Pakistani films gain global recognition, but at what cost?

Strict censorship policies and conservative sections of society are some of the hindrances that don’t allow Pakistani filmmakers to express themselves with creative freedom. But change is taking place, albeit almost unnoticed.

In 2012, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s Saving Face won the Academy Award in the best documentary category, making her the first Pakistani to win an Oscar for her country.

Four years later, she earned her second Oscar for “A Girl in The River: The Price of Forgiveness.” These days, she is busy directing the next Star Wars film to be released in 2025, the first woman and person of color to do so.

Asim Abbasi, a young filmmaker with a critically acclaimed film “Cake” and a web series “Churails” to his credit, has recently been brought in to direct one of the episodes of The Famous Five.

A long time coming

These achievements have led a group of local critics and analysts to harbor the notion that Pakistani cinema has finally gained global recognition. Is this a true reflection of the country’s moviemaking industry which, at home, seems to be struggling to make ends meet?

Obaid-Chinoy told DW that for “so many years, filmmakers haven’t had the opportunity to work outside of the parameters of Pakistan for many reasons. But a critical mass of filmmakers now want to practice their craft beyond the borders and are throwing their hat in the ring, whether it’s in the UK or the US.”

“It’s not just directors. It’s also actors and actresses [Fawad Khan, Mehwish Hayat and Ahad Raza Mir]. And that shows that the younger generation is interested in practicing their craft anywhere where they can,” she added.

“Unfortunately, in Pakistan, it’s very hard to make films. There’s no funding, there’s very little government patronage, and there is censorship. Filmmakers want to tell stories that are beautiful and important. They’re saying if they can’t tell them in Pakistan, they’ve got to tell them outside the country. We’ve all seen what’s happened with ‘Zindagi Tamasha’ and ‘Joyland.’ I think filmmakers deserve respect. Their craft deserves respect. I’m delighted to see so many of my colleagues are going to be directing films across the world.”

Breakthrough surprise

On the newfound acknowledgment internationally, film distributor and exhibitor Nadeem Mandviwalla said it is a “huge encouragement for our filmmakers.”

“We used to think that we couldn’t make it abroad, even after the roaring business that “The Legend of Maula Jatt” has done at the box office all over the world. It is definitely encouraging,” he said.

However, Mandviwalla added that many factors are involved in translating this into something positive.

“The main factor is that we need to do everything to make more movies. The increase in economic growth will help. Out of the 10 directors making films, one of them often takes everyone by a pleasant surprise,” he said.

Obaid-Chinoy had a similar view on the subject.

“I don’t think that the recognition will translate into the improvement of our industry. It will encourage more and more filmmakers they can forge their own paths. But I do not think it will have an impact on the industry as a whole,” she said.

Trade expert Ali Zain painted a bleak picture of the local box office.

“The struggle has increased. First, the business was hit by Covid. It’s compounded by the fact that Indian films are not allowed to release in Pakistan. There’s a leading multiplex in the country which has reduced the number of cinemas in the last four years. No new big banner movie is in the offing in 2024. The business solely depends on English [Hollywood] films. I’m not sure for how long things will carry on this way.”

‘Survival mode’

Mandviwalla said: “We are in a survival mode. Since 2019 when the government changed its policy and stopped Indian films from being screened, we have come from progressive to survival mode. Unless we find an alternative to this or allow Indian movies to be shown again, the survival mode will continue. The thing is, Pakistanis speak and understand Urdu. It is also the language in which Indian films are made. People comprehend it.”

Actor Adnan Shah Tipu was happy with the money that “Maula Jatt” has generated but was also concerned about the quality of the local movies.

“I have always maintained that we need to invest in content. Our production value needs to be better. Another issue is that films are no longer in the ‘range’ of the public. How can someone living in a middle-class locality buy a ticket worth 750 rupees ($2.48, €2.29)? Unless you bring your films to the common man, things will not improve.”

On the subject of diversity that exists in Hollywood or Bollywood and the lack of it in Pakistan, Mandviwalla said: “In the old days, we often heard that only one kind of public came to watch cinema, which was why it was important to include songs in films. Eighty percent of the audience were frontbenchers. That has reversed. Now the educated watches cinema. [Compared to us,] there is tremendous versatility in Hollywood. Having said this, let the public decide what is good for them and what’s not.”

Source: Deutsche Welle