When I was asked in 2007 if I was in favour of bringing in movies from across the border legally, I was all for it. Ultimately, this would help Pakistani cinema itself rather than harming it. It would be the first step in bringing people back to the theatres. If people started coming back to the theatres that would keep the remaining theatres from coming down and encourage investors to put up even more theatres and multiplexes. This in turn would make producing and releasing local films more viable. And to compete with Indian fare Pakistani filmmakers would be forced to up their game and provide a product that was equal in every way to movies coming from across the border.
It would be a win-win scenario for all concerned. Theatre owners would be happy, distributors would be happy, cine-goers would be happy (our entertainment-starved public really needs more options for family outings other than just going out to eat) and our dying film industry would receive a much needed boost. It wouldn’t happen overnight. First of all, investment would be needed but when producers would see the returns that could be possible they would readily open their purse strings. Secondly, the growing up process for our writers, directors, actors, actresses and producers, both old and new, would be slow and sometimes painful but it would eventually happen. We would then finally be on our way to not only reviving our film industry but have it thriving again, recalling the glory days of the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Fast forward eight years and the fruits of opening up our market to Indian fare are patently visible. 2015 was probably the most productive year for Pakistani cinema in almost a decade, if not longer. A whole bunch of movies hit the big screens and, even more encouraging, almost all the movies released this year veered away from the traditional “Lollywood” offering. We had bio-pics, crime capers, literary adaptations, animated super-heroics, road comedies, horror and war as well as personal artistic statements. The filmmakers – and younger and younger producers, directors, writers, and actors were seen entering the fray – didn’t seem merely interested in aping the cinematic behemoth (though that shadow is hard to avoid) across the border but appeared willing to forge their own paths. Na Maloom Afraad, released late 2014, seemed to embody this new wave. Put together by a young, energetic director/producer duo (Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza, respectively) the movie had a clever script, wit, verve, an in-your-face mentality, awareness (both political and self), a hint of absurdity, a dollop of darkness, brilliant one-liners, and while showcasing Karachi to great effect was also willing to peak into its shadowy and less savoury corners. The great thing was that audiences were up for supporting the courage of the various young film-makers. While not every movie was successful at the box-office audiences were generally discerning enough to reward superior fare. Building on the success of Na Maloom Afraad, a number of films released in 2015 made a whole lot of money (and even some of the ones that didn’t had people talking about them) and one of them, Jawani Phir Nahin Aani, a laugh-a-minute, rude comedy broke every kind of record.
It was still a bit early to call this a full-blown revival of the Pakistani film industry but the energy and excitement was palpable. It was fantastic to see and experience and everybody seemed to be jumping on the bandwagon. Big media houses began venturing from print and television to becoming major movie producers. Television actors were focusing more on becoming movie stars. Actors, directors, and producers became better at promoting their ventures and television was playing its part in advertising upcoming productions.
So 2016 and the next few years after that were primed to continue the upward trend in the fortunes of Pakistani cinema. The film industry just had to make sure it didn’t waste the opportunity. We needed to create full-fledged “movie stars” and not just “actors”. We needed to explore newer, overseas markets. Investments needed to continue – in technology, in putting up even more theatres across the country, in establishing film schools. But, primarily, we had to ensure that we kept people going to the cinemas and multiplexes across the country by steadily increasing not only the quantity of offerings but also their quality so that movie watching on the big screen became a force of habit. Throwing money into a production does not guarantee an exceptional finished product. Neither does a star cast. It all starts with the script. If you don’t have a good script you generally don’t have anything.
So 2016 put a dampener on all the excitement of the preceding couple of years. Box-office success (Janaan, Actor-In-Law, Ho Mann Jahan) notwithstanding there was nothing really to get that excited about, cinematically speaking. Even Actor-In-Law, from the team of Nabeel Qureshi and Fizza Ali Meerza, was in no way close to matching the standards set by Na Maloom Afraad (though its box-office receipts far exceeded that of the first film). With the ill-conceived ban on the screening of Indian films coming into effect (but, now, sensibly reversed) and the lacklustre local offerings – including Syed Noor’s return to the big screen, the out-of-touch and regressive Chain Aye Na and the overblown Yalghaar – continuing well into 2017, the enthusiasm of cine-goers was visibly waning. Thus the simultaneous release of Na Maloom Afraad 2 and Punjab Nahin Jaongi (from the team behind Jawani Phir Nahin Aani) at Eid-ul-Azha was a much needed shot in the arm for the flagging local industry. The two movies have certainly brought back audiences to the cinemas in a big way (though it remains to be seen as to what kind of legs they’ll have) but are they only a temporary shot in the arm?
If I had to judge by NMA2 then I would venture to reply in the affirmative. I could not believe that this movie comes from the same team that gave us the original. The bigger budget (the movie’s mainly shot in South Africa) seems to have overwhelmed any sense of script logic or the need for genuine wit and humour (a lot of bombast and abbreviated four-letter words are no substitute for the same). Even the oblique social commentary on the disparity between the lifestyles of the rich and famous and the rest of us common folk gets lost. The blatant product placements don’t help either. The clicking turnstiles shouldn’t fool the Qureshi/Meerza team – the declining quality of such franchises as The Pirates Of The Caribbean and Transformers eventually caught up to them and even the slight course corrections offered by the latest entries in the two series couldn’t convince viewers to turn up in the same numbers as previously. However, I still hold out hope for Q & M. Anybody who could give us the first NMA surely has it in them to give us another classic.
Thankfully, the other major Eid release, Punjab Nahi Jaungi, builds on the success of Jawani Phir Nahin Aani. It has something in it for both the proverbial classes and the masses. Despite some plot weaknesses and length (a 20 to 30 minute trimming wouldn’t have hurt at all) the movie’s quite entertaining and engaging, buoyed by a deft script (it starts with the script, remember?) and good performances, particularly that of Humayun Saeed’s. Behind its rom-com trappings it also has a larger point to make – about the notions of masculinity and feudalism in our society and the need for change in the same – and which it does without being heavy-handed. All in all, kudos to writer Khalil-ur-Rehman Qamar and director Nadeem Baig.
So, clearly, Pakistani cinema isn’t quite out of the woods yet. Until it starts producing quality in enough quantity and on a consistent basis – and with enough of its own unique flavour so as not to look like a pale substitute for Bollywood films – cinema houses in the country will not be able to survive without screening Indian films. And without cinema houses and multiplexes Pakistani filmmakers will have nowhere to showcase their products. There’s a long way to go yet but there’s hope (and movies like the upcoming Teefa In Trouble, Arth 2, Saawan, and Maula Jatt 2 to look forward to). And isn’t that the story of Pakistan itself?