Having taken a plunge during much of the past two decades, The Pakistani cinema industry has witnessed a revival after suffering a steep decline during the 1980s. Since 2012, the movies produced by the Pakistani cinema have received wide acclamation and positive reviews in the realm of entertainment and documentary films from domestic and foreign audience. Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won two Academy Awards (Oscar) for her two documentary films, entitled Saving Face and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, produced in 2012 and 2016 respectively. Similarly, entertainment movies like Khuda Kay Liye, Bol, WAAR, 3 Bahadur, Wrong No., Actor in Law, Bin Roye, Punjab Nahi Jaungi, Na Maloom Afraad, and lately Ali Zafar’s Teefa in Trouble bagged PKR 300 million on the box office. With these cumulative developments a new wave is rising in the Pakistani film industry.
The history of cinema in Pakistan is a continuation from the undivided India under the British rule (1857-1947). After establishment in 1947, there was a time when Pakistan produced an average of 80-100 movies annually, which started to witness a decline during the decade of 1980s. A major shortcoming of the cinema industry during the 1980s was the stereotypical projection of folk Punjabi and Pashtun cultures, coupled with poor scripts, dramatic acting and use of inferior technology in production. Similarly, social taboos and religious conservatism discouraged talented youth to opt for the cinema industry in Pakistan. The subsequent decline in the production as well as viewership of Pakistani cinema during the 1980s constrained many cinema owners to demolish their cinemas and replace them with alternative income sources, such as commercial plaza, residential apartments etc.
There are numerous reasons to explain this revival. For example, the scripts of the recently produced movies have improved considerably. Apart from being less glamorous, as witnessed in the case of Bollywood movies, the recent Pakistani movies are tailored for family entertainment. Moreover, there has been a revolution in terms of hiring of the cast of the newly produced movies, where highly educated and groomed people are joining the film industry. Similarly, film scripts revolve around stories which mainly portray the reflection of the society.
Taking cognisance of the recent growth in the Pakistani cinema, the former federal government announced the country’s first ever Film Policy in February 2018 which offered unprecedented incentives to the filmmakers. Some salient points of the policy include offering 70 percent rebate in taxes to filmmakers for shooting in Pakistan; exemption of import duty on film equipment and sales tax on the films; and establishment of Film Finance Fund to the tune of PKR 5 Billion for the filmmakers. Another wise decision was to encourage the screening of Pakistani films and dramas in China, which can fetch handsome returns.
Given prospects for revenue generation by the Pakistani cinema industry, the country needs to take certain important steps to realise its full potential. The government should incentivise and woo local investors to construct cinemas with modern day amenities. Government in major cities needs to offer support for construction of cineplexes. Such a development will increase the number of screens in Pakistan. Consequently, film makers will upscale their productions of films. It will also help in generating financial surpluses for film makers, which will help ameliorate the technical and production prowess of Pakistani film industry. However, the growing industry will also need to ensure that its rise comes by creating conducive environment for artists and creators, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, religion and creed. Taking lessons from the #MeeToo movement, the industry will need to put in place a strong professional ethical culture for men, women and trans-people in the industry.
Along with these efforts international outreach needs a revitalised focus. Two developments, which may have remained under appreciated by film makers at Pakistan, is that in last few months two Indian movies in China surpassed revenues generated at their home market (India). The first is Secret Superstar and Hindi Medium. So far, the latter has generated nearly Indian Rupees (INR) 200 crores ($23.82 million) out performing its performance at the domestic box-office of about INR 70 crores and whereas Secret Superstar earned an unprecedented amount of US$119 million. Previously, Amir Khan’s Dangal earned $205 million in China. Taking a lesson from this, Pakistani film makers can benefit from Bollywood’s penetration. This is for three reasons; firstly, the cultural nuances between the two South Asian countries are quite similar, this also stands true for dramatic expression, humor, and music. Thus, relating with films from Pakistan will not be much of a challenge; Secondly, China is a huge market with nearly 8000 screens spread across the country, at the operational level, this creates a huge potential for generating surplus market revenue. Thirdly, the ongoing collaboration needs scope for cultural exchange, and taking Chinese distributors on board for screening quality Pakistani films for film industry’s revival at home and abroad and exposure of Pakistani films in China. Lastly, as part of its international outreach India also needs to be convinced to reciprocally allow Pakistani films to be screened in India. Since, Indian movies are screened in Pakistan such an exchange will allow Pakistani film makers to benefit from the Indian market also. To this end, the latest news of Fahad Mustafa and Om Puri’s film Actor in Law being screened in India is a welcome development.
However, to turn film industry’s current small success into meaningful ones, it is now up to those that are already part of it and those considering joining it to turn Pakistan film industry’s potential into a sustainable success.
The author is a Consultant at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI).