Pakistan is currently witnessing a rennaissance of its once nearly defunct film industry. Nadeem F. Paracha takes a closer look at how the times have changed.
Until 1979, Pakistan's film industry was churning out an average of 50 to 80 films a year. Then quite suddenly the industry began to fall apart. The main reasons behind its rapid decline were the arrival of the video cassette recorder and stricter policies of a censor board put together by a reactionary regime that had come to power through a military coup in July 1977.
This wasn't all. The industry had peaked in the mid-1970s. But by 1980 it was clearly showing signs of creative exhaustion. It had rapidly begun to lose its main urban audiences, as cinemas began to be torn down to make way for shopping arcades and vast parking lots; and as violent, populist Punjabi films began to fill the void because the cinema-going audiences were now mostly made up of working class men and peasants (in the rural areas) who could not afford a VCR.
With the VCR also came smuggled Indian films and they seemed a lot more glitzy and contemporary than what the Pakistani films had begun to dish out from 1979 onwards. The generation that grew up in the 1980s quickly forgot that Pakistan once had a thriving cinema-going culture and a robust film industry.
Some attempts were made in the next decade to revive the industry, but cinemas were still vanishing and most Pakistanis had by then graduated from watching Bollywood blockbusters on the VCR to now enjoying them on VCD (Video Compact Disc) and then DVD players.
The revivalists seemed to have no answers, so they tried to mimic Bollywood films. The audiences weren't impressed. Then in 2003, perhaps for the first time ever, no Urdu film was released in Pakistan. The misery of the industry's sudden decline and then slow death was finally over. It just evaporated. And no one really noticed.
Bollywood, on the other hand, had managed to ride out the crisis it faced in the 1980s (of the VCR and creative lethargy). By the late 1990s, it managed to find a whole new audience: the Indian diaspora in the US, Europe and the Middle East.
This diaspora had grown considerably, so the plots of many Bollywood films began to be woven around the lives of Indians living abroad, regularly punctuated by hip songs and exaggerated dance moves.
The Pakistani diaspora in these countries had grown as well, but they, too, were watching the new Bollywood films. Just how much they connected with them is a tough question to answer because the situation back home in Pakistan at the time was quite different to the one in India: Pakistan was in the grip of extremist violence.
In 2007, a famous Pakistani TV producer, Shoaib Mansoor, theorized that the reason why the local film industry wasn't able to revive itself was because the reviving was always being attempted by men and women who were still associated with a scene that had been declining ever since 1979.
They were entirely unaware of the changing tastes of a whole new generation of film-watchers, who were watching new Bollywood flicks and, more so, had very little or no memory of a Pakistani film industry that was once a thriving business two decades earlier.
So he went about making an Urdu film in 2007, but one that was made by completely bypassing the old guard and based on a plot that addressed the issues of religious extremism and terrorism that had begun to plague Pakistan.
The film, Khuda Kay Leeay (For the Sake of God), was an immediate hit. It benefited from being screened in multiplexes that had begun to emerge, ironically, to accommodate Bollywood films that had been allowed to be imported and screened in Pakistan in the early 2000s, almost 35 years after they were banned in 1965.
Bollywood imports and the multiplexes that followed had also drawn out urban middle-class audiences to return to watching films on the big screen, and this was the same audience that helped turn Khuda Kay Leeay into a hit.
Mansoor then took his film to Dubai, the UK and the US, and there it was enthusiastically embraced by the Pakistani diaspora. On the screen they saw the dramatization of what they were awkwardly hearing was happening back home. The film also made it to cinemas in India.
Mansoor's success opened a window. Aspiring directors who, until then, were simply directing TV commercials or serials, pop videos, or just corporate promos for multinationals, now began to dream of making 'proper films.'
Mansoor showed that it didn't matter if Pakistan had stopped generating professional film actors, or producers, or cameramen, or editors. Its TV-related entertainment industry was still thriving. People from this genre could be picked and trained (on the job) to perform in a film. There was no need any more to go through the cliques maintained by the old guard. They were from a different world.
Out of this emerged a plethora of filmmakers, and eventually, Urdu films. First two, then four, then seven and this year almost ten Urdu films - a far cry from the zero in 2003.
The film 'Zinda Bhaag' - Running Alive - was the Pakistani entry for Best Foreign Film at the 2014 Academy Awards
The films are consciously competing with Bollywood imports, but on their own terms. Instead of trying to replicate the big budget shenanigans of Indian blockbusters, the new Pakistani filmmakers are keeping their feet on the ground and showing what they believe is happening in their country.
I was with Mazhar Zaidi, the producer of of 2014's Zinda Bhaag (Running Alive) in San Francisco late last year, where he had arrived to promote his film. The film – directed by Farjad Nabi and Meenu Gaur – is about the fates of those working-class Pakistanis, who sacrifice everything just to slip into Europe illegally.
Mazhar said that, at the moment, the new Pakistani films are to Bollywood what European films are to Hollywood.
Meanwhile, former-TV-commercial-director-turned-filmmaker Jami, who has churned out two films in as many years, says that most new Pakistani film directors are inspired more by Iranian filmmakers rather than by their Bollywood counterparts.
Nevertheless, in 2013, Bilal Lashari released Waar (Strike), a big-budget action flick about the Pakistani military's fight against armed extremists. The film was a huge hit, becoming the local film industry's first major success 36 years after its last major box-office hit, Aaina, in 1977.
The new films are being enthusiastically embraced by members of the Pakistani diaspora in the West as well. And for now, none of them are complaining how under-budgeted these films look compared to Bollywood blockbusters.