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Pakistan’s new cinema

Our films are back in vogue for good. Those who shunned Lollywood like plague are flocking to theatres and keeping tabs on the latest Pakistani releases

Pakistan’s new cinema

It wasn’t until 2013 that the cinema goers heard the sound of ‘skin touch’ or cloth shuffling in a Pakistani film. As strange as it sounds, the year’s biggest money-spinner Waar was the first motion picture that reintroduced Sound Design, a very important component of filmmaking, to Lollywood wallas many of whom were used to working on obsolete machines at the rusty, beetle-stained Multan Road studios of Lahore or, for lack of awareness, they would grossly overlook such nuances while dubbing. The only exceptions happened when a film was shot in sync sound — Jawed Shaikh pioneered the use of BL4 camera that offered the facility, in his 2002 blockbuster Yeh Dil Aapka Huwa — or at a makeshift studio set, as was the norm for the longest time, that yielded poor audio results because the low-end mics would also catch the noise of the camera rolling.

Of course, the digital medium allowed for finer sound quality but it needed intelligent users all right. 33-year-old Bilal Lashari, a Film graduate from San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, came to cinema’s rescue famously.

In his directorial debut, Lashari also revolutionised the way a Pakistani film would ‘look’. The public was simply amazed by the slick visuals that they thought were comparable to a well made Bollywood, if not Hollywood, movie. The gravity-defying helicopter shots, in particular, and the stylishly choreographed fight sequence between the protagonist Shaan and the bad guy Shamoon, filmed atop the metallic dome of Convention Centre in Islamabad, had the critics sit up and the crowds cheer with a sense of pride in homegrown product.

Lashari, who simultaneously helmed the key jobs of the director of photography (DoP) and editor on Waar, also became the country’s first film maker to use green screen (or chroma key) for 400-odd Computer Generated Imaging (CGI) shots that included bullet wounds, blood splashes and muzzle flashes.

That all this, combined with the film’s unabashed jingoism, went on to create a mass hysteria, translating into unheard-of Rs240 millions at the box office, is history.

More recently, film debutant Jamshed Mahmood aka Jami’s Moor was hailed for its surreal, subtly melancholic portrayal of human fallibility set against the enormity of Balochistan’s rugged, snowcapped mountains. With Moor, Jami, who studied Film in Pasadena before he went on to direct music videos and finally set up his production company Azad Film, raised the bar for future cinematographers and was recognised as the sole ‘auteur’ working in the industry today.

On the other hand, Bin Roye’s extended chand raat sequence, Yash Chopra-esque in its essence, was popularly appreciated for its visually delightful play of colours, thanks to its original director Haissam Hussain’s creative use of the world’s top-ranking RED camera, Cooke’s lenses, HMI lights and, of course, a beautiful array of props.Khuda kay liye2

Oscar-winning documentarian Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy achieved another milestone this year by giving the country its first full-fledged animation movie in 3 Bahadur. Again, the masses were attracted in hordes.

But technology alone cannot salvage a bad screenplay or shoddy performances. This is precisely where the old-school Lollywood lot went wrong. Consider Shahzad Rafiq’s Ishq-e-Khuda (2013), for instance, which made use of the best available ARRI camera but botched the job with the film’s kitschy oversentimentality, among other things.

Mercifully, the film maker of today knows what is ‘cool’ and what is not. He is coming from a generation that grew up on the likes of MTV and takes inspiration from the cinemas of the world. He is not just passionate about the process of film making but is also educated and trained, to varying extents, in modern paraphernalia and sensibility.

The cheaper (compared to conventional ‘celluloid’) digital alternatives — coupled with the films’ recent successes — have encouraged new people to jump the fray, whereas earlier most of the ‘closet’ film makers were forced by lack of finances and opportunities to work on the small screen, on ads, music videos and TV drama. But their fascination with cinema was always betrayed, for instance, by the way they preferred working on 16:9 (widescreen) aspect ratio, traditionally associated with film.

Jami, Bilal Lashari, Nabeel Qureshi (of Na Maloom Afraad fame), Asim Reza (first film Ho Mann Jahan, due out soon) and Asadul Haq (Dekh Magar Pyar Se) have all previously worked on TV commercials and/or music videos many of which are fit for playing in theatres any given day. And so are the TV plays of, say, Haissam Hussain who is finally working on a project for cinema, nearly a decade since his graduation in Film from Middlesex University in 2006, or, Sarmad Sultan Khoosat, for that matter, who recently debuted on silver screen with acclaimed biopic Manto.

Yasir Nawaz, whose Wrong No proved to be another huge hit, has formerly directed and produced television plays only. Syed Ali Raza Usama, the director of 2013’s second highest grosser (after Waar), Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (MHSA), is another drama veteran.

Broadly speaking, the lines between TV and film formats are blurring everywhere in the world. Game of Thrones, one of America’s highest rated (and most downloaded) TV shows in recent times, meets virtually all criteria of a glossy Hollywood production. The popularity of widescreen TV sets and computer monitors has coincided with cable/dish channels switching to 1080i high-definition (HD), creating a mini cinema experience within the comfort of your home lounge.

It isn’t just the directors who have taken the big leap from idiot box to silver screen; the TV actors and writers are also part of the grand plan. Vasay Chaudhry, the writer of MHSA and the upcoming Jawani Phir Nahi Ani, has earlier scripted and acted in such soaps as Doli Ki Aayegi Baraat. Humsafar-famed Farhat Ishtiaq’s first film outing, Bin Roye, has been declared a global hit. Big TV stars such as Mahira Khan, Fawad Khan, Humayun Saeed, and Mehwish Hayat are doing equally well in film now and ruling the marquee.

This is decidedly a ‘new’ cinema that we are witnessing. And, it ought to be celebrated as such, not just because the people involved in it are ‘film-firsts’ but also because a lot of other good things that are happening right now are happening for the first time.

Read also: “We don’t have Bollywood and thank goodness for that” — Salman Shahid

Our films are back in vogue for good. Those who shunned Lollywood like plague are flocking to theatres and keeping tabs on the latest Pakistani releases. The mushroom growth of state-of-the-art cinemas over the past eight years, to be precise, has contributed to creating what renowned film distributor turned exhibitor Nadeem Mandviwalla calls “a multiplex audience… for whom the ambience, the seats, the sound and picture quality, also the quality of the popcorns offered at the cinema food courts, matter as much as the movie that they are watching. This audience is ready to cough up Rs500 or so, for an enjoyable cinematic experience.”

24/7 cable television and easy online access to all kind of videos acted as other important agents of change for the taste of the common audiences. Now, even a lay viewer is able to tell a bad aesthetic from a good one. He is put off if the sound isn’t up to the mark or a situation in the story is lame.

The new film makers, in their state of excitement, are experimenting with different genres and narrative styles. If, on the one hand, we have a Bollywoodish comedy Wrong No, there is the unpretentious, small-budgeted Shah that rides high on its sheer simplicity and an endearing account of the real life events of one of Pakistan’s forsaken heroes — the Olympic bronze medal winning boxer Hussain Shah. Incidentally, Adnan Sarwar, who is the writer, director and lead actor of the film, has earlier featured in a couple of TVCs and is a musician with the band Club Caramel.

Last year, too, saw an interesting mix. While Columbia University alumnus Afia Nathanial’s film debut Dukhtar was a gritting tale of a tribal woman’s fight with the orthodox traditions for her daughter, Operation 21 was a stylish spy thriller, Tamanna was a little experiment in film noir, and Na Maloom Afraad was a comedy with sly humour.

Signs of this cinema may be traced back to Cambridge-educated Sabiha Sumar’s internationally acclaimed Khamosh Pani (2003) and even Shoaib Mansoor’s award-winning blockbusters Khuda Key Liye (’07) and Bol (’11). Though, these films were never seen as denoting a trend in their times. A lukewarm Chambaili (‘13) too failed to convince the film pundits. It was Waar and MHSA that changed the face of Pakistani cinema, appealing to ‘masses’ as well as ‘classes’ — a popular distinction made loosely to define the film audiences on both sides of the Pak-India border.

In 2013’s Zinda Bhaag, documentary film maker Farjad Nabi busted the myth that Punjabi cinema had limited opportunities or subjects. His maiden production, a joint venture with Meenu Gaur, was a dark comedy that captured the street lingo of interior Lahore in its most honest form. It also became Pakistan’s first official entry to Academy Award’s Best Foreign Language Film category in decades. For the first time in the history of the country, we had an Oscar Committee in place.

But it might be too early for us to compare to international cinema. Right now, it is sufficient for the new Pakistani cinema to continue to grow. And, this growth is contingent upon the availability of funds, first and foremost.

In the absence of state help, the makers have had to go for product sponsorship which isn’t an interesting idea, as recent releases like Karachi Se Lahore and Dekh Magar Pyar Se proved. There was too much of in-your-face brand placement.

In this scenario, leading media groups such as Geo and Hum TV have come forward. Not only are they distributing films, they are also producing them. They see an obvious advantage in this: they get to market ‘their’ productions profusely.

With core studios such as Evernew and Bari giving up on film altogether — most of their floors are now rented by makers of TV soaps and serials — and a lot of Lollywood directors shifting to the small screen, it is Pakistan’s new, indie film makers that are doing the needful.

Ironically, whereas in an established industry such as Hollywood, this kind of film makers would be termed as ‘indie’ (or independent), they make up the mainstream cinema of Pakistan today.

Once the studio owners — Shahzad Gul of Evernew, for instance — come in, the scene might change for the better, as there will be bigger budgets to bankroll film projects.

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