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Reeling in the memories

A recently published book on Pakistan’s film industry documents a sub-culture that could fast diminish into obscurity if not recorded properly

Reeling in the memories

Pakistani Cinema has been going through a rough patch, though there is optimism that the worst is over and a new era of good cinema has already begun. This was also the view of some of the people associated with the film industry when the launch of the book Journey through Lens was held at the Alhamra recently.

As in other areas the documentation of the arts like theatre, music and films has been rather patchy in our country. Film being a popular medium and a source of entertainment for the people had many publications, mostly in the form of magazines and then pamphlets. At one time this appeared to be a good business as many were published and sold on stalls and footpaths where people would pick them up for small sums of money. These were basically gossipy, with scandalous bits thrown in, and people lapped them up as part of the cultural matrix that has been weaved round show business.

Then there are a whole lot of areas that the book attempts to touch, like the issues involved in the business of films – piracy, distribution, financing and the cinema circuits.

This popular appeal of the cinema has been read differently by the cultural czars of the country. Its popularity was seen as crass and its appeal as being caused by the lowest common denominator. It was placed as a low art compared to the high art perceived by many in the top echelons of society. And there has always been an effort to make a film that caters to that definition. In Pakistan most have failed to achieve that and these factors have been responsible for defining art through the lens of class.

Television was seen to be more in conformity with their understanding of what culture is supposed to mean. Though there is no comparison between the two mediums and their resultant output.

But there have been some more worried about documentation and preservation, and have been poring and sweating over it without reward and recognition. Two names stand out the most  – Mushtaq Gazdar and Yaseen Gurecha. Mushtaq Gazdar was lucky that he got the opportunity and his book was published by one of the leading publishing houses, while Yaseen Gurecha had to manage his own funds for the publication of directories that mentioned films made in a particular year, their directors, writers, music directors and actors. That has served as the raw material for many of the works which have been done later. Journey Though Lens is a valuable addition to this scant body of work and the fact that it has been presented in a coffee table edition has made it look attractive. Lavishly illustrated and in colour, it has photographic information that probably no other publication in the country can match.

Though films were being made in the area that became Pakistan it took a big hit at partition and more or less a new beginning had to be made. The studios were burnt down or damaged, the equipment vandalized and most of the technicians migrated leaving a yawning professional gap. It was partially filled by the locals and some who migrated to their new homeland, thanks to whom the film studios started being lit up and the cinema camera started to roll. But all this under the ominous shadow of the big brother, neighbouring India that had suffered less destruction compared to the Lahore film establishment. So it was encouraging that a fair number of films started being made even in the early years, gathering momentum in the next thirty-odd years before the decline started.

The book has been divided chronologically and some of the major films and trends have been discussed. With a brief overview of international cinema, some of the more famous centres have been highlighted. Then there are other sections like on directors, actors, composers and writers. There is also a list of famous vocalists without which films would have lost their individual touch.

Then there are a whole lot of areas that the book attempts to touch, like the issues involved in the business of films – piracy, distribution, financing and the cinema circuits. There is discussion of the issues of protectionism and the impact that it had on the type of cinemas that developed in the country. There is also list of festivals that are held all over the world and also a list of some of the most famous awards related to films. The book has almost everything for everyone. A bit of serious analysis too could have been added as the current crisis in the industry warrants it.

Lok Virsa which has published the book has started to look at films as part of Lok Virsa. Films have been popular means of entertainment and due to its initial affordability the common people had access to it, and must have thoroughly enjoyed them for them to have flourished as much as they did. Then films being a newer form have drawn hugely on folk culture and reworked them into the film form. In other words it contemporized much that was already there. Many saw it as a positive makeover while others have lamented the loss of some kind of  pristine folklore.

The author Aijay Gull is no alien to the film world. He is pedigreed, so to say, because his father G.A.Gul was one of the pioneers of films in Pakistan. He grew up in that environment and with his brothers shouldered the responsibility to augment the creative and business side of films. He studied at Aitchison, Forman Christian College and then went on to the University of Southern California for his Bachelors and Masters in Film Studies. He has published four books on films. The co-author Jamal Sohail is an academic teaching media studies and film production.

Title: Journey Through Lens Pakistani Cinema
Authors: Aijaz Gul-Jamal Sohail
Publisher: Lok Virsa
Pages 150
Price Not mentioned

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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