Does Size Matter in Pakistan?

The trailer of Pakistan’s most expensive film yet, Waar, is slick, shiny and exciting viewers on both sides of the border. But what does Lollywood think, asks Sanaa Ahmed


PAKISTANI WOH qaum hai jis ke marne ka kissi ko afsos nahin hota. Ab khud un ko bhi nahin (Nobody mourns the death of a Pakistani. Not even other Pakistanis.)”

So cynically begins the trailer of Waar, the most exp – ensive (with a controverted budget of $2 million), the most slick and the most eagerly anticipated film in the history of Pakista ni cinema. On the first day of the release of the trailer on YouTube, Waar had over 1.5 lakh hits (it has raked in some 3.5 lakh more in the fortnight since) and made it to the website’s top five videos. Today, the film is widely slated as the one that will singlehandedly revive the terminally ill Pakistani film industry. No mean feat for an incomplete film with a top-secret storyline; by a team comprising a rookie director, producer and scriptwriter; in a country that can’t even remember its glorious cinematic past. And, to top it all, more than half of the film is in English, a language not spoken by vast swathes of Pakistan.

So why the fuss? “Waar is an important film because it is a big-budget, mainstream feature film with mainstream stars dealing with an import – ant topic: counter-terrorism,” says veteran ad film maker Saquib Malik, who specialises in equally glossy, big-budget productions. “If it succeeds, it will pave the way for other people from non-filmi backgrounds who are interested in making films.”

There weren’t too many of those in Pakistan till recently. The film industry sank into a tailspin in the 1980s and filmmaking remained the preserve of the ‘filmy lot’. But the mushroom growth of TV channels in the past decade — the country now boasts of 80- plus channels — succeeded in pulling a lot of educated young people from middleand upper middle-income families towards the media industry. The training institutes and university-designed courses came later; the first batches at the TV networks learned to write, shoot and edit on the job. For the first few years, these wannabe ‘filmmakers’ aspired to documentaries alone, pre fer ably those that’d find resonance with a global audience. (Taliban, anyone? Honour kill – ings? Sex workers? Hijras?)

And then in 2007 came Pakistan’s first “unconventional masala film” (as Malik calls it)Khuda Kay Liye, directed by TV veteran Shoaib Mansoor. But while Mansoor’s name pulled back to the theatres many people who’d abandoned cinema in protest against the buxom belles and vehshi gujjars populating every film, his cinematic take on religious extremism won as many laurels as brickbats. The issue was pertinent and relevant; the film ended up being preachy and boring. Next came Ramchand Pakistani, a gut-wrenching story about an eight-year-old boy who inadvertently crosses the Indo- Pak border. But even in the hands of the talented TV director Mehreen Jabbar, the ‘film’ collapsed into a longwinded docu-drama. Even though Mansoor’s 2011 offeringBol did remarkably well at the box office, the mix of issues highlighted by the film — patricide, religious intolerance, societal hypocrisy and lack of family planning — proved too heady for many.

The heady issues in Bol had the cultural critics in Pakistan conclude that their directors were more autistic than auteurs

The cultural critics wrung their hands in despair and concluded that Pakistani directors were more autistic than auteurs. But aspiring filmmakers saw something else: these films had an audience willing to see something other than the rain-drenched sequences. And thanks to digital technology, filmmaking was now cheaper than ever before. So came a blaze of new films and new directors: Hammad Khan’sSlackistan, Bilal Lashari’s Waar, Sham – oon Abbasi’s Gidh, Hamza Ali Abbasi’sMudhouse and the Golden Doll, Kaptaan and Tamanna. And the key difference between then and now is that of ambition.

The 2011 release Slackistan was about the elite youth of Islamabad — a typical slacker film — has no deep and profound thought to communicate. Gidh is ostensibly about how the media manipulates news but Abbasi is very clear on why he made the film. “Nobody wants to see fat women dancing in the fields anymore,” he says in a snide reference to the typical Lollywood potboiler, adding, “Our films are about contemporary life, in a language and an idiom we speak in. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment.”

EVEN SO, these films would have stayed on the fringes, resigned to the festival circuit, had the development not coincided with the rise of multiplexes in Pakistan. By creating a new cinema-going audience in the urban areas, argues Malik, films such as Khuda… and Ramchand… have fundamentally altered the business model. But to sustain this run, the new films need to be relevant to a local audience and not just gun for a hypothetical global audience. “There are so many award-winning films that never find an audience and you just can’t make money through the festival circuit,” he says. “Khuda… was said to be financed by the Inter Services Public Relations; Bol by an NGO working on women’s issues. But such financiers are one-offs; you need to be able to make returns for a genuine producer, if cinema is to flourish.”

This is why veteran filmmaker Syed Noor, Pakistan’s cross between Manmohan Desai and Yash Chopra, is ap p rehensive about the fut – ure of film in Pakistan. “These kids have the financing, the equipment and the techniq ues Pakistan’s never seen, so I’m opt i mistic. But many filmmakers think being controve rsial is being succ – essful. They pick topics they think are ‘bold’ and in a bid to say something, lose the story – tell ing aspect of filmmaking,” he says. “The controversy can only revive cinema screens. These films will pull back the socia lites who hate Pakistani cinema and what they think it represe nts, it won’t revive the industry.”

So with as many doomsayers as champions, how does it feel to be Bilal Lashari now? “I want to turn around the industry, which is why I go along with a lot of the hype,” laughs the 30-year-old. “But one film is one project; you need many more such projects to add value to the industry… Pakistan needs a mainstream cinema with its own identity — distinct of Bollywood influences — and parallel cinema may just be a step in the right direction.”

For now, all he’s really fussed about is completing Waar. “Hum ne excitement main trailer toh release kar diya; the overwhelming response reminded us we still have to complete the film.”

Ahmed is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.