with pictures of old people and young kids, often from a poor background, presented as ‘essays’ on the misery of human life.

The habit of associating ideas (of any sort) with the depiction of men, women and children stems from our condition of always covering the body with clothes. In a sense our concepts serve like drapes on human bodies; the heavier the drape, the better, serious and glorified it may appear.

Therefore it was not surprising to see an exhibition in which human body was addressed in various ways and views. ‘Find me Human’ (held from June 24-July 2, 2011 at the Karachi School of Art Gallery) offered multiple approaches towards male and female body. Curated by Sana Obaid, the show included works of Sheharazad Junejo, S.M. Raza, Aqeel Abbas Shanzey Mir and Syed Ali Asad Naqvi. All recent graduates from the National College of Arts, except S. M. Raza who studied at the Department of Visual Studies, Karachi University.

The exhibition, besides showcasing the works of young artists, indicates a shift in the portrayal of human body as the subject matter of contemporary art. Previously, in Pakistani painting, the body was regarded either a sinister subject that must be avoided or a sensuous substance that could please the painter and, to some extent, the spectator (or voyeur?). Thus, the canvases of Jamil Naqsh and Colin David were a celebration of human (female) figure; a tradition that was marred by the Islamic Martial Law of General Mohammed Zia ul Haq. During that period, the depiction of human body was a major point of conflict and confrontation in art since, for the higher authorities, the body (especially of a woman) was ‘immoral’. A situation that reminds of Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardinal who, in a poem, expresses his surprise on seeing a boy of twenty at the first anniversary of revolution, because ‘It was illegal to be eighteen in Nicaragua’ — before the Sandinista revolutionaries overthrew Somoza dictatorship.

Compared to Zia’s dictatorship, the present day attitude towards human figure has gone through a great transformation. Not that the society has become less religious but, with the introduction of international TV channels and internet sites, the perception of human body as a remote, inaccessible and invisible entity has been replaced with a more confident and relaxed approach. Now human body does not hold a surprise or sense of immorality. This shift in approach was witnessed in the KSA Gallery exhibition, too, in which young artists dealt with the human body without much restraint or fascination. For them, it was just one reality about us that invoked other realities but it was not a goal or desire.

In the exhibition, the paintings of Sheharzade Junejo signifies human form as the vehicle of pain and longing for others. Dealing with the notions of nakedness and drape and how the two can be inseparable and interchangeable (as was observed by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben that normally our faces are always naked in comparison to rest of the body, but while the body is fully exposed, the face submerges into an arena of anonymity or veil). Junejo’s work is the conversation or conversion between the states of covered and exposed, because some parts of the body, still naked, seem like pieces of fabric. Her canvases present a stage between naturalness and man’s intervention, often by painfully stitched/joined organs into faceless figures.

Shanzey Mir has explored the beauty of body in an intriguing manner. Portraying young girls in a group or as singles, she has negotiated the subtle line between puberty and childhood, as well as the differences of gender. Her works appears relevant to our society in which the issue of sexuality, despite the advent of media and exposure to information, is still repressed and convoluted. Her technique of scratching lines on a plastic sheet against a black background connect her work to a historic depiction of female by the colonisers in Asia, Africa and South America. Other artists, Ali Naqvi and Aqeel Abbas, have dealt with human body in its formal and contextual dimension, while S. M. Raza has tried to capture the agony of the person caught in a domestic setting, which could have been extended to larger context. Raza’s method of constructing his imagery is interesting since it revolves around the real object (iron) and the shadow of work installed on the wall — not caused by light but mapped through charcoal marks.

Find me Human focuses on the human body but it also reveals other truths about our existence that revolve around the body though they hardly surface through our tongues or tips of our brushes.

From time to time, organisations have sprung up for the promotion and advancement of music, classical music in particular. Some months ago, another organisation with the name of Lahore Music Forum was launched in Lahore to provide a platform for classical music.

Some organisations have been fly- by-night-acts and have disappeared after a few shows and programmes while some have not been active and have haphazardly held programmes and then again disappeared. While the only organisation in Lahore, which has been consistent over, the last fifty years in its pursuit of the promotion of music has been the All Pakistan Music Conference (APMC).

It has been noticed and observed by many that the classical music performance in Pakistan in particular suffers from an organic integration of craft and form. Somehow, the virtuosity of a vocalist or an instrumentalist stands apart from the total impact of the performance with the result that the display of skill becomes the sole criteria for assessing a musical performance.

The reasons for this may be many, but at least a couple seem to be too obvious to ignore. The awareness and appreciation of classical forms became limited to a minority of experts but the desire or the pressure was to appeal to a larger segment of the population. This created a discrepancy between true appreciation of music and its mass appeal, both not being on the same page.

In a democratic age with means of communication enhanced million times over by technological breakthroughs, and a new world order  based on the coming together of cultural expressions of the regions, indeed continents, the expectation shifted to a musical expression that was more eclectic in character.

Classical forms by definition being very purist and elitist were supported by a consistent patronage equally tuned in with the finer aspects of the art form but the lack of patronage especially in Pakistan and hence dwindling audiences forced the classical practitioner to appeal to the people at large. And one way of impressing this uninitiated mass was to inundate it with virtuosity and technical difficulties that stood part from the total expectation and appeal of the performance. This happened more in Pakistan than in India because the change here has been abrupt while in India some sections including the state moved in to facilitate an interface between the shifting patterns of patronage.

The second reason is the view that the Punjab gawayas and the Punjab gaiki has always been forceful, full of aggression and violence, replete with very intricate taans, subtle laikari and an exuberance that cannot be contained and expressed in the gradual unfolding of the raag in the slow tempo, the vilampat lai. This forcefulness is perceived to be the natural expression of the people living in the Punjab. It makes them and their music different from other areas of the subcontinent.

Virtuosity in the art of a good vocalist or an instrumentalist is embedded in his expression but when it falls in the hands of lesser exponents it becomes bare and unmasked. Some connoisseurs like Saqib Razzaq and Zulqarnain Kalyar on reaching this conclusion decided to do something about it and put it back on track where the primacy is granted to lagao and rachao of the sur rather than tayari, mukhkilaat and laikari.

In the four programmes that the Lahore Music Forum has been able to host in the past six months some success has been achieved in this regard. The first concert of Shafqat Ali Khan in a local restaurant overlooking the Fort and the Badshahi Mosque in the precincts of what many call the home of music was a good example of the artiste reining himself in because of the awareness that the audience was not sold on an overt display of virtuosity.

Shafqat Ali Khan has immense potential and he has carved a name for himself, something not that easy  if your father happens to be Ustad Salamat Ali Khan. He has a great number of people, who appreciate him in the subcontinent and outside, and mostly he is expected to indulge in technical fireworks but his performance under the banner was in keeping with the dictates of the hosts.

The second programme, including Chand Khan Suraj Khan and Ustad Fateh Ali Khan Hyderabadi at a hotel again overlooking the same two monuments, garnered a mixed response while the third concert held at the National College of Arts with Faheem Mazhar and Akbar Ali Khan was a good example of two comparatively younger performers not succumbing to the temptation of technical indulgence.

The fourth featuring Mubarak Ali Khan at the Alhamra last week also pointed towards the gradual and orderly exposition of the raag with subtle intermixing of virtuosity.

Saqib Razaaq has been quite active in the music circles. He learnt the rudiments of music from a number of practitioners and then he started a website Sadarang ( that has been showcasing Pakistani classical music in particular and classical music in general. It is accessible and is continuously being updated with information and analysis of music as well as music itself.

Zulqarnain Haider too had a good collection of music and is insightful about this subtle art and is in the process of learning music for a better understanding. The intent and its execution are promising and it is hoped that the people behind the Lahore Music Forum have the resolve and the tenacity to see it through. It is a long haul and will surely test their patience. The longevity is one way of assessing the performance of an organisation and Lahore Music Forum will have to be both consistent and persistent.

Daughter of the west

Dear All,

I have just finished reading Deborah Baker’s book ‘The Convert’, which recounts the story of an American girl Margaret Marcus (aka Peggy) who became Maryam Jameelah of Lahore, the ‘adopted daughter’ of Jamaat-e-Islami’s founder Maulana Maududi and an early anti-West, Muslim ideologue.

It is a fascinating story largely because of the way Baker has structured the book: she learns of Maryam Jameelah only when she comes across a box of her letters and artwork in the archives of the New York Public library. The author is intrigued by the story and begins to wonder how this Jewish girl from a New York suburb went on to become the person who Maududi’s biographer Vali Nasr describes as having “cemented the global cultural divide between Islam and the West.”

The story begins to unfold through the progress of the author’s research: Maryam Jameelah came to Pakistan in July 1962 after having corresponded with Maulana Maududi for a few months and in response to his invitation that she, as a new and fervent Muslim, should come and live with his family in Lahore. She has lived in Lahore ever since, married to a Jamaat member (as a second wife), having children and then grandchildren in Pakistan.

But all the while she wrote impassioned articles and books criticising the materialistic and arrogant nature of western civilisation and preaching political Islam. Her first book ‘Islam versus the West’ was a bestseller and was translated in many languages and she has continued to write in this vein for almost half a century.

An intriguing part of the archive is Peggy’s letters to her parents, a correspondence that continued for over three decades and which gives many insights into her troubled personality and enquiring mind. As the author tries to make sense of the story of how, and why, Peggy became Maryam Jameelah, she is drawn into the socio-political context of the story and examines the various prevailing currents of the time: post war American arrogance, tyrannical approaches to psychotherapy, post holocaust Israeli supremacy, the displacement of the Palestinians and the demonisation of the Arabs and Muslim peoples as ‘primitive or barbaric’.

Through the story of Maryam’s voyage, Baker sheds light on various histories: the struggle of secular state versus religious revivalism in Pakistan, the founding and development of the Jamaat, the life and work of Maulana Maududi, the roots of jihadi thought and Islamic revivalism. The author frames Maryam’s story in the context of her own voyage of discovery. Baker learns of Peggy aka Maryam initially through the papers in the Library archive and her anti-west, pro-Islamic revivalist writings. But when Baker finally meets the mysterious convert herself towards the end of the book she is forced to deconstruct much of the story, as she has understood it.

Baker has written this as an intriguing and thought-provoking tale that it is: she writes it as a mystery story, which she attempts to solve by deciphering the clues and examining the history. It is about a troubled and talented individual as much as it is about a particular period of history or the conflicting relationship between Islam and the West.

An unusual aspect of the book is how it attempts to understand Maulana Abu Ala Maududi’s thought and work, as well as look at him in the context of his domestic milieu. It is a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal and even though you may disagree with the man’s politics, you do not doubt his sincerity after reading this account. Indeed, you even feel saddened when you glimpse the much-diminished state of both his family and his organisation decades after his death (his house divided by a bitter family-party dispute, his grandson in Lahore working in a call centre for US charities etc).

‘The Convert’ is one of the post-9/11 books that illuminate effectively the development of 20th century jihadi Islam. The question of Islam versus the West is as vexed today as it was decades ago when Maryam Jameelah wrote her first book. And this story of how a child of an affluent capitalist culture could become a radical Muslim opponent of the West resonates today in every single episode of radicalisation where youngsters from various backgrounds search for meaning and purpose in their lives by challenging oppressors and thus gaining the sense of fraternity and family that westernised cultures often lack.

This is a thought-provoking story and even if you might disagree with Baker’s methodology (it is ‘a tale’ rather than a biography and she rephrases and condenses her quoted sources), ‘The Convert’ is really worth a read.

Best wishes,

Umber Khairi


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